BUFFALO – Jason Pominville grew up in Quebec and still makes his offseason home there. The bilingual Sabres captain knows the Montreal Canadiens market well. He understands “the circumstances of the public wanting a French-speaking coach.”
“But at the same time,” Pominville said Friday morning inside the First Niagara Center, “I don’t think you can pass up a guy that could be your best option even though he doesn’t speak the language.”
Randy Cunneyworth, the former Sabres winger and Rochester Americans coach, is the Canadiens’ first unilingual English-speaking coach since Bob Berry in 1984.
That fact had some in Quebec boiling.
On Dec. 17, Cunneyworth’s promotion from assistant to interim coach for the fired Jacques Martin ignited a firestorm of controversy.
Much of the French media loudly chided the decision. Groups planned boycotts against Molson, which owns the Canadiens. Owner Geoff Molson had to reaffirm the club’s commitment to finding a permanent bilingual coach. One group even held a small protest outside the Bell Centre.
Two months later, most of the hubbub has died down. Cunneyworth has settled in a bit after losing his first four games. He was 10-9-3 since entering Friday’s 4-3 shootout win over the Sabres.
“All that doesn’t even matter,” said Cunneyworth, who’s promised to learn French, about the commotion his hiring caused. “It’s really all about the team. That was my focus at the time. That’s my focus at this time as well.”
As Pominville alluded to, many lost sight that the Habs had hired one of hockey’s best talent developers and coaching prospects.
The 50-year-old Cunneyworth led Buffalo’s AHL affiliate from 2000-08, developing 10 current Sabres, including Pominville, goalie Ryan Miller and winger Thomas Vanek.
“I think he’s well-deserving to be head coach,” said Pominville, who played three full seasons under Cunneyworth. “I think he’s done pretty well with that group under the circumstances that he’s been put in. He took a lot of heat when he first got named. But he was able to calm that and get things going back together for them.”
Cunneyworth spent two seasons as an assistant in Atlanta, and then coached the Canadiens’ farm club in Hamilton last year.
Sabres still rave about him, calling him a “players’ coach.”
“Everybody feels comfortable around him,” Sabres defenseman Andrej Sekera said. “It’s kind of bad the thing that goes around in Montreal because he’s not speaking really good French. … But besides that, he’s a great coach, a great guy on the ice and an even better guy off the ice.”
Center Derek Roy added: “He was good at trying to work with me. He’s just a pretty solid guy in the dressing room. Everyone liked him. Everyone liked playing for him. And everybody liked going out and battling and working hard for him.”
Sekera and others said they knew Cunneyworth would become an NHL head coach someday.
“Definitely he had that potential,” Sekera said. “He did a great job down there. I’m pretty sure he was waiting for an opportunity.”
Cunneyworth played 37 total games with the Sabres during two stints, first in 1981-82 and then in 1998-99, when he appeared in the Stanley Cup final.
“Oh, I think ’99, you have to go back there,” Cunneyworth said about his Buffalo memories. “I think as a player those were exciting playoffs. Obviously, we were disappointed the way it ended. But that was an exciting time of year I think a lot of fans enjoyed.”
Prior to the game, the Canadiens traded hulking defenseman Hal Gil and a conditional fifth-round pick in 2013 to Nashville for forwards Blake Geoffrion, Robert Slaney and a second-round pick in 2012.
Geoffrion, the grandson of Canadiens legend Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, scored three of his six NHL goals against the Sabres in one game last year. The Habs sent him to Hamilton.
Just how bad is Roy’s 11-goal, 29-point season? He recorded his first assist in sixteen games Thursday in Philadelphia. He had another Friday. It’s the first time he’s had assists in back-to-back games since Dec. 13-16.
“It’s unbelievable, tough drought,” Roy said. “I try to make as many plays as I can and set guys up. I just got to try to make more plays, I guess.”
The Sabres scratched rookie defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani for the eighth time in nine games. Winger Cody McCormick (upper body) sat his fourth contest.