Say this about Randy Cunneyworth.
He may not speak a lot of French, but he reads the situation well enough to have bought himself a Rosetta Stone online language program for Christmas.
Now if the Quebec language police, the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and the National Hockey League’s win-loss column all might conspire to provide Cunneyworth with enough time to actually crack open that French-language learning tool.
Now is not the time. As he guided his team into action against the Ottawa Senators, Cunneyworth’s first order of business was for his team to do enough things right to win for the first time in five tries since Jacques Martin was fired on Dec. 17.
Mission accomplished in a 6-2 rout of the Ottawa Senators.
“Relief is one word for it,” Cunneyworth said after his NHL head coaching record improved to 1-4. “Obviously we’re pleased. I would’ve taken it a couple of games sooner, but a win is a win.”
As excruciating as the previous 10 days have been for him, the 50-year-old Cunneyworth continued to conduct himself with class off the ice, while pushing his players on it, even on a game-day morning skate.
He has been dealt a cold hand, this man of character fans here got to know as a captain of two different Ottawa hockey teams: the junior 67’s and the emerging Senators of the mid to late 1990s.
On the flip side of the usual sympathy for the coach fired, the coach hired to replace him in this case had the makings of a solid feel-good story.
Cunneyworth certainly paid his dues: eight years coaching in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans (the Buffalo Sabres’ affiliate), two in the NHL as an Atlanta Thrashers assistant and another in the AHL coaching Montreal’s farm team in Hamilton.
It wasn’t Cunneyworth’s fault he was behind the one NHL coach that wore a bullet-proof vest for more than a decade, Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff. Cunneyworth’s name would surface as a candidate for other NHL gigs, but his name wasn’t called.
So, when Martin went down, and Cunneyworth was thrown into the breach, hockey people were happy for him: for as long as took for a language debate to simmer all around him a matter of hours after his hire.
Was it fair? Hardly. An Etobicoke native who had spent all of three months in Montreal, as Martin’s assistant, Cunneyworth didn’t see the uproar coming. Maybe he was too busy dealing with the shock of stepping in on a game day to replace his friend, mentor and former coach to have any sense that he would be vilified, by some, for not being able to speak French.
“Background noise,” big Canadiens defenceman Hal Gill called it.
“I’m trying not to pay attention to it,” Cunneyworth said. “I really haven’t given it much thought, there isn’t much I can do about it.”
You know, other than buy the Rosetta Stone program.
Winning cures all, including language debates, and Cunneyworth has been promoting hockey basics to turn this mess around.
“We want to play an exciting brand of hockey, we want to include our D in the rush when we have possession, but the last thing you can do is turn pucks over in those rush situations,” Cunneyworth said. “Sure enough, it’s going to be an odd-man (rush) going the other way. Take advantage of what you have and take care of the puck. I don’t think it’s that complicated.”
If the comment appeared directed at defenceman P.K. Subban, who was made a healthy scratch by Cunneyworth in the Canadiens previous game, against Winnipeg on Dec. 22, Cunneyworth insisted it was meant for all 20-plus players wearing the sacred cloth.
“We’re trying to play that direct game,” Cunneyworth said. “The game is so fast now, there’s no room for drop passes and fancy east-west plays. It’s got to end up at the net, every rush. The last thing is you can’t get caught. That’s what we’re preaching.”
Shooting infrequently wasn’t part of the plan, but seemed to work in period one, when the Habs were outshot 13-5, but opened a 3-1 lead on goals by Lars Eller, Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri. The visitors added another early in the second to chase Senators goaltender Craig Anderson, then two more against his replacement, Alex Auld.
For the low-scoring Habs, this was a deluge, their first six-goal game of the season.
“Winning makes everything fun,” Cammalleri said, “and (Tuesday night) was that.”
Before the game and afterward, players seemed genuinely devoted to the cause of getting Cunneyworth got his first win to end the embarrassment. Fittingly, he had to return to Ottawa to get it done.
“He has been doing a good job, so it was nice to get that win for him,” Canadiens goaltender Carey Price said.
As to the language issue, Gill said players just wanted “the best coach,” regardless of his background.
The original Rosetta Stone contained texts in multiple ancient languages, some of which get lost in English translation. Montreal’s “interim” coach declares a simpler message.
“I’m really just concerned,” Cunneyworth said, “that we play the way I know we have the ability to play.”