The language issue is a never ending topic, a discussion coming back to the table periodically and one that has recently resurfaced since the firing of Jacques Martin and Pierre Gauthier, the arrival of Serge Savard and with the recent appointment of Marc Bergevin as General Manager and Michel Therrien as head coach. Geoff Molson has said it, Serge Savard never shied away from it, Marc Bergevin reinforced it and Michel Therrien has also confirmed what half the fan base fear and the other half wants: more local flavour in the Habs’ organisation.
PENTICTON, BC. — Whether the team should or should not put the emphasis on it today or not is definitely up for debate, but there is no denying that back when the Canadiens were winning Stanley Cups, the Quebecois contingent was always strong and many were important contributors. Last year, the Canadiens counted two local products in their ranks: David Desharnais and Mathieu Darche. Desharnais was a great story as he emerged as a key contributor on a line with Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty, with whom he had played in Hamilton as well. Darche is another feel good story as the Habs gave his career a much needed boost that saw him return to the NHL. Louis Leblanc was called up and played 42 games with the big club, most of them when the team was pretty much eliminated from playoffs’ contention.
But why is this happening? There is no doubt that there are fewer and fewer Quebecois in the NHL but the teams who have them seem to appreciate being able to count on them. Whether it’s Luongo, Burrows, Brodeur, Gagné, Brière, Pominville, Bergeron (Patrice), Vermette, Robidas, Ribeiro, Bouchard, Lombardi, Vlasic, Demers, Perron, Lecavalier, St-Louis, Veilleux, Beauchemin, Bélanger, Stastny, Dupuis, Talbot, Letang or Fleury, we’re talking about players contributing to their team’s success!
Why this phenomena?
Is it due to the economy? Is it because kids now days have so many other choices of sports? The economy and the choices are similar in other provinces, and those provinces don’t seem to suffer as much, just looking at Team Canada Junior’s success, and the number of players drafted from the WHL and OHL. Unfortunately, some prefer crying discrimination, choosing to blame others instead of facing the problem by looking in the mirror.
I have my theory… For several years now, seeing Canada lose ground at the international level, Hockey Canada searched for answers and reasons. Seeing the level of skills in Europe, they looked in the mirror and realized that not enough time was spent at developing skills and too much time allocated for games. They also recognized that in order to develop those players, coaches have to be qualified. That’s when they implemented the Program of Excellence, which Wayne Gretzky (amongst others) was part of. If someone wants to coach minor hockey in Canada, they need to take some extensive coaching clinics and the suggested ratio practice/game is now four practices for every game played!
Someone told me a few years back that Hockey Quebec didn’t want to follow suit and preferred keeping the status quo without Hockey Canada’s help. We’re seeing them today scramble to catch up, looking for solutions, by creating summits like the one they had last year. Except that last summer, it was great to see that the president of Hockey Canada, Bob Nicholson, was part of the summit on hockey in Quebec and this time, it seems like Hockey Quebec was more receptive to what Mr. Nicholson had to say… about twenty years later! Sometimes, one can learn just as much by relying on others’ experience instead of waiting to experience it themselves, while being just as efficient and mostly, advancing faster.
How can the Canadiens help?
Even living in British-Columbia some 4,000 kilometers away, I can recognize the importance and even the need to have players from Quebec playing for the Montreal Canadiens.
You see, Montreal is different than any other NHL city if only from the fact of the language spoken. Yes, many in Quebec (especially in Montreal) are bilingual but a vast majority in the rest of the province, including children, don’t understand English. They do want to be able to not only understand, but relate to the players, to have some sort of connection with them, with the team.
It is just as important when looking at marketing, as all 82 Habs’ games are televised on RDS (French station, French commercials for French speaking people), as well as for corporate boxes at the Bell Centre when the majority of the investors are French and do business in Quebec, in French, not counting the publicity sold by the organization in and out of the rink.
As for the attachment, it’s nothing new as if we go back in history, going all the way back to the conception of the Montreal Canadiens, to the root of the team, it was created in the mind set of creating a rivalry, having a team of French players, playing against the English, the Maroons.
Later on, Maurice Richard was not only a great player but foremost, he was the idol of a nation, Quebec, a symbol standing tall against the English, an ordinary guy from home, a neighbour who was the best in a sport that we loved, playing for the Montreal Canadiens! And it was a similar feeling towards Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur after him.
I remember about 40 years ago when I started playing hockey and growing up through the minor hockey systems in Quebec, I had the privilege of being able to associate myself, to relate to players like Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Guy Lafleur, Yvon Lambert and Mario Tremblay amongst others, players who gave me the hope of a dream… If you were to ask the next generation, they would tell you that they lived similar situations by looking up to Patrick Roy, Guy Carbonneau, Claude Lemieux, Stéphane Richer, Vincent Damphousse, Pierre Turgeon and Eric Desjardins… If those players from my neighbourhood, who speak my language, can make it big, why can’t I dream of doing the same?
You see, it’s more than admiring hockey players. As young boys playing hockey (or liking the sport) and as Habs’ fans, it was a motivation, an example that young boys from Quebec can succeed, achieve their dream of one day, wearing the red, white and blue and have their turn at being idolized, admired by young hockey players as they did themselves.
Support and development
Having said all of that, with everything that has happened in recent years, it is evident that one needs a particular personality to succeed in Montreal as in today’s NHL, they fill your pockets with money at the very beginning of your career, you are recognized everywhere in town, puck-bunnies and all, and everything that comes with what I call “vedettaria”, an illness which swells the head of its victims, giving them the impression that they’re bigger than what they really are. It looks like the only cure is to send them to another city by trading them, which has for effect to take down the swelling and bring back work ethics which saw them get the success that brought them to the NHL to start with. According to some, Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre and the most recent ones to have suffered from it but we find other similar cases over the years, guys like Mike Ribeiro, Jose Theodore and Pierre Dagenais amongst others…
While we can point fingers to players from Quebec, it seems like every young player coming to play in Montreal is subject to it. We saw guys like Higgins, the Kostitsyn brothers, Pacioretty and Price falling to it, or more recently PK Subban, with some recovering on time it seems. That’s why it’s crucial to find great veterans to mentor those young players, to teach them the ropes, what to avoid and teach them how to become true professionals on and off the ice. And to look at some current veterans including Erik Cole, the Canadiens seem to have learned their lesson.
I will conclude that in spite of what some may think, it is very important to have local players (from Quebec) on the Montreal Canadiens’ roster but even more important is the selection of those players as well of how they are supported. You need to have a certain quality, a define personality to succeed in Montreal and it’s even more true when it comes to local players. There is little doubt that Marc Bergevin and his team will bring that aspect back to the Montreal Canadiens, likely making half the fan base happy and the other half puzzled.
En français: L’impact de joueurs locaux sur le Canadien