No French connection

Fewer Quebecers have been cracking the Montreal Canadiens’ roster. Some think it’s political.


Francois Lacasse/NHL/Getty Images

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.


No French connection

  1. This is news?

  2. By "Some think it's political." you mean 4 persons, thats it?

  3. I have often said over the past few years! French is dead. Just waiting for the lime to sprinkle over the corpse. You had your chance. You thought you were sucking in the English, but it was you who got snookered. And it was the French, (Power corp) and the Jewish (Rothschild's) that watered down your power and culture. The first thing Harper did was give you Nation hood! You were not up to the challenge. Now, its assimilation time. No entity ever succeeds bucking the huge majority, when forced to follow the rules of that majority.

    • Shut up?

    • dream on buddy

    • Are you serious? Here is Quebec English is dead. Most places except here in Montreal have no english speakers left.

    • Where have all the children gone?

      The great nationalist push has been usurped by social engineers starting with the "three wise men."
      Quebecers bought into an elaborate lie.

  4. Pierre Curzi and Pauline should buy the team if they don't like the lineup,this is a private business and none of their business.One can only Imagine what this place will be like if they ever form their own country.

  5. What would be really useful is to identify the proportion of Quebecers in the league (and the trend). Without those numbers, this article is somewhat useless. If the proportion of Quebecers in the league is declining, then it's obvious that trying to maintain the same numbers on the Canadiens will result in poor results in the standings.

    Sure, they could pull in Pierre off the street who can barely hold a stick and put him on the team – is that what people want?

  6. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that for most of their history, the team had an exclusive monopoly over Quebec talent and therefore had the pick of the best francophone players. That is simply no longer the case. Moreover, the world is now an open pool of talent from which teams can draw, unlike in the past.

    • This is very true. The Habs' unfair advantages (as well as other shady dealings such as buying up entire leagues to get the rights to one player) disappeared as the 70s ended, and, not coincidentally, their championships and french content largely went away as well.

  7. The issue isn't that the Habs don't want French-speaking players, but that a lot of french-speaking players have seen what the insane Montreal media does to them and their families and want no part of the city.

    Between that and the dictates of the salary cap, it just doesn't make any sense for the Habs to specifically recruit French-speaking players in free agency. It gets worse when they deliberately draft mediocre Francophones in an effort to make up for the recruiting disadvantage – like reaching for Louis Leblanc in the first round of the 2009 draft.

    (Don't get me started on how the french media are already straining themselves to build a case against PK Subban, who while being the only viable prospect the Habs have produced in about the last decade, has the triple whammy of being (a) an Anglo, (b) from the GTA, and (c) a minority.)

  8. One comment from a souverainist like Curzi and now ALL Quebecers are participating in ANOTHER conspiracy.
    You people all really suck…