The epidemic of head injuries and concussions in the game was front and centre Saturday at the Molson Export Quebec Hockey Summit.
The continuing uncertainty surrounding Sidney Crosby's return from a head injury loomed large as discussions were held on ways to improve the game throughout the province during the two-day event at the Bell Centre organized by Hockey Canada, Hockey Quebec, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Montreal Canadiens.
Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier said that the priority always has to be the health of the person, rather than the ramifications of any player's absence from the lineup.
“Everyone wants to get those types of hits out of the game and not just because we want to get Mr. Crosby back on the ice,” Gauthier said. “We obviously hope for that, but it's for every player, and not just for them as hockey players but more importantly as people because the consequences can be severe and affect them for the rest of their lives.
“There are kids who suffer two or three concussions in a year and are pushed to keep playing. I can tell you that if one of my sons gets a concussion, his season is over.”
Hall of Fame left wing Luc Robitaille was among the panelists.
“The more people get together and talk, sooner or later you're going to come to some kind of conclusion,” said Robitaille, who is now president of the Los Angeles Kings. “I love the game and I think any opportunity we have to help the growth of the game, we should always participate. I never forgot where I came from.”
Tampa Bay assistant coach Martin Raymond, AHL head coaches Clement Jodoin and Benoit Groulx, former NHL goalie Marc Denis and Daniele Sauvageau, head coach of the 2002 national women's team which won Olympic gold in Salt Lake City, also took part in Saturday's full-day session.
“We had an extraordinary day filled with really positive content and now we're going to take the time to analyse it and decide how best to use it,” QMJHL president Gilles Courteau said.
Philadelphia forward Maxime Talbot and Montreal coach Jacques Martin participated in hot stove sessions on Friday night.
“This is really big for a regional summit,” Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said. “There was good information there, so hopefully talking to us a year from now you'll see some really good steps coming out of this.”
Jodoin, who rejoined the Canadiens' organization to coach their AHL affiliate in Hamilton, dismissed any concerns about Quebec hockey facing a language bias.
“For me, there's no language. We're talking about hockey,” Jodoin said. “In my career, if I had been frustrated about everything because I'm French, I wouldn't be here. Stop looking for excuses. Play, compete, perform. If you're not performing, you're not in a position to talk.
“Our national teams have been performing. It didn't matter if we had two, three or four French Canadians. We shouldn't talk about French Canadian, we should talk about talent. We have some talent but we have to develop more players by having a plan. What's our plan? Start with a plan.”
Somewhere in that plan the province's hockey minds are going to want to address defence. The dearth of NHL defencemen developed in Quebec was one of the more the intriguing issues raised Saturday.
While Quebec continues to produce talented offensive stars such as Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Patrice Bergeron, Daniel Briere and Claude Giroux, both the quality and quantity of NHL defencemen developed in la Belle Province have been in short supply for some time.
Blair Mackasey, the Minnesota Wild's director of pro scouting, believes that it is not a question of anything cyclical.
“I really think it's minor hockey,” said Mackasey, a native Montrealer and former Hockey Canada director of player personnel. “I think this is the route we're going and we want to produce skill. For people in Quebec it's skill, skill, skill, but defence is also a skill. It's not just scoring goals or speed, the ability to contain a man one-on-one or poke check a man or stick check a man, that's as much a skill as any offensive skills. But I just don't think we pay enough attention.”
Tampa Bay has fairly cornered the market on Quebec blue-liners with the trio of Bruno Gervais, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Mathieu Roy. San Jose has a pair in Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers, as does Pittsburgh with Kris Letang and Alexandre Picard.
The other Quebec defencemen with NHL experience are Anaheim's Francois Beauchemin, Dallas' Stephane Robidas, Buffalo's Marc-Andre Gragnani, Minnesota's Marco Scandella, Vancouver's Yann Sauve, and New Jersey's Maxim Noreau.
Courteau acknowledged that the numbers don't lie.
“I agree with some of the comments that we need to work on improving our situation,” Courteau said. “Right now we should have a couple of good defensive defencemen because our games don't all finish 10-9 or 6-5, but there's always room for improvement.”
Mackasey believes that keeping the puck out of the net needs to be as big a point of pride as putting it in.
“I think that kids in Ontario and in the West tend to relish more the role of being a defenceman,” Mackasey said.” I think people appreciate more of what they do and the aspect of not only scoring goals but stopping goals. I don't think kids that play that kind of game here in Quebec are rewarded enough. I don't think they get the attention and when you don't get the attention, you lose the motivation.”
And once that desire to play organized hockey wanes, those bigger, slower kids who Mackasey says are the ones who find themselves plugged into the defenceman's role in Quebec are readily lured to an increasingly popular alternative.
“Yeah, instead of starting hockey in August, the big 12-, 13-, 14-year-old kids are playing football from July until November and saying to heck with hockey,” he said.