As I watched a group of Asian and black Canadians dressed in Habs sweaters jump for joy at a recent win by the Montreal Canadiens over the Philadelphia Flyers, I reflected on the cosmopolitan nature of modern professional sport teams.
The Habs, which now are into the semi-finals of the NHL playoffs, have become, just like other teams, an intensely international club - something they have in common with symphony orchestras and universities. In our era of globalization, these are some of the fields where frontiers have been abolished.
Universities are relatively limited in the search for talent because their professors must also master the language of the institution, but professional sport teams and symphony orchestras don't require language skills, and they look for the best players, period. And yet, in a fascinating phenomenon of identification, athletes and musicians who come from distant places can be instantly adopted by the host country and quickly become folk heroes.
Last summer, while spending a few days in the Pyrenees of southern France, I came upon a team of rugby players who were practising before a world championship tournament. The team was based in the nearby city of Bayonne. Many among the players hardly spoke French because they came from various countries, and the star of the team was a 6 foot 7 Maori from New Zealand. The same goes for France's national soccer team, known as "Les Bleus": Most players are of Arab and African descent and the most celebrated of them all, in recent years, was the son of Algerian parents, Zinedine Zidane. The French gave him a typically French nickname, Zizou.
Wilfrid Pelletier, in 1940, was the last Quebec-born conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Today, Kent Nagano, the talented Japanese-American conductor of the MSO, has been adopted by Quebeckers as a national icon, while Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Jacques Lacombe, native sons of Quebec, direct orchestras in London, Prague, Berlin or New York. (All renowned maestros actually tour the world as guest conductors.)
There was a time, not so long ago, when most Montreal hockey stars were French Canadians, but since the days of Guy Lafleur, Vincent Damphousse and Patrick Roy, the composition of the team has completely changed. The most acclaimed players of the Habs, this year, are goalie Jaroslav Halak, a Slovak, and Mike Cammalleri, an Ontarian. Of the 25 Habs players, only three are Quebeckers. The others hail from as varied places as Ontario, B.C., Saskatchewan, New Jersey, Maine, New York, Alaska, Belarus, the Czech Republic and Russia.
Every year, when the roster is finalized, some grumblings can be heard in nationalist circles about the lack of French-Canadian players in a club that had for so many years been the proud beacon of French Quebec. These critics say the club owners should make a greater effort to find and recruit home talent. But as soon as the play begins, these grievances are forgotten. When Halak stops the puck, who cares where he comes from? He is "one of us." The Habs may have a cosmopolitan new look, but they remain Quebec's cherished home team, even outside the Montreal area in the thoroughly francophone towns of rural Quebec - and of course, it helps if they're winning.
In Montreal, a city that's grown more and more cosmopolitan over the past decades, the fans now form an extremely diverse bunch. Just as old-stock Quebeckers have adopted the foreign players, the Habs have been enthusiastically adopted by immigrants from all origins - which confirms, if proof were needed, that sport is the biggest force of integration. This is a fact that exists across Canada. A survey published in this paper last week shows hockey acts as a glue that binds new immigrants to Canadian culture. Soccer fields and hockey arenas are the places where new immigrants meet old-stock citizens and share the pure and simple joy of sport. And the Bell Centre, the Habs' home turf, is where they all root in unison, with much gesturing and excitement and loud chants, for the home team.