The Canadiens haven’t lived up to their old Flying Frenchmen nickname for decades and I don’t think we’ll ever be calling the Habs that again.
For years, there have been folks ici saying the Canadiens need to make more of an effort to acquire francophone players and that opinion reared its head once again in the last few days, when popular TVA Sports analyst and former NHL head coach Michel Bergeron asked “Pourquoi ne pas aller chercher un Québécois et payer le prix?” (Why not pay the price and go find a Québécois player?)
Bergeron is very much a divisive figure, with many hockey fans believing he has no credibility. But he has supporters and there are no shortage of Habs fans in Quebec who would love to see a more franco flavour to the roster. Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, a nationalist who had run for the leadership of the Parti Québécois in 2016, tweeted recently to bemoan the lack of effort to seek out franco players, while at the same time quite rightly noting the anglo feel of the entertainment/music on offer at the Bell Centre.
But is it realistic to expect the Canadiens to suddenly start adding francophone players right, left and centre? I don’t think so. The reality is this management group is having a hard enough time fielding a competitive team without having the further handicap of being forced to prioritize players from la belle province.
The fact is that Montreal has drafted plenty of Québécois players during the past 15 years, but none has panned out. The highest-profile dud was Pointe-Claire minor-league sensation Louis Leblanc, who arrived chez le bleu-blanc-rouge amid an absurd amount of hype and then stiffed royally. He played 50 games with the Habs between 2011 and 2014 and ended his not-so-illustrious NHL career with five goals and five assists.
But Leblanc wasn’t the only made-in-Quebec disappointment. That list also includes Gabriel Dumont, Olivier Archambault and goalie Zachary Fucale . I’d say there’s a good chance we will soon add Charles Hudon to that list of homegrown underachievers. On Friday, the Canadiens surprised many by signing Hudon, a restricted free agent, to a one-year, one-way US$800,000 contract.
I see this move as more spin from the oh-so-savvy Habs spin department. Hudon receives an inordinate amount of attention in the francophone media. Let’s just say that a Hab from Kelowna, B.C., who scored two goals and got five points in 32 games last season wouldn’t be getting a lot of love, or even chatter, from the local media.
Montreal has few francophone Quebec players. There’s Phillip Danault, who had a breakout season in 2018-19, and Jonathan Drouin, who remains the subject of much debate. Many of us consider him to be another underachiever, while others point to his age (24) and suggest the sparks of brilliance we’ve all seen will eventually add up to make him a solid NHL winger. There’s no question in my mind that general manager Marc Bergevin traded much-touted young defenceman Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa Bay in return for Drouin in large part because Bergevin thought he was getting his hands on the first francophone scoring star for the Canadiens since the days of Vincent Damphousse and Pierre Turgeon. The jury’s out on that one.
Of course it’s great to have strong local players whether the team’s based in Montreal, Detroit or Anaheim. But you don’t acquire one just because he’s local. There’s an added emphasis on that aspect around these parts because the Canadiens were created in 1909 explicitly to appeal to the city’s French-Canadian population and compete with the English-focused teams, the Wanderers and the Shamrocks (aka the Fighting Irish).
It’s interesting to underline that the team’s ownership group is fronted by Geoff Molson, who is a descendent of one of the city’s most notable anglophone families. And Molson, maybe more than any owner in the history of the Canadiens, is dedicated to making sure the team is on the same wavelength as the majority-francophone Quebec population. That’s why the head coach and general manager have to be bilingual.
But it’s a lot harder to find quality francophone players to fill the ranks. And it’s unclear that franco fans even want that. A francophone pal of mine told me this week that he doesn’t care if the players are Québécois, Finnish or English-Canadian. The most important thing for him is finding players who help the Habs win and, off the ice, another key is convincing the players that they should be present in the community during the off-season, something that’s been notably rare in recent years.
The face of the franchise for a decade has been Carey Price and the all-star goalie, who spends his summers in B.C., couldn’t have less of a profile in the community here.
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