All it took was for Ottawa to consider sinking $175 million into a new arena for the Quebec Nordiques for those two staples of Quebec culture—identity politics and hockey—to collide and cause havoc for the Montreal Canadiens. Once celebrated as a symbol of Quebec’s unique place in North America, the team is now being derided as a federalist outfit looking to dampen Quebec’s national ambitions. “I think there are people within that organization who are profoundly federalist,” says Pierre Curzi, the PQ’s popular culture critic, “and they’re very conscious that a hockey team is a very important vehicle for identity politics.”
While Curzi’s claims of federalist puppet masters appear unlikely, the crux of the actor-turned-politician’s complaint—that the Canadiens have fewer Quebec-born players—is true. What’s more, the Canadiens have been shedding Quebec-born talent more quickly than the rest of the NHL.
According to Michael Whitehouse, who writes the Habs Analytics blog, the percentage of games played by Quebec-born players on the Canadiens fell to 14 per cent last season, its lowest level in the post-1967 expansion era. And in the 41 full seasons since 1967, only three Habs teams had Quebecers making up less than 20 per cent of the roster: 2009-2010, 2007-2008, and 2006-2007. This year’s club won’t likely buck the trend. Only two Quebecers, Maxime Lapierre and Mathieu Darche, are on track to take a regular shift with the Canadiens.
“Under [former general manager] Bob Gainey and [current GM] Pierre Gauthier, it’s like they’ve chosen to eradicate the francophone presence on the team in order to better control the message,” La Presse columnist Réjean Tremblay told Maclean’s. “The more Anglos, Russians, Finns, Czechs—all of whom communicate in English—you have on the team, the fewer ties there are with the francophone press and the population in general.” Under Gainey’s predecessor, André Savard, the proportion of Quebec-born players peaked at 44 per cent in the 2002-2003 season.
It’s murky what impact Quebecers have on success. While a decline of French-speaking players in the ’80s coincided with a Stanley Cup win in 1986 and a finals appearance in 1989, the last Canadiens squad to win a Cup—in 1993—featured more Quebecers (51 per cent) than any time in the past 30 years.
For Olivier Bauer, a professor at the University of Montreal who has studied the similarities between the Canadiens and religion, the 1980s marked the end of a distinctly nationalist period in the team’s history. The Canadiens have since aligned more closely with their cosmopolitan host city than francophone Quebec. The home page of the team’s website, for instance, proudly announces “We are Canadiens.” “Not long ago,” he says, “it would have been unthinkable for the team to market itself that way.”
Management rejects any suggestion the team is playing politics. “I’m not the one who’s going to get into the debate of whether or not we’re federalists,” says part-owner Geoff Molson. “I’m really focused on having a really good hockey team.”
That might silence the critics. But as the Canadiens’ former star and current Liberal MP Ken Dryden wrote in his 1983 book, The Game, the club is burdened with a unique set of circumstances. “Unlike everyone else, it must win; and the French-Canadian character of the team must not be disturbed,” he wrote. Dryden even anticipated the current tension, suggesting the Habs may one day “face a choice—to win, or to be French Canadian?” The real rub, for fans, may be that they’ve chosen neither.