MONTREAL - Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson is seeking to soothe tensions in the city after hiring a unilingual anglophone head coach.

Molson issued a public statement Monday afternoon explaining that Randy Cunneyworth was hired to replace Jacques Martin because of his talent and because, as the team's assistant coach, he is in the best position to step in immediately and help the team win.

The statement comes after some francophone groups and individuals expressed alarm that the team has hired an interim coach who cannot speak French.

Molson pointed out that the interim position will be re-evaulated at the end of the hockey season.

"The action was taken to remedy the situation without further delay," Molson said. "Randy Cunneyworth is a qualified and experienced coach who has earned the respect of the players and everyone within the organization."

The complaints began as a trickle on the weekend but by Monday many more had skated into the fray to criticize the hiring.

They included Quebec Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre. "The Montreal Canadiens are an institution and the coach must communicate In the language of the massive majority of its Quebec fans," she told The Canadian Press on Monday.

St-Pierre is the minister responsible for the French language charter, Bill 101.

Molson said language will be a factor when, at the end of the season, the team has to hire a permanent coach. He said finding a coach who can win is the main priority, but language ability will also count.

"Although our main priority remains to win hockey games and to keep improving as a team, it is obvious that the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of the permanent head coach," he said.

The coach himself seemed more concerned with managing the opposition Bruins in the team's upcoming game.

"My focus is on getting the team right, I can't be concerned about any eternal factors," said Cunneyworth to a media scrum in Boston Monday. "My first focus and responsibility is the team and we have a job to do."

Former Habs coach Claude Julien didn't want to comment specifically on his coaching colleague's situation but said coaching in Montreal is a useful learning experience.

"It's the best coaching school in the NHL, one of the best places to learn how to manage your team with all of the pressure," he said.

Ultra-nationalist groups were the first out of the gate, taking many shots before other critics had even laced 'em up.

On Sunday Impératif Français employed some hockey terminology to denounce the naming of a Randy Cunneyworth to the head coaching position of the Montreal Canadiens.

The decision is a "bodycheck to Quebec," and a "gross misconduct," the group wrote on its website. The group's president Jean-Paul Perreault advised a boycott of Molson products.

Their spokesman Gilles Rheaume, a veteran of the language wars, called the situation an "anti-French provocation," and urged the club to fire the coach Randy Cunneyworth for, "incompetence."

"Being unable to speak French is a severe handicap for someone in that position. Knowing the French language is a per-requisite for leading the Montreal Canadiens hockey team," the group wrote in a statement. 

The Impératif français group has urged a boycott of Molson products. The team belongs to brothers Geoff Molson, Andrew Molson and Justin Molson. Geoff and Andrew sit on the board of Molson-Coors.

Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste President Mario Beaulieu also condemned the hiring of a unilingual anglo to the head coaching job in Montreal, describing it as an insult and predicting that the team would regret the decision.

Beaulieu noted that, "there are fewer and fewer francophones on the Montreal team," on what was originally a team dedicated to francophones.

Local radio call-in shows and online forums were abuzz with questions about whether a non-French speaker should be awarded the top post.

A prominent sports writer summed up one side of the issue, arguing the club failed in its responsibility to protect and promote the French language. "In Quebec, the Canadiens aren't just a hockey team," Philippe Cantin wrote in Montreal's La Presse. "They are also an institution. And like all institutions, they have a responsibility to the community."

Cunneyworth, who said he hopes to learn French, is the Canadiens' first unilingual anglophone head coach in nearly three decades.

Some fans suggested they wouldn't be so upset if the Habs had brought in a highly-regarded Stanley Cup winner, such as the Detroit Red Wings' Mike Babcock, a McGill alumnus, instead of an assistant without NHL head coaching experience.

Others said the most important thing is winning. They say that if Cunneyworth, a young, tech-savvy coach and former NHL captain, manages to revive the Habs, then he should stick around.

The controversy is the latest in a string of Quebec media stories touching on the perceived regression in the use of French, inside the province and in Ottawa.

The Parti Quebecois has, predictably, already tried to capitalize on the kerfuffle.

