In Canada, Quebec’s premier worries about the state of hockey

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MONTREAL — Of all the shortages that have sprung up around the world this year and have attracted high-level political attention, perhaps the most astonishing is this: the scarcity of Quebecers in professional hockey.

Forget the worries about pasta shortages (Canadian durum wheat crops have fallen by nearly a third), and the rising prices of poultry (the staple of Montreal’s famed rotisserie chicken shops) and beef (the star of the popular steak chips joints that are everywhere in the city). The issue raised last week by Quebec Prime Minister François Legault 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 website QuantHockey. Ontario, with 171 players, is much better than Quebec and now accounts for the most professionals from one province in the league. The difference isn’t just explained by Ontario’s larger population.

Canada leads the NHL with 43 percent of players compared to 26.4 percent of players born in the United States, but in Canada, the province of Quebec sings a sad song. Where have you been Denis Savard? A nation – and Quebec considers itself a nation, with a provincial legislature called the National Assembly — fixes his lonely eyes on you.

Indeed, today there are more players on NHL rosters from Sweden (86) than from Quebec.

Quebec, and for that matter Canada, is facing more serious problems. Covid hasn’t gone away, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made vague progress last week in eroding President Biden’s buy-American impulses, the energy sector is in distress and the western province of British Columbia is in its second major climate-related disaster in six months. Then there’s the perennial, the constant fight in Quebec over how much English should be allowed on billboards, and preventing non-English speakers and newcomers from outside Canada from sending their children to English-language schools.

But a week ago, Legault caused contretemps—fortunately the same word in both languages—when he spoke an undeniable and undisputed truth at a press conference at the Bell Center where the Canadiens play. “Hockey is more than a sport in Quebec,” he said, expressing concern at the decline of the province’s hockey players, announcing the creation of a 14-member committee led by former NHL goalkeeper Marc Denis to study the problem. includes a lack of coaches and the high cost of equipment and ice age. The committee is expected to report on April 1.

No one disagreed with his claim that Quebec hockey is “our national sport, part of our identity,” nor did anyone bicker last year when he expressed grief that the Montreal Canadiens played a game for the first time without a single Quebecer on the roster. . No chuckles: Has the home side ever taken the field at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium without a single Pennsylvania native on the squad?

“Growing up, every kid in Montreal wanted to be a hockey player,” said Eddie Johnston, whose brothers were terrifying mobsters but who worked in another tough profession, scoring goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins from 1956 to 1978. He would eventually coach the Pittsburgh Penguins and become general manager, drafting fellow Montrealer Mario Lemieux.

“No Quebecer wants that to fade,” Johnston said.

To make matters worse what Legault sees as a cultural crisis, the Canadiens have had a disastrous start to their 2020-21 season, having won just five of their first 21 games on Thursday. The team, which has by far the most Stanley Cups (24), including five consecutive championships in the 1950s and four consecutive championships in the 1940s, has rocked the entire county. At the same time, their rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers, are being talked about as contenders for the Stanley Cup.

Hockey has long been an essential element of Quebec culture. Maurice Richard, who played for the Canadiens for 28 years, from the middle of World War II to the middle of the Cold War, is a Quebec nationalist hero. He scored 50 goals in 50 games in the 1944-45 season, the first player to do so cemented the Habs’ hockey dynasty by winning eight Stanley Cup championships, and most importantly, was a symbol of Francophone achievement at a time when Montreal dominated by a deeply rooted Anglophone establishment.

In 1955, when Richard became involved in a physical altercation with a linesman in a game against the Detroit Red Wings and was subsequently suspended for the remainder of the season and the playoffs, Montreal was infuriated. One fan attacked the NHL’s Commissioner Clarence Campbell – a hard-faced symbol of English power – and another set off a smoke bomb in the Montreal Forum, and soon the brawl was so fierce that the fire chief ordered the crowd to disperse. retreat to the street, where a large-scale riot broke out. Through it all, Richard emerged as the personification of both Francophone oppression and pride.

Hockey is such a part of Quebec life that one of the best-loved children’s books, Le chandail de hockey (The hockey jersey) examines the humiliation a French-speaking child experiences when his mother has a blue, blanc and rouge Canadiens jersey only to have the department store send him one with the despised blue and white of the Maple Leafs, the Habs’ feared rivals.

Although the Canadiens signed three Quebec-born players – David Savard, Cedric Paquette and Jean-Sebastien Dea – in a single day in July, the relationship between the province and the princes of local hockey 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 on the roster – but the Canadiens have historically been the destination of choice for Quebec-born players and built what Montreal-born hockey writer Mike Moore called “an unparalleled and powerful empire of feeder teams in North America.” But, he wrote, “the Montreal Canadiens were about to lose the most” when a new amateur draft system was passed by the NHL in 1963.

Quebec City, which lost to Colorado in 1995 to the Nordiques, has had an NHL-ready arena since 2015 and applied for an expansion team that year, as did Las Vegas, which received the Golden Knights franchise in 2016.

The day Legault announced the commission to study hockey in Quebec, he told French-language sports channel RDS that he spoke with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman “to find out what we need to get the Nordiques back.” bring.”

However, on Wednesday, an NHL spokeswoman wrote in an email quoting the league’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly: “We are always happy to meet. At the moment we are not thinking about further expansion.”

Does it really matter that Quebec has one NHL team, or that Saskatchewan produces more NHL players per capita than any other province, or that Ontario produces the most, period? Hockey, just like home, is where the heart is.

“Hockey is part of life all over the country, but it’s special in Quebec,” said Daniel Béland, a political scientist who moved to McGill University in Montreal after ten years at the University of Saskatchewan as director of the Institute for the Study. or Canada. “Quebec believes it cannot be seen as a diminishing supply source for hockey players. It is so important to Quebec culture.”

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