One More Time: Tackling the Language Issues Around the Montreal Canadiens

There is a feeling of discontent and anger brewing amongst the online community of Habs fans, as well as hockey fans in general.

It seems like every blog page you open, every online community you come across has a new topic sharing their gripes and their anger with the "mainstream media" and how they treat members of the blogosphere, and how it isn't fair that one is generally accepted as a member of the "media" and the other isn't. For weeks, months even, I have been reading blog after blog after blog of people complaining about this Mainstream Media, or "MSM", as it has become, about the status of media rights in the NHL, and various other topics that (I'll bet) will seem meaningless to most come mid-October.

I'm definitely not trying to say that the way the NHL and the media to their business between each other shouldn't be discussed, especially at a time when there isn't much else to discuss when it comes to our great sport. Through all these blogs and articles written on the subject, there have been some very thought-provoking and interesting views. One such take on the matter was that of TCL's own HockeyBroad on her personal site last week. In her piece, HockeyBroad looked at the benefits of the blogosphere being allowed into the MSM's territory when it came to media rights, and did a great job of looking at both side of the coin, and even asking whether bloggers would even want to be considered "media" members. As someone who has built a following on he musings about hockey and the Chicago Blackhawks, she's definitely earned the right to ask questions when it comes to credentials for bloggers as well as the possibility of someone like her joining a group such as theirs.

Moreover, there are definitely a lot of legitimate writers out there who might "resort", if you will, to posting on blogs in order to get their name out there in hopes that they may garner the attention of a major publication, online or offline. This site has seen its fair share of journalism students and graduates pass through its doors doing exactly that. Several writers who have contributed to this site have moved on to bigger things, and there are definitely more who are on their way. And looking beyond the borders of The Checking line, without really naming names, there are many bloggers all over the internet covering teams and the NHL in general that deserve to have their names published in newspapers way more than some of the jokers who pollute printing machines and Internet bandwidth on a near-daily basis (again, without naming names).

But at the same time, a lot of these bloggers, who have put themselves at the forefront of this "MSM vs. Blogosphere" debate, are unfortunately just as myopic and short-sighted as the people they are criticizing. For some reason, over the course of a summer, after a season that saw many bloggers emerge from the shadows to gain notoriety, especially through twitter, it seems as if many of these writers, including ones that are new to the game and ones that have been around basically since the Internet became important in hockey coverage, have gained this sense of entitlement when it comes to covering their team and covering hockey.

I could be wrong here, but the vibe that I've been getting from a lot of them is that they feel that since they watch as many games as any newspaper journalist, and that they are just as good at writing about their teams and their sport as many of these writers, they deserve to have the same privileges as the beat writers and newspaper journalists of the world. Many of them will deny it, and they might not openly say it, but having talked to and followed a lot of these site runners and bloggers over the past 12 months, since TCL opened its doors last September, it's definitely something that I have felt from many of my colleagues. A lot of people think that just because they can open a site at a minimal cost (in many cases, for free), that they can garner audiences fairly quickly through a few interesting posts and the use of social media, that they might be able to write just as well as some of these journalists, they deserve media credentials, or they deserve a spot in a newspaper more than these journalists.

It's a "holier than thou" attitude that has become prevalent on the Internet hockey community in the last few months, and I find this to be especially true amongst those who follow and write about the Montreal Canadiens.

This attitude or discontent that originally found its target to be the media in Montreal has recently found a new target, the management of this team.

Naturally, criticism of the people who run Montreal's favorite sports team isn't anything new, nor anything that should surprise people, but it seems like the stance that has been taken by many against the Molsons, Pierre Gauthier et al has taken a new, slightly disturbing turn. What was once a healthy criticism of the quality of the team on the ice and the people behind the bench and watching the games from the rafters, has turned into a twisted debate of language, territory and entitlement from the fans.

And while the link between criticizing the media and criticizing management may seem like a reach to many, there is definitely a major connection here, and one shared common denominator that has caused what I once thought was a healthy debate on management and media issues to turn into the cesspool of anger that I have witnessed over the last few weeks.

That one common denominator, as you may have guessed, is language.

For a long time now, truthfully, since this team's inception at the Windsor hotel in late 1909, language has been a significant issue surrounding this team, who plays for it, and how it operates. How many French-speaking players should the Canadiens ice during a game? Does management need to speak the language?

