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So long Jacques...
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I don't make a habit of yelling "Fire the coach!" It's too easy. Coaches/managers make mistakes. Some are costly. Most are not fireable offences. In close to 35 years on the air I can remember openly calling for the dismissal of five men: John McHale, Jim Fanning, Rejean Houle, Felipe Alou and Jacques Martin.
Montreal - December 19, 2011 - I don't make a habit of yelling "Fire the coach!" It's too easy. Coaches/managers make mistakes. Some are costly. Most are not fireable offences. In close to 35 years on the air I can remember openly calling for the dismissal of five men: John McHale, Jim Fanning, Rejean Houle, Felipe Alou and Jacques Martin.
John Mchale and Jim Fanning helped build the Montreal Expos into one of the best organizations in baseball. But they were ill equipped to handle the cocaine craze of the early 80's (anybody like Fanning who believes cocaine use in major league baseball was limited to Montreal had/has no clue) and watched over the supposed team of that decade as it slipped into mediocrity.
Rejean Houle as GM (along with Mario Tremblay as inexperienced head coach and Yvan Cournoyer as inexperienced assistant) was Ron Corey's way of running his beloved Canadiens right into the ground. Houle, a smart, gritty, valuable and under appreciated player was in way over his head. If there are any fans of Mike Milbury out there, then you can always point to Houle and at least have a discussion about who really was the worst GM in NHL history.
Felipe Alou was a proud Dominican who was unfairly ignored as potential managerial material simply because of the colour of his skin and/or his accent. I was on the air during the futile Fanning-as-manager years pleading for the Expos to hire Felipe instead. When he finally got his opportunity he proved that he was among the best at what he did. Denied his long awaited trip to the post season in 1994, Felipe kept managing his ass off, turning in his best performance in 1996 when the Expos were not eliminated from a post season berth until the second to last day of the season. But by the time Jeffrey Loria arrived and the promise of a new era fizzled faster than an antacid tablet, Felipe had become bitter, dark and angry. Understandably so but he was still being paid two million dollars a year to manage his team. His "off the record" sessions became nothing more than a chance for him to vent about his GM, the assistant GM, any anybody and everybody associated with the Expos. During games he would consistently yell at and curse his (mostly young) players. He eventually lost the entire clubhouse. It was time for him to go.
Which brings us to Jacques Martin. Regular followers of this blog (thank you) already know how I feel. A quick search of these archives will show that while I understood why Bob Gainey hired an experienced NHL coach following the great centennial meltdown I had heard (and seen) that Martin was slow to adapt to the new reality of the NHL and very slow to react to in - game developments. I wanted to see him up close for myself. By the end of season one, I had seen enough. A much discussed system that didn't seem to fit the players he had. An aversion to the rough stuff. A stickler for discipline yet unable to slow the parade of his players to the penalty box for infractions that had nothing to do with aggressiveness. An almost total reliance on the power play to generate consistent, meaningful offense. A strong reluctance to embrace young talent. An almost total disregard for an ingredient that every pro coach has to establish immediately - accountability. And the ever present failure to communicate.
The fact that Martin was a lousy quote mattered little to me. But towards the end he began to reveal himself, openly blaming his young players for "mistakes". But I believe Martin was in trouble right off the bat this season after Pierre Gauthier signed Erik Cole as a free agent, only to watch his veteran winger get nailed to the bench on Montreal power plays in favour of Mathieu Darche. That knowledgeable, respected people in my business actually echoed Martin's explanation ("Do your research...Erik had his chance...") showed me that Martin had built up a stronger network of supporters than I had thought. Once Martin decided, for whatever reason, to pick a fight with Cole, it was a scrap he could not win. It's one thing to express displeasure with a Guillaume Latendresse, Sergei Kostitsyn, Ryan O'Byrne or Max Lapierre. But in Cole, he was taking on a respected stanley cup winner. The atmosphere had been poisoned.
Professional coaches can win with players who aren't necessarily fond of them (Scotty Bowman, Ken Hitchcock...) as long as the respect factor remains high. In Martin's case there wasn't much respect left. Players were openly yelling at him to shut up during games. It was ugly. It was time for him to go.
For those who claim that Martin got the most out of what he had I will agree - to a degree. I'm not going to rehash the previous two seasons other than to say - again - that Kirk Muller was a strong force behind the bench. Hal Gill sent out a warning shot this past summer (after Pierre Gauthier decided he didn't want Muller in Hamilton - or anywhere) when he said that Muller's departure was "a huge loss...that will greatly affect the dynamic of the team." As for this season and all those injuries and a "green" blue line? I say it became a built in excuse. Look at the NY Rangers without Mark Staal and the Penguins, this season and last without Sidney Crosby (and Malkin). Most teams have to contend with injuries. As for the "green, inexperienced blue line"? Yannick Weber, Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin are not teenagers coming out of junior hockey. Weber is in his 4th pro season. Diaz had been a pro for eight seasons in Switzerland while Emelin is currently in his eighth season as a professional. These guys are NHL newbies but they're not mere kids. They've been on a world stage.
And if you really believe this edition of the Canadiens really suck and Martin could do little else, then you must think that Michael Cammalleri is nothing more than a 16 goal scorer. Ditto for Thomas Plekanec. You must also believe that Scott Gomez is now a 0 goal scorer (might have to give you that one) and that PK Subban's offensive performance a year ago (14 goals including 9 on the power play) was simply a mirage. We'll see.
As somebody who has strongly believed for over two years that the Montreal Canadiens would be better off with a different head coach I'm not going to say that Randy Cunneyworth won't make much difference. And I'm not doing a Pom - like "fan of the game" dance over the fact that Jacques Martin got fired. But I do fear it might be a classic case of too little, too late.
As for Mr. Gauthier...
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