The separatist party's language critic Yves Blanchet appeared on a French news station Sunday afternoon to denounce the move.

The Habs have been down this road many times before.

Former captain Saku Koivu, a Finnish-born star, was criticized for his lack of French during his time with the team.

Koivu was even called out by a Quebec City lawyer during a 2007 provincial commission studying the so-called reasonable accommodation of minorities and immigrants.

PQ Leader Pauline Marois went one step further, saying at the time that the Canadiens should insist on French courses for its players.

Other players, like Ontario-born Bob Gainey, have won fans' hearts by learning French on the job. Gainey, also a former team captain, later became general manager of the team.

The intersection of language politics and sports may seem silly to some, but the Canadiens are a Quebec institution whose impact extends well beyond the realm of sports, said one expert.

"It's always been wrapped up in the politics of the province," said Nicolas Moreau, a member of the faculty of social sciences at the University of Ottawa who co-edited a new book on the Habs and Quebec society. "We are seeing this again now."

Moreau pointed to the Maurice Richard riots of 1955, seen as an early example of Quebec nationalism, with members of an aggrieved minority rising in revolt against Anglo oppression.

The team was founded by a businessman who, although Anglo-Irish, created it specifically for the French-Canadian market.

In the early days, the team was closely tied to Montreal's French-speaking community, and the team was almost entirely francophone, said Audrey Laurin-Lamothe, co-editor of the book.

"It's important for the Quebecois not only as a pastime, but because it's part of our identity, and language is wrapped up in that," said Laurin-Lamothe, a PhD student at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal.

More recently, the Canadiens have been criticized by some for not stocking the club with French players.

There is concern that if the Habs cease to hire Quebecers as coaches, francophones won't be able to get a foot in the door.

Several successful francophone bench bosses got their start with the Canadiens, including last year's Stanley Cup winner Claude Julien and runner up Alain Vigneault.

Some fans are hopeful that if the defunct Nordiques return to Quebec City, the Habs will be under more pressure to recruit francophone talent.

"When the Nordiques were there the Habs definitely had a stronger emphasis on French," Moreau said.

There has been much speculation that the Canadiens would behave differently if faced with a Quebec City team that would market itself more aggressively toward the Quebecois.

The Quebecor media empire, which is trying to bring back the Nordiques, has already picked up on that Quebec-identity theme lately in some critical news reports on the Canadiens and elements of its ownership consortium.

For all the controversy, though, the Canadiens have served as a unifier through the club's storied 102-year history.

The team has often been compared to a religion, bringing together the city's francophones, anglophones, and the rest of the multilingual mishmash in shared idolatry.

The Habs' famed Punch line of the 1940s, featuring Elmer Lach, Toe Blake and Maurice Richard, was an early bridge between the city's two linguistic solitudes, said Laurin-Lamothe.

"We had for the first time a mix of languages," she said. "The Punch line really helped changed the perception of the team to a club for the whole city."

Even provincial Health Minister Yves Bolduc commented on the issue, saying that he would have preferred a coach that could speak French as it's preferable to have a coach that can speak French in Quebec.

Mouvement Québec français (MQF) President Mario Beaulieu and former hockey player and author Bob Sirois described the move as "unacceptable," in a press release Sunday.

Sirois, who wrote a book arguing that Quebecers are the victims of discrimination in the NHL, described the decision as discrimination against Quebec hockey players.

"The Canadiens should be a source of national pride for all Quebecers and not an agent of anglicisation," said Sirois.

Imperatif Francais has also been busy urging a boycott of the National Bank, which it feels holds too many meetings in English.

Cunneyworth replaced Jacques Martin Saturday and will remain head coach until the end of the season.

The last time the Canadiens had a unilingual coach was in 1971 when the team was led by Al MacNeil for half a season. He ended up quitting after quarreling with forward Henri Richard who was not keen to play for him.

Another non-francophone coached the team from 1981-1984 but Bob Berry was apparently able to speak enough French to satisfy his critics before being replaced by Jacques Lemaire. 

With files from The Canadian Press