There was a time when Quebec didn’t just provide a feeder system for Canada’s world junior goalies, Quebec provided a feeder system to everyone in the world for goalies. It was the Patrick Roy influence, remember?
Quirky and charismatic, Roy came out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the mid-1980s, made an immediate splash by leading the 1986 Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup, and influenced a generation of youngsters behind him.
Suddenly it was cool to be a goalie in Quebec. The best athletes gravitated to the position, and although Roy didn’t have a huge influence on Martin Brodeur, who was well on his way by then, he did on the players who came next. Jean-Sébastien Giguère, now with the Colorado Avalanche, had a memorable picture taken of Roy wearing Montreal colours, when Giguère was about 10. It wasn’t just Roy or Brodeur or Giguère, either.
By 2001, more than half the teams in the NHL had either a starter or a backup from Quebec. Beyond Roy, Brodeur and Giguère, there was Martin Biron, Manny Legace, Patrick Lalime, Manny Fernandez, Felix Potvin, Stéphane Fiset, Marc Denis, Mathieu Garon, Jose Theodore, Eric Fichaud, Jocelyn Thibault, Jean-Sébastien Aubin and, oh yes, a young Roberto Luongo, just breaking in with the Florida Panthers.
But then, as quickly as it opened, the Quebec goalie pipeline seemed to dry up. Pittsburgh’s Marc-André Fleury was just about the last one in the door, although there is still hope that Jonathan Bernier becomes a star in Los Angeles. But nowadays, in the NHL, it is Finland producing a disproportionate share of the top goaltenders, followed closely by the United States. Canada may still lead the way at developing position players, but in goal, the rest of the world has caught up, and in many places, even surpassed Canada.
So what happened? Is it cyclical, or more than that?
“It’s funny,” said former NHL goaltender Ron Tugnutt, goaltending coach for Canada’s world junior team. “I’ve done a little research because everybody asks, ‘Where have all the good Canadian goalies gone?’ I’ve looked at our CHL leagues and there are 25 non-Canadian goalies playing in our leagues, and that scares me. Maybe the problem right now is there are 25 Canadian kids not playing [in the CHL] Maybe three of them would have turned out to be NHL goalies, but they didn’t get a chance to step up to the plate.”
Canada got a look at one of the players Tugnutt alluded to during Monday’s first exhibition game, when Christopher Gibson of Finland, who plays for the QMJHL’s Chicoutimi Saguenéens, had a strong outing and is considered one of the top prospects outside the NHL.
Should goaltenders be excluded from major junior leagues’ import draft to give more Canadians a chance to start?
“Obviously, I’d like that,” Tugnutt said. “Of all the positions, we’ve lost the last two gold medals to goalies who’ve played in our CHL leagues and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘We’re bringing them over here and making them better.’ We’ve got to stop doing that.
“I don’t know if I’m going to get in trouble for saying that, but that’s what I believe.”
Roy’s influence was particularly felt by 1995, when three goalies from Quebec – Giguère, Biron and Denis – were all drafted in the first round, 13th, 16th and 25th, respectively. All were born in 1978 and were eight when Roy won his first Stanley Cup, an impressionable age and right around the time a player has to commit to playing goal. And Fleury, part of the next generation, was eight when Roy won his second Stanley Cup for Montreal, in 1993.
At the moment, there are nine goalies from Quebec in the NHL and six of them are 30 or older.
According to figures first reported by Réseau des sports, between 1996 and 2004, out of 60 world junior games, 56 were played by goaltenders from Quebec. Since 2005, only five games out of 44 have been played by Quebec goalies – Olivier Roy had three and Bernier two.
Louis Domingue, who coincidentally plays for the team Roy owns, manages and coaches, the Quebec Remparts, was a candidate for this year’s world junior team, but lost out to Mark Visentin (Niagara IceDogs) and Scott Wedgewood (Plymouth Whalers), from Hamilton and Toronto, respectively. Visentin and Wedgewood will split the final two exhibition games for Canada – Thursday in Red Deer, Alta., and Friday in Edmonton – before the tournament opens on Boxing Day with a match against Finland. Visentin vs. Gibson is the likely matchup between the pipes. Kevin Prendergast, head scout for Hockey Canada’s national teams, says he believes in the Roy effect, but suggests it has waned in recent years.
Roy retired following the 2002-03 season after 19 years in the NHL. He finished with more wins (551) than any NHL goalie, a mark Brodeur has since surpassed.
“At the point where Patrick Roy and Marty Brodeur were the two best goalies in the National Hockey League, the kids in Quebec, all the best athletes, wanted to be goalies,” Prendergast said. “What’s happened now is, they’ve sort of faded off and now the best athletes are going back to being centres and defencemen.”
There is hope on the horizon in the person of François Tremblay, a 17-year-old, draft-eligible goalie from the Val-d’Or Foreurs who, in his rookie QMJHL season, is drawing comparisons to the teenage Luongo. Maybe the echo of the Patrick Roy goalie boom is just around the corner.