Monday, February 1, 2010

Prescience

"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.

19 comments:

kyleroussel said...

It's a question many of us have been asking a long time, and it's clear that the Canadiens do not want to make a decision either way. They can't. With 21000 GMs in the stands every night, they can't dare ice a poor team.

On the other hand, a team with no francophones would be unthinkable. Can you imagine the noise that would emanate from panel shows like L'Antichambre and Attaque a Cinq? Newspapers would call for rioting at the Bell Center. It would literally be pandemonium. I'm actually a little surprised that crying hasn't reached a fever pitch already, what with Darche, Lapierre and Bergeron being the only Quebecers left. And they are anything but franchise cornerstones. Pouliot and Martin are both French, but the panelists have already dismissed them as not real Francophones (or maybe they've changed their opinion since Pouliot actually appears to be a player).

As long as Boivin keeps telling Gainey that bilingualism is a priority, we will always be cut off from the vast majority of coaching talent, not to mention managerial talent.

The Molsons have to decide for themselves what's important to them. Are they committed to having a good team, a team the locals can relate to, or are they going to be fooled in to believing that they can have their cake and eat it too?

As for McGuire, the one reason why I am not opposed to his hiring is because he has done so much talking, that if he did not perform as an aggressive GM, he'd lose all credibility. He would not be able to be the quiet, pensive GM that Gainey is. Look at Milbury, he was aggressive, yet still finds himself with a job...but find me one hockey fan that takes what he says seriously. With McGuire, he would have to put his money where his mouth is. He acts like he has all the answers. Maybe it would not be so bad to let him try his hand at this? What is the worst that can happen? He takes a mediocre team, and either:

1- Improves it. High fives all around,
2- Keeps it trundling along in mediocrity. Booo!
3- Weakens it. BOOOOOOO! But in this case, he gets fired, and a new GM takes over with a mandate to rebuild.

So I don't believe that support for McGuire means that you choose a French team. I want a good team as much as anyone.

My support of McGuire is separate from Marinaro's support. That the Team990 seems to fully support him is not surprising. He is a friend and ally to them. It also reeks of scheming on their part, as they would no doubt use their leverage as his friend (afterall, he Melnick are almost best friends) to try and become the Habs flagship station. I think that would be their endgame. But that's another story for another day.

Perhaps Dryden would like to step in as President and decide one way or the other which direction this franchise should take?

Raphaël said...

Speaking strictly hockey-wise you make perfect sense. It is true that during the last decade the french "factor" has been more of a handicap than a asset.

That said, we cannot simply look at the situation from a hockey point of vue. I don't want to engage in a flame war so I'll leave it at that, but I'll just add that altought many fans would like a winning team, alot are mearly satisfied to see Québécois players have sucess at something that goes beyond our borders.

Is this a sad thing? Maybe.
Is this a bad thing? dunno.

Anonymous said...

Ouiiiiiii! Win = gagner, no matter how you look at it.

Denis Pelletier

J.T. said...

@kyle: Problem is, they ARE icing a poor team right now. I believe the biggest problem is with injuries, but competing with that is a very poor collection of bottom six forwards. Part of the reason for that is because the team is giving bottom-six positions to francophone players when they can't find any top-six guys from Quebec. There's no way Lapierre was markedly better than Chipchura this year, but Chipchura got traded because the French guy had to be a keeper. There are probably English-speaking guys around the league who would have made better bottom six forwards than Lapierre, Laraque or Bergeron. I'm not sure Darche is better than White. But these guys get jobs because the TV pundits might get mad if they don't have any French guys to talk to. Ridiculous way to build a team. What once was the Canadiens' identiy and glory has become a handicap. Rather than fish the ocean like everybody else, they're fishing their own private pool after all the big ones have been taken by others. Then they wonder why they go hungry.

My point on McGuire is the only reason he's even being talked about is because he speaks French. If I was going to take anybody from TSN, it'd be McKenzie, but nobody ever says HE should be a GM. Hiring a guy just because he never shuts up in either official language? Again, ridiculous.

Olivier said...

Last september, watching the Molsons go at it, I thought this whole "not enough french on the team" story would be dead by now and I think it is, indeed, dead.

I mean, some people on both sides of the fences will fret a little from time to time ("Not enough french superstars!", "choosing french condemns us to mediocrity!"), but the debate died the day the Molsons took the helm. It always was, and whenever it comes back always will be a matter of ownership and marketing. The Molsons don't have the Gilett era tone-deafness to whatever angst the french talking heads can generate about the language issue.

It'll blow over by thursday.

Patrick said...

I was born in Québec City, and I'm clearly a Québécois, and a French speaking one. Yet, I consider that French is best enjoyed in books than on a hockey rink. Come on. Enough with that 1930s BS.

I mean, if we were in the 1960s, 1970s, I would understand, but now there are 29 teams to rival with. And now, there is less and less good French speaking players on the market. Hum, and as for the lame argument that it's better to have French player in Montréal, because they want to win for the city, well it's also BS: how many people from Orange County had the Ducks when they won the cup? Carolina? Detroit? Pittsburgh?

I'd suggest people to read more Miron and Ducharme, and expect just the best on the ice, regardless of language. Same goes for Management.

Denise T. said...

Winning and being French are not diametrically opposed. The market in Quebec, in Montreal, like all markets, should, to some degree, cater to the market that supports it.

Those involved in communicating to the media and fans, like managers and coaches need to speak French in the province of Quebec, period. It's a bonus if the players also make the effort. Speaking the language of the region is necessary and a respectable representation of Francophone players on the team is not evil, but part and parcel of the package that the market supports, win or lose.

