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Canadiens at centre of duelling sports: Playing hockey and playing politics

Montreal Canadiens' Brian Gionta, left, celebrates his goal with teammate P.K. Subban against the Philadelphia Flyers during third period of Game 3 NHL Eastern Conference final hockey action Thursday, May 20, 2010 in Montreal. A published report in Montreal says forward Brian Gionta will be named the next captain of the Canadiens.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Word that a federal politician is taking French lessons inevitably fuels talk of leadership ambitions. It would appear the same is true of the Montreal Canadiens, the most politically charged of NHL teams.

Speculation was rife on Thursday that U.S.-born winger Brian Gionta, who has been working to learn French, will imminently be named the team's 28th captain, following in the skates of such Quebec-born cultural and sporting icons as Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Jean Béliveau.

Although the days of the Flying Frenchmen are long past, it's the kind of symbolic move that will rankle some segments of the team's fan base.

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Senior members of the National Assembly's Official Opposition Parti Québécois - including leader Pauline Marois - have even gone so far as to publicly attack the team in recent days, saying the Sainte Flanelle has been co-opted into a federalist propaganda organ.

On Thursday, senior officials in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office waded into the fracas, suggesting that "no political party should play wedge politics with the Montreal Canadiens."

"I'm not sure it's a good idea to run against a hockey team, like the Habs, that has more victories than the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois combined," Harper spokesman Dmitri Soudas said in an e-mail.

Mr. Gionta has been studying French fitfully since arriving in Montreal as a free agent in the summer of 2009 - his wife has a personal tutor and their five-year-old son is in an immersion program - and while he finds it difficult to master, he vowed to keep at it.

"We came here, we embraced the culture and we want to experience it, we want to learn it, and we want to be part of it. I don't think it matters if you have a letter on your jersey or not. It's a great culture, we want to be part of it," said the 31-year-old native of Rochester, N.Y., joking that "my son's like my tutor."

If Mr. Gionta is indeed appointed captain - and both he and the team refused to confirm a La Presse report that a decision has been made - he would be just the second American-born player to wear the C in Montreal, after Chris Chelios.

That Mr. Gionta has made an effort to learn Quebec's official language - as have other recent arrivals like Alaska centre Scott Gomez and Ontario-born winger Michael Cammalleri - isn't likely to mollify the likes of the PQ.

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The party's culture critic, well-known former actor Pierre Curzi, got the ball rolling in a recent television interview, where he said it's no accident there is a dwindling number of French-speaking Quebeckers in bleu-blanc-rouge.

"The people who don't wish Quebec to become a country, who don't wish French to flourish, they know very well that you must take over a certain number of symbols of identity," he told the television magazine Les Francs-tireurs, adding "the federal power" has seized control of the Canadiens.

Then Ms. Marois weighed in on Wednesday, and while she stopped short of endorsing Mr. Curzi's line of thinking, said: "I think Quebeckers would like to have more francophones in this team."

The comments were immediately derided by the ruling Liberals - Municipal Affairs Minister Laurent Lessard burst out laughing when reporters informed him of her remarks.

It's no coincidence the escalating rhetoric comes at a time when both provincial and federal politicians are jostling for position in electorally pivotal Quebec City, where municipal and provincial officials are pressing Ottawa to fund a new arena project.

One of the arguments voiced on the province's open-line radio programs - and by opinion-makers - is that the return of NHL hockey to the city would restore the competitive balance of the old Canadiens-Nordiques rivalry and bolster the fortunes of Québécois players.

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It would be, as Mr. Curzi called it, "our team."

The latest denunciations from the PQ are also of a piece with accusations that the Canadiens are steadily growing distant from their traditional fan base - the Habs were seen as a vehicle for francophone ambitions and agent of social change in the 1950s, when the firebrand Mr. Richard was at the height of his form.

The Quebec-born heroes of yore have largely been replaced with Americans, Czechs and English Canadians; only four French-speaking players, one of whom is franco-Ontarian, have a realistic shot of making this year's 23-player roster (the team ended last season with three).

As critics often point out, the last Habs team to win the Stanley Cup, in 1993, had 10 francophone regulars.

The Canadiens are acutely sensitive to the suggestion they are neglecting their roots.

Team president Pierre Boivin pointed out that 17 of the 58 players who will take part in the team's training camp, which opens today, are graduates of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (and that nine of 31 players at the recent rookie camp were Quebec-born).

"There is a very, very high proportion of francophones, of Quebeckers, of people from here in this organization," Mr. Boivin said.

The team's new owners - a consortium led by brewing family scion Geoffrey Molson - made a point of their commitment to favouring homegrown players when they took control of the team last year. At the team's charity golf tournament on Thursday, Mr. Molson refused to be drawn into a riposte to the PQ's assertions.

"We are in the hockey business … I can tell you we don't talk about politics in the dressing room," he said.

He did allow, however, that politics are part and parcel of the Canadiens.

"This team is part of the culture, it's part of our fabric, and it's emotional for people," he said. "Everyone has the right to their opinions, for sure, but I'm definitely not going to be the one who's going to get into a political debate whether we're federalist or not."

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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