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Habs still looking for French-speaking saviour

Claude Giroux #28 of the Philadelphia Flyers skates with the puck against the Florida Panthers on November 13, 2010 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Lou Capozzola/2010 Getty Images

Think of it as Franco-lust.

The simple desire to have another Rocket, another Le Gros Bil, another Flower wearing the red-white-and-blue of Les Glorieux.

It has been years, decades, since it was fair to speak of the Montreal Canadiens as The Flying Frenchmen - they even recently replaced their Finnish captain with a U.S.-born captain - but that is not to say the lust for a homegrown, French-speaking superstar has subsided.

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Just watch, this fine fall day, as the bus carrying the Philadelphia Flyers pulls into the loading dock of the Bell Centre. Feel the heat of the camera lights and watch the scrambling as a slight young man with curling hair and a peach mustache descends into a hockey climate so intense pucks have been known to shrivel at the mere thought of being dropped here.

He is Claude Giroux, a 22-year-old from the distant Northern Ontario town of Hearst - "Moose Capital of Canada" - and even if his birthplace is not quite perfect his first language is, as is his résumé.

A sensation in the Flyers' run to the Stanley Cup final last spring, Giroux is on the cusp of becoming what his coach Peter Laviolette calls "an elite NHLer." A fabulous two-way player, he is also a gifted scorer, his 10 goals and 11 assists heading into Tuesday's match against the Montreal Canadiens good enough for seventh place: behind two Anglo-Canadians (Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby), two Russians (Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin) and two Swedes (the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik).

He is exactly the sort of face and voice the Montreal fans would love, even though the team is faring more than adequately under their American captain, Brian Gionta, and leading scorers Tomas Plekanec, from the Czech Republic, and Andrei Kostitsyn, from Belarus.

Wearing a Habs jersey was something Giroux always dreamed of. "It was always my team growing up," he says. "To be able to play against them is something special."

But to play for them - that would have been even more special. It could easily have happened. Four years ago in Vancouver, Giroux was projected to go in the first round of the NHL entry draft in which the likes of Jordan Staal (second overall) and Jonathan Toews (third overall) went to teams, Pittsburgh and Chicago, which would soon after hoist the Stanley Cup.

Giroux sat thinking how sweet it would be to go to Montreal, only to have the Canadiens select David Fischer 20th overall. Fischer never signed with nor did he play for the team. With the 22nd pick, Philadelphia chose Giroux.

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"I was just happy getting drafted in the first found," he says.

There was a time, however, when Montreal had automatic claim to the top two players in Quebec, guaranteeing the continuation of Flying Frenchmen. When that ended, they engineered trades to ensure they could claim such top picks as Guy Lafleur, the Flower.

In recent years, however, the team has failed to draft a francophone superstar and failed, as well, to attract the sort of homegrown star who could scratch that great itch. Daniel Brière, Giroux's teammate on the Flyers, spurned Montreal three years ago when the free agent signed an eight-year $52-million deal with the Flyers. He is booed regularly whenever he touches the puck in Quebec.

The closest Montreal came to that local saviour was Vincent Lecavalier, who twice was convinced he'd been traded to Montreal, only to have the deals fall through. Lecavalier signed, instead, an extension with Tampa Bay that pays him $10-million a season and runs through to 2019-20. Given that Lecavalier's production has fallen off and he is currently out following surgery to his right hand. Montreal, it turns out, is fortunate the deals collapsed.

It is widely believed that both Brière and Lecavalier were, in fact, relieved not to have to enter such a cauldron of expectation.

Still, hopes never die. The desire - however unrealistic in today's hockey world - of Quebec one day reliving the glories of Lafleur and Béliveau and Richard were given a boost in recent months as the NHL showed a new willingness to entertain thoughts of re-establishing a team in Quebec City.

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And it rose in an unexpected matter last week when Hockey Quebec was given the green light to put together its own team to compete in next summer's Quebec Cup. Team Quebec will have status equal to the teams from Italy, France and Switzerland that had been invited to play in the proposed competition.

The plan - despite the various hurdles to be overcome - has been greeted enthusiastically in the province, particularly by sovereigntists who regarded the late, lamented Quebec Nordiques with their Fleur-de-Lys colours as a political force as much as a hockey team.

But it is also being embraced by players, such as Philadelphia's Brière, a native of Gatineau.

"It's great for French-Canadians and for the people of Quebec," he says. "It's also a chance for players to play in those tournaments - I have, and the experience is great.

"I think it's cool."

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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