No one can accuse Quebec Premier François Legault of being out of touch with his own people, or at least with francophone Quebeckers on whom he is counting to re-elect him next year. While many politicians get isolated once in power, Mr. Legault keeps his fingers on the pulse of the Québécois nation like few who came before him.
And what nags at the Québécois consciousness these days – besides the pandemic, inflation, demographic decline and the future of the French language – is the sorry state of hockey in the province that gave the world the likes of Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau, Guy Lafleur, Mario Lemieux and Patrick Roy.
The existential angst surrounding the future of le hockey in Quebec has been inversely proportional to the number of Quebec-born players in the National Hockey League, which has been in steady decline in the past two decades. The frustration is evident among fans who call into sports hotlines and in the mournful monologues of commentators on the Réseau des sports and TVA Sports.
Exhibit A remains the Montreal Canadiens, which last May played the first game in the team’s 112-year history without a single Quebec-born player in its lineup. Mr. Legault said then he found it “unfortunate that there are not more Quebec players with the Canadiens” and called on the team to make “an extra effort” to add francophones to its roster. It did so in a jiffy, drafting David Savard, Mathieu Perreault and Cédric Paquette in the offseason. Not that it changed anything.
Long considered the most storied franchise in NHL history, and once nicknamed Les Glorieux, the Canadiens have been painfully inglorious since last winning the Stanley Cup in 1993. The team did make the final round last season, allowing fans to briefly dream again. No one, however, was under any illusion that the Canadiens deserved to be in the finals and, once they lost, the collective hockey blues set in again. So far this fall, the Sainte-Flanelle (yet another old nickname) is off to its worst season start in almost eight decades, and the team just fired its manager.
Mr. Legault did not wait for Marc Bergevin’s firing to take matters into his own hands, however. On Nov. 18, the Premier announced the creation of a 15-member panel of experts to recommend ways to revive hockey in the province, led by former Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Marc Denis. He also let it be known that he had recently contacted NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to personally express his interest in the return of a professional hockey franchise to Quebec City.
“Hockey is our national sport. It’s part of our identity, our pride and one of our pleasures in life,” Mr. Legault told a news conference held at Montreal’s Bell Centre, adding he hoped his Comité québécois sur le développement du hockey would lead to the sport’s “renaissance” in Quebec.
It was as if Christmas had come early for hockey-mad Quebeckers. Not that they ever needed to be prodded into talking about their obsession, but Mr. Legault’s announcement gave them plenty to chew on and take their minds off other news.
Such as the ongoing coroner’s inquiry into the more than 4,000 COVID-19 deaths that occurred in Quebec long-term care homes during the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020. The inquiry has raised questions about whether Mr. Legault’s government was asleep at the switch and intervened too late to save lives.
Or the labour dispute between the Coalition Avenir Québec government and unionized daycare workers – a series of rotating strikes has left frazzled parents scrambling to find alternatives, and some blame Mr. Legault.
The Premier’s crusade to revive hockey is entirely in keeping with his persona as the “self-proclaimed father of the Quebec nation,” as Québec Solidaire House Leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois aptly put it. Mr. Legault speaks endlessly of his government’s efforts to protect Québécois culture and traditions, whether by strengthening language laws or by prohibiting some public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols. Reviving hockey fits naturally into this lineup.
What is missing from Mr. Legault’s hockey revival committee is any recognition that the face of Quebec is changing. Small-town Quebec, where local minor hockey leagues once served as an endless pipeline of NHL players, is depopulating. And immigrants to Quebec prefer to enroll their children in soccer or basketball, both of which require far less expensive equipment than hockey.
The 15 members of Mr. Legault’s committee are all white Quebeckers, even though the future of hockey in the province depends more than anything on getting minority youth to love the sport. Mr. Denis has insisted his committee aims to be inclusive. But who’s kidding whom? The entire exercise is really just another excuse for Mr. Legault to wrap himself in the Fleur-de-lis.
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