The general consensus outside Quebec is that it doesn’t matter what language the Canadiens’ coach speaks as long he helps the team win.
Even within the province there’s a healthy portion that feels the same way. As the Montreal Gazette’s Red Fisher wrote today, “Players who know how to win have made this franchise great….That’s where it begins. That’s where it ends – and should.”
But for those who are struggling to understand why many French-speaking Quebecers are upset at the appointment of head coach Randy Cunneyworth, even on an interim basis, the Richard Riot of 1955 is a good place to start.
To the Wikipedia-mobile!
On March 13, 1955, Montreal’s Maurice “Rocket” Richard – the game’s best player – got high-sticked by the Bruins’ Hal Laycoe in a game in Boston. In response, Richard went berserk.
Richard skated up to Laycoe, who had dropped his stick and gloves in anticipation of a fight, and struck him in the face and shoulders with his stick. The linesmen attempted to restrain Richard, who repeatedly broke away from them to continue his attack on Laycoe, eventually breaking a stick over his opponent’s body before linesman Cliff Thompson corralled him. Richard broke loose again and punched Thompson twice in the face, knocking him unconscious.
Consequently, Richard was suspended by NHL President Clarence Campbell for the rest of the season, including the playoffs.
Habs fans subsequently lost their minds. When Campbell, an anglophone, attended the next Montreal home game on March 17 at the Forum, they demonstrated their displeasure.
The 15,000 in attendance immediately started booing Campbell. Some fans began pelting them with eggs, vegetables, and various debris for six straight minutes. At the end of the first period, Detroit had taken 4–1 lead, and the barrage began again. Despite police and ushers’ attempts to keep fans away from Campbell, a fan, pretending to be a friend of Campbell’s, managed to elude security. As he approached, the fan extended his hand as if to shake Campbell’s. When Campbell reached out to shake his hand, the fan slapped him. As Campbell reeled from the attack, the fan reached back and delivered a punch.
Yada, yada, yada, there was a riot.
Here’s the important part:
Richard was considered the embodiment of French-Canadians and was a hero during a time when they were seen as second-class citizens. He was revered when he fought the “damn English” during games. In his book, The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard, Benoît Melançon compares Richard to Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson by stating that both players represented the possibility for their minority groups to succeed in North America.
During the 1950s, Quebec’s industries and natural resources were controlled primarily by English Canadians or Americans. Québécois were the lowest-paid ethnic group in Quebec, which resulted in a sense that control rested with the Anglophone minority. Because of this and other factors, there had been growing discontent in the years before the riot.
And in the years after the riot, the discontent grew. A lot. For more on that, read this.
Anyway, not defending or supporting angry Habs fans when it comes to Cunneyworth’s appointment, but you can’t really look at this issue in a vacuum. There are years and years of history and emotion behind it.