Language, Culture and Hockey
May 12, 2021
By Blain Potvin
The Canadiens iced a lineup this past week that didn’t feature a francophone Quebecois player for the first time in over 110 years. As you can imagine, this led to quite a bit of discussion in both languages among the Quebec-based media.
Language is a major issue in Quebec, the province has worked hard to ensure French remains the dominant language within their borders. The Canadiens are part of that cultural heritage that francophone Quebecois look to for comfort as well.
The Habs, who predate the NHL, were founded in 1909 by Ambrose O’Brien as a way of promoting hockey to the local francophone community. Over the years, the team has grown into a form of religion, thanks to the unprecedented success the franchise enjoyed in the 20th century. Pride in the team and its francophone stars has even been linked to Quebec’s quiet revolution, a political movement seen as the majority francophone population taking control of their political establishments. So it is no surprise that this obsession with the language and origin of some players continues to this day.
Does the fault for a lack of local francophone representation on the NHL roster actually lie with the Canadiens and their management team? It doesn’t, as Grant McCagg explained recently on twitter and provided a short list of about 30 names of players drafted, traded or signed for into the organization in recent years
The team has gone out of its way to draft, sign and trade for local talent. On the current Canadiens roster, francophones Phillip Danault and Jonathan Drouin fill key roles for the team.
Even the premier of Quebec Francois Legault has gone so far as to lay the blame for this supposed oversight for local players at the feet of the Canadiens management saying
“I find it unfortunate that there are not more Quebec players with the Canadiens,” Legault told reporters Tuesday at the end of a news conference on the pandemic. Maybe one day, if we had the Nordiques, there would be some competition to see who can get the most Quebec players.”Francois Legault, Premier of Quebec
Which is somewhat ironic as the biggest Nordiques legends are not Quebecois names, such as Mats Sundin, Joe Sakic and Peter Stastny. How successful could any franchise be if they focus more on where a player is born and what language they speak are higher on their scouting reports than talent would be? In a 32 team NHL with a hard salary cap structure, likely not well at all. Yet it is certain Habs fans would welcome the return of that heated rivalry since the last iteration of the Nordiques separated from Quebec City to become the Colorado Avalanche.
Once any local player makes the roster, the pressure to perform becomes larger than life. Something players consistently remark on, that they’re never as good or as bad as they’re made out to be by fans or the media. Yet the pressure is enormous anyway, simply look at what Drouin has endured since his much-touted arrival.
As we see with Quebec’s Premier, the demand for management to bring local stars is enormous. Marc Bergevin did that by trading his top prospect for Drouin, which satisfied them for a time. Many argue it was a bad trade because of all this, and they may be right, Bergevin may have suffered a rare “loss” with a trade. But that only demonstrates the importance of not putting a value on a player’s language or place of birth. Once Drouin didn’t become the star they wanted, even if he was playing well, the pressure was more than he could handle, needing to go on LTIR for personal reasons.
Currently, the NHL has approximately 30 francophone Quebec-born players. This points to a larger issue than not enough representation on the Canadiens roster, it’s an issue in talent development in the entire province.
Competition for NHL jobs has now become globalized and other countries have caught up in increasing hockey’s popularity within their borders but also in their development methods.
Another major issue in Canada, Quebec included, is cost. Hockey is pricing itself out of the range for the average family. The cost of registration fees, skills camps, equipment and travel can cost thousands of dollars per child. By making it a sport that only the upper middle class and above can afford, you’re going to minimize the pool of available talent. Without assistance in this area, any plan could be doomed from the start.
The Canadiens have been playing catchup in making improvements to their developmental systems. Recently returning to a baseball model of player development with a AAA farm team in Laval, and now a AA team added as their ECHL affiliate in Trois-Rivieres will begin play in October of 2021.
Yet, this isn’t enough. To surpass their NHL competitors they’ll need to leverage their financial advantages as well. This is where they can help solve the Quebec Hockey Crisis, by investing in a European model of player development. Create multiple Hockey Academies across the province. By investing in grassroots hockey, the Canadiens could help develop local players, coaches and managers who may become NHL calibre in the years ahead. This could provide a larger base to choose from when filling these roles.
These academies could include prep schools like Stanstead College, or even a QMJHL team. Of course, the cost for something so audacious would be high, even beyond the reach of a wealthy organization such as the Montreal Canadiens. That is why the province of Quebec would need to partner with the Canadiens in this type of plan.
While this won’t directly benefit the Canadiens like the farm system created by Frank Selke in the 1950s, it will improve the quality and quantity of talent coming out of Quebec. It would also create a sense of loyalty and ownership in the Canadiens brand that would entice those same players and coaches to return to the team.
Without the provincial finances, the Club Academy plan is still viable for the Canadiens at a smaller scale and would still provide them with a larger pool of coaches and talent they would have more familiarity with. Another benefit would be having the Academy staff scouting players across the province as the Academy team prepares to play against other programs, giving them an added advantage locally by the time the NHL Entry Draft rolls around.
If having local, francophone players is truly a cultural necessity, it would fall on the government of the province to step up and subsidize this type of plan, to ensure they get the NHL representation they demand of the Montreal Canadiens. If they can’t accept the costs involved in developing players, then perhaps it is time for the historical demands for representation come to an end as the Canadiens are a privately owned business who not only need to be concerned with public relations, but also with succeeding in a competitive sport where winning is the biggest profit driver.