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Pucks and PR

Because hockey is more than just a game

So what’s with Pierre Gauthier?

The Mike Cammalleri situation seems to be the cherry on top for what has been an ice cream sundae of public relations disasters for the embattled Montreal Canadiens’ GM.

Admittedly, right up front, the Montreal market must be one of the worst environments for a general manager. Not only does one have to live in the shadow of the most storied history in professional hockey, but they also have to operate in a bizarre world where deep rooted social and political issues cross over into the sporting world.

That being said, Gauthier seems to have done everything possible to make things worse for himself.

There are several things Montreal fans will not accept. Losing and unilingual leadership would appear to be at the top of that list. Gauthier has found a way to violate both conditions and botch the response to the resulting public outcry.

Some Gauthier decisions are still open for debate. The Jaroslav Halak trade, although poorly timed, has ultimately worked out fairly well. Carey Price has rewarded Gauthier’s faith by finding his prior form. He leads the league in minutes played, and while the Habs continue to struggle, far more blame for that lays with the team in front of Price. Lars Eller will be a strong player and much needed addition to the Habs moving forward. And despite Halak’s shutout in his return to the Bell Centre, it is Brian Elliott representing St. Louis at the All Star Game rather than Halak. And let’s not forget that Price also got the All Star nod.

For that one debateable decision, there are several horrible ones.

From a PR perspective, two of those decisions especially stand out; the Randy Cunneyworth situation and the Mike Cammalleri trade.

As seen throughout the league this season, removing a coach is a perfectly normal course of action when a team is underachieving. Montreal certainly fell into the ‘in need of change’ category. Jacques Martin, deservedly or not, was given the ol’ heave ho by Gauthier. The Anglophone Cunneyworth immediately took the reins. Then, as can only happen in Montreal, the language issue became more important than hockey.

As fans and media ramped up the rhetoric on Cunneyworth’s inability to coach, based solely on his inability to speak French, Gauthier was faced with a decision. He had to address the topic, that was obvious, and there were two clear choices. Stand by his decision and focus on hockey, or bend to pressure and question his choice. Gauthier chose to flip-flop. He apologized for choosing a unilingual coach, and in so doing, completely under minded his own coach’s authority. His apology said to fans that Cunneyworth was, indeed, incapable of coaching the Habs because of his aptitude in French.

The other side effect has been the reinforcement of the interim tag. Gauthier’s statement was a blatant message to Cunneyworth that he was nothing more than a placeholder until someone better can be found.

Yet another impact of Gauthier’s backtracking was a clear message to fans that he isn’t confident in his own decisions. Much like a politician, a GM has to publicly support and defend their decision to maintain the respect of fans. By bending to the pressure, all sense of control and authority is gone.

And then there was the Mike Cammalleri situation.

Following yet another loss, Cammalleri sounded off to reporters over his frustration. Few will deny that Cammalleri is a competitive player. His struggles this season are equally undeniable. Whether Cammalleri’s comments were inappropriate is a side matter. My concern is with Gauthier’s response.

No matter what the situation, trading Cammalleri the day after those comments, and in the middle of a game, was simply bad optics. The message to everyone is that public assessment of the team, and passion, won’t be accepted. Gauthier may have been talking to Jay Feaster for months, but regardless of that, the timing is all that matters. Cammalleri criticized the team and Gauthier promptly removed him.

The move has the image of a GM being offended by a player having an opinion – even if that opinion has a great deal of validity. The mid game nature of the trade seems petty and unnecessary. Did Gauthier really have no idea the trade was imminent prior to the Boston game? Why put Cammalleri on the ice in that game only to pull him in the second intermission and whisk him off to the hotel without giving him any details? The entire situation makes Gauthier look vengeful.

Fans, media and management in Montreal have acted poorly throughout this entire situation. Ultimately, the players have put everyone in this situation with their poor play. Is it lack of desire? Not being given the tools? I can’t say. What can be said is that no matter what a team’s record, the player all deserve more respect than what they have been given.

Sooner or later, fans and media need to ask themselves if hockey players should be drawn into social and language issues that aren’t their concern. They all speak the language of hockey – nothing else is needed. And sooner rather than later, Gauthier is going to have to answer to ownership for what is happening this season. No matter the language, the Montreal Canadiens have horribly underperformed, and the common denominator through all the changes has been Gauthier.


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