And the most interesting question that definitely has language issues embedded at its core, one that, in my opinion, only recently started being asked:

Is management obligated to cater to fans of the team outside of the province of Quebec as much as they are obligated to cater to the fans within Montreal and within the province?

This was the subject of a recent fan blog on AllHabs.net, one of Montreal's biggest online Habs communities.

At first, I read this blog and scratched my head. What could the Habs management POSSIBLY owe to fans of the team outside of the city the operate in, yet alone the province, moreso, at least, than what they may "owe" to the residents of this great city? The Montreal Canadiens have a potential audience of nearly four million people within a 4,000 square kilometer area, an area that comprises most of their fanbase. It's not a stretch to say that a fairly large chunk of these people have a vested interest in the team on a yearly basis, and nearly all of them, at one time or another, have watched the Canadiens play. This is the community that makes the Canadiens what they are, that defines the Canadiens and allows the Canadiens to continue to operate, and these people, for the most part, are the reason the Habs turn a profit every season. They're the ones who go to games, who buy t-shirts, jerseys and car flags and who watch games on television.

The Canadiens, as most are aware, have a large following outside of Montreal, peppered through cities in other provinces and countries. While it's great there are fans all across the rest of Canada, the United States an even abroad, the blog suggests (with absolutely no facts to back this claim up) that the fanbase OUTSIDE of the province of Quebec (yet alone that 4,000 square kilometer region that is the Greater Montreal Area) is larger than the one inside it, and should therefore be paid more attention to.

I was really curious to try and understand what the team could do to cater more towards these fans. Are games not readily available to them in multiple languages through NHL.com, RDS.ca, Center Ice as well as multiple radio broadcasts? Do they not have access to the same merchandise through the Internet, and the same news and blog sources as the rest of us do? What do these people want, for Geoff Molson to fly his plane out to Albuquerque and fly the couple of fans from there out to Montreal to watch a game?

After several exchanges with the site's owner, that nearly degenerated into name-calling and Grammar Nazism, the real issue at hand became clear as day (forget for a second that it's past 2:30AM as of this writing). This wasn't about the broadcast per se, or about the availability or attention of anything to these fans from abroad, it was about the language of said broadcast, and the language that the team chooses to address its fanbase in. Apparently, for many, it's not enough that we are one of the only fanbases who get to enjoy a full 82 game schedule of local broadcasting, but there needs to be TWO broadcasts of all 82 games, in multiple languages, to cater for those who don't understand French.

Nevermind that, as I mentioned, packages such as Center Ice, Gamecenter on NHL.com, radio broadcasts, as well as free (and less legal) sources such as ATDHE.net generally offer English broadcasts of these games, mostly from the opposing team's point of view (hence, English). Add to this the games that TSN, CBC and Sportsnet, among others, may broadcast throughout the year, and I would say that the fan foreign to the lands of Quebec have their bases pretty much covered.

Canadiens fans have become so spoiled by everything that their team and their city has given them are seriously asking for multiple broadcasts of ALL 82 games to be guaranteed to Montrealers as well as those elsewhere, where hockey markets that are just as important to this country as the Canadiens aren't even able to watch all 82 games within the city that the team plays in. Just ask TCL's Flames' blogger, Newman.

Moreover, for those outside of the city of Montreal or the province of Quebec who may not be aware of certain socio-politico-economic realities, believe it or not, not everyone here speaks French. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that for every person outside of Quebec that doesn't understand an RDS broadcast of a Canadiens game, there is a handful of people within the province who don't understand it either. If anything, these fans, within Montreal and Quebec, have LESS access to English broadcasts of Habs games, as Center Ice broadcasts of games are blacked out inside the city due to local broadcasting rights (as I mentioned these things in their comments, I was met with ridiculous counter-arguments of a conspiratorial association between RDS and the Habs as well as fans chanting 'Go Habs Go' at away games somehow meaning more Habs fans live outside Montreal than insidie). Not to mention that bars and restaurants, for the most part, choose to show Canadiens' games in French, even when available in English, to satisfy local laws and the desires of much of their clientèle.

Just like fans of the Canadiens who aren't lucky enough to live in this beautiful city, a lot of Montrealers have to make sacrifices, too. While I was lucky enough to learn three languages growing up, my parents, immigrants, were not as lucky. If I want to watch a game with my father, odds are that he's going to have a much harder time understanding the play-by-play than many others. But as a fan of the team, residing in a province that makes absolutely no excuses for what it is and what its situation is, especially in terms of language, my father and many others have made this sacrifice in order to follow their team.

