By Jason Menard
You know the best way to tell that hockey season’s right around the corner? It’s not by using something so frivolous as a calendar, or even charting the stars. No, the best way is to wait for the rite of passage that is the Annual Clueless Quebecer Complaining About a Lack of Francophones on the Roster of Les Habitants.
Hey, guess what? It’s hockey season. Know why? Because Pierre Curzi’s gone on the record discussing the Montreal Canadiens’ lack of French-Canadian content on the roster.
Curzi, the Parti Quebecois’ language critic went so far as to say that the whole thing is a federalist plot designed to dampen separatist sentiment in the province by anglicizing (with a side order of Eurocentrism) a cultural icon — the Montreal Canadiens.
You know, those same Canadiens that weren’t french enough for separatists who turned towards the Quebec Nordiques back in the day as the (literal, when you look at their uniforms) standard-bearers for the cause.
Really? Can’t we get over this? I get it. I understand some of the separatist sentiment and appreciate the concerns about language and cultural preservation. To deny outright the social concerns that have led to the rise (and fall, then rise, then fall, now casual) existence of separatism would be crazy.
Almost as crazy as an elected official getting involved with roster decisions on a professional sports franchise.
Gone are the days of the Richards, the Beliveaus, and the Lafleurs. Of course, gone too are the days when the Habs had first right to choose the top two players from the province — over and above the actual draft. But, for the sake of not refuting an absolutely non-sensical argument with, you know, common sense and fact, we’ll forget about that historical advantage.
Oh, and we might as well throw out the globalization of the game of hockey too. Sure, back in the Original Six there were more Francophones on the roster, but there weren’t any of those pesky Swedes, Finns (can you believe the Habs made one a captain???), Czechs, Slovaks, and the like to needlessly earn those roster spots.
The truth is that sports is a business. Where you come from is far down the list of prerequisites for donning the bleu-blanc-et-rouge.
I’ve had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Trevor Timmins, the Habs’ director of player recruitment and development, on numerous occasions. He’s a pleasure to talk with, is witty and insightful, and — most importantly — this guy knows his stuff.
Timmins is responsible for scouting and recommending which players the club should go after in the draft (and, by extension, through trades and free agency in the collegiate ranks). He and his staff spend countless hours in dingy run-down arenas, watching players in practice and during games, and talking with coaches and other team staff. The goal? To get an idea of what the player’s like on and off the ice.
You know what they don’t look at? The kid’s birth certificate.
His goal, along with the rest of the Canadiens’ management team, is to put the best product on the ice. And what’s the number-one factor in putting on a good product? Winning. You win by collecting the best players possible, regardless of place of birth, and hiring a solid developmental and coaching staff to guide those players to the Stanley Cup finals.
You know what you get when you start drafting and signing players strictly on their last name? Losers.
That’s not to say that a team comprised of all Francophone players would be precluded from winning. In fact, you could probably create a pretty solid all-star squad of existing French-Canadian NHLers. But would they beat a team of similarly selected Swedes, Americans, or Rest-of-Canadians? Maybe, maybe not.
But if you can craft a team of players drawing from a pool of players not restricted to la belle province, perhaps taking an elite-skilled Russian centre and pairing him with a Canadian right winger and an American on the left side, wouldn’t you? If your two top blueliners just happened to be from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, respectively, wouldn’t you do so if they were the best players out there?
Of course you would. Any smart business person would. You hire based on talent, not place of birth. What Curzi would have the Habs do is compete in a global marketplace using only talent found from their own backyard.
Oh, and that talent? Who’s to say they’d want to stay in Montreal? Why should they? As an athlete, why would you want to restrict your job options to just one bidder? How do you think the salary negotiations would work out? They wouldn’t. French Canadians may grow up dreaming of playing for the Habs, but signing that multi-million dollar contract has a tendency to take the edge of that Leafs’ hatred they grew up with. From Anaheim to Washington, they want to market their skills to the widest-possible range of potential employers.
I’m married to a full-blooded pure laine Quebecer. I’ve got a fair bit of French-Canadian blood coursing through my own veins. I lived for a number of years in Montreal. I was born there and I go back frequently. You know what I hear when I go back? Chatter about how the Habs are doing — what are their playoff chances? Did you see that goal last night? Can you believe they’re starting that guy in net?
You know what I don’t hear? Well, except from the particularly out-of-touch French media? This team would win more if they had more French Canadians on the roster. In the end, the fans want a far-too-long Cup drought to end. They don’t care if it’s a Markov, a Lapierre, or a Plekanec that hoists the Stanley Cup — they just want it returned to its rightful home in Montreal.
In the end, this is much ado about nothing. And instead of drawing sympathetic attention to the plight of separatists in Canada — possibly drawing real awareness of the language and cultural challenges under 10 million French Canadians face living on a continent dominated by almost 400 million English speakers, he’s effectively done the one thing that no separatist wants to happen to their cause.
He’s made it a joke.
Solid. Good read as usual, Jay.
But the Canadiens’ “over and above the draft” selection of Quebec-born players is a myth. Montreal and Toronto (along with the other four NHL teams) had the rights to two players each from their respective regions from players who weren’t “C-Formed” already. A C-Formed player could not be signed by anyone else and those players were signed in open-market format.
It wasn’t much of an advantage and only two of the 13 players Montreal signed under that rule (which was invoked from 1936-1943 and 1963-1969) actually played in the NHL: Marc Tardif and Réjean Houle. That’s it.
Liam Maguire covered it well in a 2004 article on his site: http://www.liam.ca/ed20040319.html
Robert Lefebvre elaborated on the point more recently: http://www.habseyesontheprize.com/2009/8/1/972138/debunking-the-canadiens-french
Valid point, but Tardif & Houle did play important roles. Pollack’s establishment of a minor league system was more important — along with ripping other teams off for the draft rights of, oh, Guy Lafleur. I meant it more as an-off-the-cuff comment re: ways to force all French players to the Habs. Perhaps I didn’t illustrate it as well a I should have — but thank you for clearing it up for me and the readers!