Updated: Jan 4
I will never forget that frigid day in March 2008. The Canadiens were having a season for the ages, getting ready to enter the playoffs with tremendous hope. The city was buzzing.
My wife was pregnant, awaiting twin boys. Having lost my job a few weeks earlier, I had decided to go and wait for the Canadiens players outside the historic Verdun auditorium (where they were practicing at the time), hoping to be able to get an autograph or two on a pair of jerseys that I had bought for my future newborns. It was raining hard, but several devoted fans remained, waiting so that they could see their idols up close after the practice was over.
The Kostitsyn brothers were the first to leave the arena. Flanked by a towel covering their heads, they sped off like Speedy Gonzalez, despite their supporters yelling for a quick snap of the camera or a mere signature. They hastily got on the team bus. demonstrating complete indifference towards their fans. One player after another walked past us without even acknowledging our presence, it was as if we were invisible. Freezing rain slapped us on the face, our hands shaking, when eventually several, discouraged, decided to leave.
This is when Patrice Brisebois made his appearance. He stopped, in his already drenched practice uniform, and stood there during the downpour, graciously agreeing to sign some team paraphernalia, putting his initials on each wet piece of paper held out by the fans, even taking selfies with the few faithful still present. Guy Carbonneau also came out a few moments later, and, with a smile on his face (after all, the team was leading the division), went to greet the fans. It was a moment that I will never forget, a moment which sums up quite well the why behind the fact that so many French-speaking Quebecers feel closer to players who come from here, and why it matters to them so much.
They can identify with these players. And, many of these players, having grown up here, also feel a greater affinity towards their own, a sense of responsibility towards the fans with whom they rub shoulders all over the province even once the season is over.
Does this necessarily mean that these local players will work harder on the ice, that they will perform better, that they will improve their team's results? Possibly, but certainly not in all cases. The goal here is not to debate on whether the Canadiens would have participated in the playoffs in recent years had they had more players from here, but rather to try to explain, to those who think that having Quebec-born athletes, coaches or even GMs is of little importance, how oblivious they are to reality here (of course one could argue that if you take the entire pool of Habs fans around the world, there may be as many, if not more, that are not French Quebecers and hence what they want should not be given so much importance, but let's not go there...for now).
I assure you that my comment has no underlying political motive. I consider myself both a proud Quebecer and a Canadian. Being a Montreal Canadiens fan for over 40 years I have idolized as many American, Canadian, and European players as I have Quebec players. I literally worshiped players like Larry Robinson, Chris Chelios, Mats Naslund, Tim Raines and Gary Carter. But, with a few exceptions, the bond and proximity these athletes have with the peuple Québecois is not at the same level as it is with a Guy Lafleur, a Jean Béliveau, a Stéphane Richer or a Guy Carbonneau.
Now is it realistic to believe that we could build a talented, potentially championship-level team, with a majority of French-speaking Quebecers, in 2022? I highly doubt it. First, Québec does not produce as many elite players as it did twenty or thirty years ago. In addition, borders have opened up to players from all over the world over the past decades, and this is not about to change. (Québec has struggled to produce talent for some time and this actually recently got Prime Minister François Legault to create a committee to try and find out the root causes). Nevertheless, Canadiens' management must make a greater effort in this regard, especially in drafting more local players, something which certainly was not the case during the Trevor Timmins era.
On the other hand, what annoys me just as much, is the fact that for certain journalists and sports media personalities here (as well as certain politicians who like to meddle in the affairs of the Canadiens), despite having predominantly French-speaking management and coaching team (Habs and the Rocket) they still feel there is an injustice being committed against the peuple. But if we were to survey various experts in the hockey world, I doubt that many would say that the potential "gars de chez nous" (local) candidates for the role of GM or VP of Hockey Ops would be near as qualified and experienced as Jeff Gorton. Yet several of these media types have been moping nonstop these past few weeks, clearly bothered by the hiring of the ex-GM of the New York Rangers; again, because he is not "one of us".
Others, taking advantage of the fact that the Canadiens are struggling (mightily) this season, have decided to try to find a place on the team for each of their favorite Québec-born players. I've heard a few suggest that Raphael Harvey-Pinard couldn't be worse than established National League players like Arthuri Lehkonen or Joel Armia, quite the biased and startling opinion. Deprived of talented francophone players for years, there are too many who like to live in an imaginary world instead of seeing things as they really are. These same individuals would complain every time the Canadiens would send a player like Charles Hudon down to the minors, or when they offered less playing time to a player like David Desharnais later on in his career.
Let's be honest: we are far from the old “at equal talent, we should favor a guy from Québec”.
Whether it be the perceived "controversial" hiring of Jeff Gorton or the strong media propaganda trying to convince fans that some local players are better than established ones, we are playing a dangerous game. To suggest that an athlete or manager from here, regardless of the gap in skill and capability, should be the preferred option at all times just because of their origin, is in no way going to breed continued success for a franchise that has let fans down for almost 30 years. Those in the media who preach such biased nonsense will insist that they truly do want to see the Sainte-Flanelle return to its gloried past. But, as the anglophones would say, "you can't have your cake and eat it too".
So, oui, the "fait français" is very important in our beautiful province, but we have to find the right balance, and in order to do so one must remove themselves from their emotions, patriotism and underlying political agendas.