"The team created the expectations and now it must live with them. Fewer than fifteen percent of the league's players are French Canadian. Since Lafleur, Perreault and Dionne in the early 1970s, few of them have been superstars. Now there are more teams, more reluctant to trade draft picks, in the market to compete for them. Lafleur must have his heir, the team must win. Ahead may be a tragic irony. Without the strength of the past, the team may face a choice - to win or to be French Canadian." -Ken Dryden, "The Game."
Dryden wrote those words nearly thirty years ago, and one can't read them now without smelling the faint ancient perfume of prophecy about them. The Canadiens had their chance to draft Lafleur's heir in 1980, when the last of Sam Pollock's wheeling and dealing turned up the first overall pick that year. But, instead of Denis Savard, the Canadiens chose Doug Wickenheiser, the kid every scout had ranked number one because of his great size. Some say the current darkness of the Habs' fortunes started back then, but drafting Savard would have only delayed the inevitable. Savard's best days were behind him twenty years ago and since Savard, there have been only two French Canadian superstars in the NHL, both drafted first overall. First overall picks are worth their weight in gold and are rarely, if ever traded, especially when the player available with that pick can save your franchise and win it a Cup as Mario Lemieux did with Pittsburgh and Vincent Lecavalier did with Tampa.
The Canadiens and their fans, though, can't really accept that what Dryden said thirty years ago has come true. The Habs have to decide whether they are going to be French Canadian, or good. Since Lafleur left, they've been trying to be both, and it isn't working. Back in 1990, they traded Chris Chelios for Savard, when Savard's best years were behind him, in an effort to repair the drafting mistake they made ten years earlier. They drafted busts like Jose Charbonneau, Eric Charron and Eric Chouinard in the first round, in an effort to regain the team's lost francophone flavour. They hired one rookie French coach after another, only to fire them and move on to the next in two or three seasons.
Back in the forties and fifties, the Canadiens sponsored junior leagues and they had the advantage of knowing the kids in their own backyard better than anyone. Those players grew up watching the Canadiens win and wanted to be part of it because it was their birthright. As a result of the Candadiens' investment, the players kept coming and there was always a flood of young Quebecers hoping to play for the Habs. It isn't that way anymore. The Canadiens are hardly going to pour money into a junior development system, only to see its fruit go to Phoenix and Carolina once they're draft eligible. Young players might like the Habs as kids, but they go where they're drafted. When they're free agents, they look at the impossible pressure to be the franchise's francophone hero and they sign elsewhere. There aren't many French stars and even fewer French superstars. The teams that have them tend to keep them.
Today, with the lasting images of the glory days growing smaller in the team's rear-view mirror, the pressure to win again AND be French again is growing. Fans want the pride that comes with rooting for hometown boys, and they want the glory of cheering for a great team again. Older generations tell them what the Habs used to be and the younger ones want it too. The expectations grow when people like team president Pierre Boivin talk about the need for the Canadiens to hire French coaches and players.
It's time to put the brakes on that kind of thinking though. It would be wonderful if the team's best players were French Canadian. Nobody's hoping more than me that Louis Leblanc turns out to be a real star in the NHL. But, as Dryden predicted, the Canadiens and their fans have to choose one or the other: good or French. I choose good.
I think choosing French lands you where we are at the moment, with suspect coaching because the guy they hired was headhunted for his language skills. Think about it for a moment. Many knowledgeable fans believe the Jacques Martin system stifles the offensive creativity of a small, fast team and plays to the players' weaknesses rather than their strengths. Would he have been chosen for this job if he spoke only English? I have my doubts about that.
Choosing French means Bob Gainey allegedly tried to trade Tomas Plekanec, Carey Price and a good prospect (presumably PK Subban or Yannick Weber) to Tampa for Lecavalier. Lecavalier's a good player, but his numbers this year are no better than Plekanec's and his contract is a crippling ten-year commitment with a cap hit nearly half a million a year more than the Scott Gomez anchor everyone's crying about now. Gomez was acquired for a guy the Rangers are now trying to dump and a couple of unproven prospects, considerably less than what is supposed to have been offered in the Lecavalier trade. Yet Gomez has put up .82 points per game throughout his career, compared with Lecavalier's .85 PPG. Still, people curse the Gomez contract and long for the Lecavalier one instead, mainly because he's a francophone player.
Choosing French means there's an undercurrent of support for Pierre McGuire to succeed Bob Gainey as general manager. Seriously. Pierre McGuire, whose only qualification for the job seems to be an ability to pass opinions (loudly) about other people's decisions in public. He can, however, do so in both official languages, which seems to be enough for a lot of fans to demand he take Gainey's job. McGuire didn't play in the NHL and has only a half-season of coaching experience. His claim to fame is as a broadcast colour man. He has none of the management skills or business experience the manager of a multi-million dollar enterprise should have. Is anybody in Montreal calling for Bob McKenzie or Murray Wilson to be named general manager? Of course not, because they're not French.
Choosing French means bellyaching every time a French player comes on the market and the Canadiens don't sign him, whether he fills a need on the team or not. It's moaning every time a French player on another team scores a goal, whether he's a well-rounded player or not. It's letting Maxim Lapierre keep a spot on the team and trading Kyle Chipchura, when Lapierre is doing nothing more than Chipchura to contribute to a winning culture and he's been outplayed by rookies like Ryan White when they've been called up. But he's French.
We, and Canadiens management, need to choose to win. That means hiring the best players, coaches and managers, no matter where they're from or what language they speak. Dryden predicted nearly thirty years ago that conditions in the league would eventually force a choice on the Canadiens: be French, or win. He had no idea how right he'd be.