The Parti Québécois's latest language-related objection - not enough francophones on the Montreal Canadiens - no doubt pulls at the heartstrings of many Quebeckers; what would the Canadiens be, after all, without the names Guy Lafleur, Jean Béliveau or Patrick Roy?
But then again, what would they be without Toe Blake, Ken Dryden or Saku Koivu? In 2010, hockey is a global game, and the origins of Canadiens players matter less than ability. Surely the goal for Montreal is to win the Stanley Cup, not pander to nativist mentality, and it is cynical of the PQ to play politics on this issue. Especially since, more recently, the team has served as a force of reconciliation between English and French-speaking Canadians.
It's true that linguistic tensions have played a role in the Habs' history, as the riots following the 1955 suspension of Maurice Richard by NHL commissioner Clarence Campbell, an anglophone, demonstrated. When the NHL had only six teams, special draft rules and canny scouting made it easier for French Canada's team to amass French-Canadian stars.
The divide, though, has withered. The same national anthem that would be booed at Expos baseball games at Montreal's Olympic Stadium was cheered when belted out by Roger Doucet at Habs games at the old Forum. Or consider Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater. It is, on its face, about the special devotion the Canadiens had in what could then be called "French-Canadian society." But as a children's book, it has transcended its milieu, being read in translation (or as an elementary French text) by hundreds of thousands of English-speaking children.
Today, players from Europe and the U.S. are commonplace in the NHL, and are just as deserving of fan devotion. Some English-speaking Habs players have reached out to French-speaking Quebeckers, by learning French and speaking it with fans and the media. The best example is Peterborough, Ont.'s Bob Gainey, the team's long-serving captain and general manager. Similar efforts by Brian Gionta, the American-born forward reportedly now being considered for the captain's jersey, should therefore be applauded.
Some fans may want the Habs to make a greater play for French-speaking players - but only if it gets them to closer to the Stanley Cup. To insist on a kind of quota of francophone players is to ignore the reality of professional hockey today, and to forget who the Habs are, and what they've become.
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