BROSSARD, Que.- Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier has apologized for offending some of the team's fans and promised there will be a French-speaking coach behind the bench next season.

Perhaps looking to head off planned protests by some Quebec nationalist groups and an on-going controversy in the media, Gauthier made an apology on Monday for making Randy Cunneyworth the club's first unilingual English-speaking coach in 40 years after he fired Jacques Martin on Dec. 15.

"We're disappointed and we're sorry if we offended anybody by hiring someone who is not bilingual right now, but when you're in the middle of a season and you're trying to effect change and you're having the difficulties we were having, you evaluate all your options," said Gauthier.

"We felt the best option at this time was to work from within the organization. Those things can be taken care of in due time, but having a bilingual head coach of the Montreal Canadiens is very important and it's something that will be part of our decision going forward.".

The outcry that followed Cunneyworth's promotion to head coach, which was front page news in Quebec, had prompted owner Geoff Molson to issue a statement that the team agrees its coach should speak the language of the majority of its fans and also promised a bilingual coach for next season.

The move left Cunneyworth in an apparent lame duck position, but Gauthier said the former player's mental toughness and commitment to work would see him through the season. And he did not rule out keeping Cunneyworth, provided he learns French.

It hasn't helped that the team is also in the midst of a slump that has its playoff hopes sinking fast, but Gauthier is not ready to throw in the towel on the season just yet.

Gauthier wants to see how his club performs as it plays 11 of its next 15 games at home, starting Wednesday against the Winnipeg Jets, before he decides whether he will be a buyer or seller of talent at the NHL trade deadline.

The Canadiens (14-18-7) have lost seven of their last eight games, including a 1-6-0 mark since Cunneyworth replaced Martin on an interim basis.

Tempers also look to be frayed among the players, as defenceman P.K. Subban and centre Tomas Plekanec exchanged punches during practice on Monday.

"Our objective now is to get back to winning and playing better hockey," Gauthier said. "We're back from a long road trip.

"Now we have 11 of the 15 next games here and we're counting on that to change the direction of our season."

The Canadiens are in an 11-day stretch in which they play only three times, all at home. It will be a prime chance for Cunneyworth to make adjustments to a team that has been glaringly short of cohesiveness and confidence in recent weeks.

The Canadiens prepared with a 30-minute meeting, then had a high tempo practice followed by a half hour of work in the gym.

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