MONTREAL – Of all the shortages that have emerged across the world this year and which have attracted high-level political attention, perhaps the most astonishing is this: the scarcity of Quebecers in professional hockey.
Forget worries about pasta shortages (the Canadian durum crop is down by nearly a third) and soaring prices for poultry (the staple of famous Montreal roast chicken restaurants) and beef (the star of the popular steak frites that dot the city). The problem raised last week by François Legault, Premier of Quebec, is the lack of successors to Marcel Dionne, Mario Lemieux, Luc Robitaille, Mike Bossy and Guy Lafleur, the top five Quebec scorers in NHL history.
There are now 51 Quebec-born players in the NHL – about 7 percent of the league’s roughly 721 players, according to statistics analyzed by the QuantHockey website. Ontario, with 171 players, far exceeds Quebec and now has the highest number of professionals from a province in the league. The difference is not just due to Ontario’s larger population.
Canada leads the NHL with 43 percent of players compared to 26.4 percent of US-born players. But in Canada, the province of Quebec sings a sad song. Where did you go Denis Savard? A nation – and Quebec sees itself as a nation, with a provincial legislature called the National Assembly – turn his lonely eyes to you.
Indeed, today, there are more players on the Swedish NHL lists (86) than Quebecers.
Quebec and elsewhere in Canada are facing more important issues. Covid-19 has not gone away, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made little progress in eroding President Biden’s US buying impulses last week, the energy sector is in distress and the Western Province of British Columbia is experiencing its second major climate disaster in six months. Then there is the perennial harsh, the constant struggle in Quebec over how much English should be allowed on posters and preventing non-English speakers and newcomers from outside Canada from sending their children to schools. English speaking.
But a week ago, Legault caused a setback – thankfully the same word in both languages - when he delivered an indisputable and uncontroversial truth at a press conference at the Bell Center, where the Montreal Canadiens play. . “Hockey is more than a sport in Quebec,” he said, expressing his distress at the decline of young hockey players in the province and announcing the creation of a 14-member committee headed by a former goaltender. NHL goalie Marc Denis to investigate the problem, which includes the lack of coaches and the high cost of equipment and ice time. The committee is expected to report on April 1.
No one has disputed his claim that hockey in Quebec is “our national sport, part of our identity”, and no one quibbled last year when he expressed his grief that for the first time the Canadiens. have played a game without a single Quebecer in the lineup. . No Sneer: Has the home team ever taken the field at Beaver Stadium in Penn State without a single Pennsylvania resident on the team?
“When I was little, every kid in Montreal wanted to be a hockey player,” said Eddie Johnston, whose brothers were formidable gangsters but had another tough profession, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Blues. of St. Louis, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins from 1956 to 1978. He eventually coached the Pittsburgh Penguins and became general manager, drafting another Montrealer, Mario Lemieux.
“No Quebecer wants this to fade,” said Johnston.
To compound what Legault sees as a cultural crisis, the Canadiens had a disastrous start to the 2020-21 season, winning just five of their first 21 games on Friday. The team, which has by far the most Stanley Cups (24) – including five consecutive championships in the 1950s and four in a row in the 1940s – put the entire province in the funk. At the same time, the Toronto Maple Leafs, his rivals; the Calgary Flames; and the Edmonton Oilers are being touted as Stanley Cup contenders.
Hockey has long been an essential part of Quebec culture. Maurice Richard, who played for the Canadiens for 28 years, from the middle of the Second World War to the middle of the Cold War, is a Quebec nationalist hero. He scored 50 goals in 50 games during the 1944-45 season, the first player to do so; anchored the Canadiens hockey dynasty by winning eight Stanley Cup championships; and, more importantly, was a symbol of Francophone success at a time when Montreal was dominated by a well-established Anglophone establishment.
In 1955, when Richard got involved in a physical altercation with a linesman during a game against the Detroit Red Wings, and then was suspended for the remainder of the season and the playoffs, Montreal was on fire with anger. . One fan assaulted NHL commissioner Clarence Campbell – a tough-faced symbol of English power – and another set off a smoke bomb in the Montreal Forum, and soon the brawl was so savage that the Fire Marshal set off ordered the crowd to withdraw to the streets, where a full-scale riot broke out. Through it all, Richard has emerged as the personification of Francophone oppression and pride.
Hockey is so much a part of Quebec life that one of the most popular children’s books, “Le Chandail de Hockey” or “Le chandail de hockey, ” explores the mortification a child experiences when his French-speaking mother orders a “blue, white and red” Canadiens jersey only for the department store to send him one wearing instead the despised blues and whites of the Maple Leafs, the formidable rivals of the Habs.
Even though the Canadiens signed three Quebec-born players – David Savard, Cédric Paquette and Jean-Sébastien Dea – in a single day in July, the relationship between the province and the local hockey princes is not what it used to be. .
The NHL is an intercontinental league – the Columbus Blue Jackets opened the season with players from the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Finland, Russia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France and Latvia in the lineup – but the Canadiens were historically the preferred destination for Quebec-born players and built what Montreal hockey writer Mike Moore called “an unparalleled and powerful empire of nurturing teams to across North America ”. But, he writes, “the Montreal Canadiens were the biggest losers” when a new amateur draft system was adopted by the NHL in 1963.
Quebec City, which lost the Nordiques to Colorado in 1995, has had an NHL-ready arena since 2015 and applied for an expansion team that year, as has Las Vegas, which received the franchise from the Golden Knights in 2016.
On the day Legault announced the committee to study hockey in Quebec, he told French-language sports broadcaster RDS that he had spoken with Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, “to find out what we need to bring back. the Nordics ”.
However, on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the NHL wrote in an email quoting Assistant League Commissioner Bill Daly as saying, “We are always happy to meet. We are not currently planning any further expansion.
Does it really matter that Quebec has only one NHL team, or that Saskatchewan produces more NHL players per capita than any other province, or that Ontario produces the most, period? Hockey, like at home, is where the heart is.
“Hockey is a part of life across the country, but it’s special in Quebec,” said Daniel Béland, a political scientist who moved to McGill University in Montreal as director of his Institute for the Study of Canada after a decade at the University of Saskatchewan. “Quebec believes that it cannot be seen as a declining source of supply for hockey players. It’s so important for Quebec culture.