Similarly, when one decide to become a fan of a team that has its base of operations hundreds, likely thousands of miles away, in a different province or country with different laws and different broadcasting rights and different priorities, then to you, that's a conscious decision, and there are similar sacrifices that you must make if you so choose to follow the Canadiens. Not only in terms of availability of broadcasts, as well as "outreach" from the team, but the quality of broadcast, especially in terms of language.

Despite the deep pockets of the Molsons, and the profits the Canadiens make each year, there are limited resources to go around, just like with any company. Many of these resources are spent internally, through payroll, rent, and various other expenses. A lot of what's left, that doesn't end up in the pockets of the owners, is given back to the community in various ways... fan events, donations to charities, things of that nature. I'm fairly certain that All Habs does not want the Molsons to donate to every local hospital that has a Habs fan checking in, or to organize a fan event in every community that may have a handful of Canadiens fans. That would be totally unreasonable.

Why should the fans of this team, residing within the confines of their "territory", have to sacrifice the resources alloted to them by the team so that a few foreign fans can be satisfied? We give more to this team in terms of our money and our time, we are in this city, contributing to the local economy that helps this team run, paying the price to go to games, and buying way more merchandise than we need.

This really isn't meant to be preachy, or to sound as if the fans in Montreal are more entitled than the fans outside Montreal. But they are called the Montreal Canadiens for a reason. As a fanbase, Habs fans have always held their arms wide open to those who wish to follow the team from elsewhere. But these fans have to understand that the reason this team has succeeded for an entire century is because of its connection to this particular city, much more so than its ability to reach out to those outside of its territorial confines.

Which brings me to the matters of drafting Francophone players, hiring Francophone staffers and managers and catering to the Francophone audience. This is a very touchy subject, and one that doesn't really have a simple explanation. But any team, in any town, in any country, will cater to their local communities not only by reaching out to their fans within their towns and cities, but also by molding their teams around their community.

In Montreal, or, in general, Quebec, we are faced with a unique situation. That of a bilingual community. No matter the fact that both English and French are this province's official languages, the roots of our population and our culture are, for the most part, French, dating back to the 1500s when Jacques Cartier (re-)discovered the North American continent. While the Canadiens obviously don't date back that far, as we said, their origins and history are deeply rooted in that same community. And just like any other team, they will lean towards developing local players, and hiring local people to run and manage the team. The reality of the situation is that a lot of these people will speak a different language. Whatever the percentage of people in this province who speak either language, it's really not that far a stretch to imagine that many candidates for coach, GM, or even player that are local are going to be Francophone.

Yes, the Canadiens have made hiring Francophone a priority. Yes, there might be better candidates out there for various positions around the team than the the local ones they choose. But this would be the case no matter who the Habs - or any other team - may hire. The criticism is simply accentuated amongst this team's fanbase, simply because there is an easy way out when one chooses to disagree with a decision said team makes.

I'm not trying to say that the entire team on the ice should be local, or that management should always speak French first. But for the Montreal Canadiens, just like for any other professional sports team (or, frankly, amateur sports team), there is a reason the "Montreal" comes before the "Canadiens". And while I'm sure that the Molsons would love to be able to take the money of a san in Dallas, Texas, just as easily as they're able to take the money from a fan in Saint Leonard, Quebec, the shear logistics of catering to ALL fans in ALL communities simply doesn't add up.

All of this being said, it must be understood that the Montreal Canadiens are faced with a unique situation in all of professional sports. No other team in the world has a fanbase that speaks two languages as fans of the Canadiens do. No other team is faced with being the only team in its league that needs two languages to satisfy its fans. No other team has dueling medias that are at each others throats so often, while basically saying the same thing.

Now, with the emergence of the MSM/Blogosphere debate, a third group, with demands that are growing to be just as ridiculous and one-sided as that of both the French and English media, is ensuring that the upcoming season will be just as much dominated by silliness and one-upmanship as the ones before it.

We can only hope that these petty issues are but a means to fill the gap while we all wait in deep anticipation for the upcoming season to start.

/Load off chest.

Prax
TheCheckingLine.com
Twitter.com/GeorgePrax