With all due respect, JT, you raise some interesting points and always provide an intelligent and interesting read.

Go Habs, go!

DB said...

Winning is more important than being French, but the two are not mutually exclusive. The question then becomes how does the team focus on winning while projecting a French image that satisfies most of its fans? Possible steps are:

1 More appearances by former players, drafted Q players, and French speaking management on French TV and radio shows.

2 Marketing that emphasizes the team's history.

3 Picking a French player over a non-French player only if the non-French player is no better than the French player.

4 Increasing the scouting staff that watches the Q and making this staff available to the media.

5 Regular media releases on French propects. They should do the same for non-french propects.

6 Use social networking sites to let some of the French players and staff "talk" to the fans. Have staff that would help non-french fan favourite players, like Cammy and Subban next year, use these sites in French.

7 Pair up current players with french former stars at team events.

Projecting a French image should be the job of the President. Winning should be the job of the GM, coach and players.

A couple of other comments:

1 Lapierre was not kept over Chipchura because he is french. Lapierre showed last year that he can be a good 3rd line centre (I can't explain his problem this year); Chipchura has shown hockey smarts, but has never produced at the NHL level. Lapierre is also a much better skater than Chipchura.

2 Bergeron was signed as an emergency fill-in for Markov; being French was a bonus. If the Habs resign him then I would agree it's because he is french.

3 You forgot about Ray Bourque when listing the french superstars the Habs missed out on getting.

Joel-Gh. said...

From my point of view — the one of a French Canadian — there is a profound misunderstanding of the situation in your post. And it goes on and on for years, everywhere. Without ever being resolved from any side. And that is to bad.

I am a "nationalist" not because I think it is the best way, but because I think it is the only way... after living 8 years in Ontario and 4 years in the NWT. After hearing comments like the one I just read...

I just gave up !

French Canadians LOVED Kovalev. His mother was not Tremblay. They simply LOVE Plakanec and Halak and Markov and Gainey and Robinson and the Little Viking. And their father's name is not Leblanc. The identification process is not a "basic" "your French - I like you" and "you are not - I reject you".

It is not difficult to understand the French Canadians regarding hockey. They like honest effort (work ethic to speak like Martin) and beautiful plays. Whether individual or collective. Work and talent.

And one without the other. A team composed with hard working guys, with constant effort would be very appreciated. Presently, FC love Cammellari and Gionta — an Ontarian and an American — because, first and foremost, they WORK hard.

Add to a hard working team few talented guys, good collective plays and you will have it all. That's it ! They can be Russians : if they work hard, they will be appreciated. They can be Ontarians, Brits-colombians, Americans, Italians : we don't CARE... if you work hard, if you play with all your heart, if we see nice plays, you will be appreciated.

That's it ! That is really it. This is why we had a love-hate relationship with Kovalev. With a little more effort, he would have been a god in Montreal. Nothing less. He settled for less. CF loved him anyway, but were regularly unsatisfied with his play. Not because he was Russian, but because he didn't work hard, night after night.

The other point is very simple : at equal talent, why not from La Belle Province. Why not ?...

The New Yorkers would have liked to have a local player. The Maple Leafs would have loved to have Cammalleri. Were they proud of Crosby when he played in Rimouski ? Are they French speaking ?

The French Canadians really LOVE the Molsons... The FC are very PROUD that the CH owners are from Montreal. English Montreal.

The proximity factor IS important.

What is the problem, then ?

The problem is : 70-80 % of your fan base, of the buyers, and consummers are French speaking.

On the other hand, the players live here, in Québec, for 3, 4 or 7 years, and they are not able to say : "Bonjour, mon nom est Andreï or Tim or Constantine".

There is a lot of sadness in all that question. Your post witnesses clearly that whenever Respect for the French majority is demanded — and would be normal in an other country — , here it is considered a "luxury". Optional. Irrelevant.

The word of Dryden is seductive at first sight. It puts words on an ongoing misunderstanding. It represents it well. The matter is NOT

"To win OR to be FC", but

"To win AND to be respectful of you fans"

The FC majority WOULD NOT settle for a FC bunch of loosers. NO WAY !

The language issue is part of the respect, but hard work too.

Millionaire hockey players without heart are not welcome here. That is the bottom of it. French, English or Russians.

From my point of view.

Anonymous said...

Who in his right mind can claim that Jacques Martin's mutterings can be consider French ?

There have been a lot more very good Quebec born players than Lemieux and Lecavalier, in the last 30 years. Fleury was a #1 pick and so was Pierre Turgeon. Plus an exhaustive list of others that were not picked amongst the first 10, including Tanguay, Brodeur, Patrice Bergeron, Jean Marc Bouchard and so many others.

The first one that comes to mind is David Perron. The current dada of the Canadiens is picking American born players. Before that, it was Western beef. Before that, (when we won cups) the recipe was that at least half the players had to be born in Quebec and also live in Quebec which meant a lot of questions and hassles when the Canadiens didn't win.

Now, who the hell is going to hassle Markov in Russia, Koivu in Finland Price in Western Canada and Max Pacioretty somewhere in Smalltown USA ?

I would like to know why the few hundreds fans from outside of La Belle Province find it so difficult to accept the fact that the team they chose to cheer for is located in Montreal. If cheering for a team that has a home in the second French city in the world, is not fully satisfying to you, why don't you pick a team from any of the 29 other cities, in the NHL ?

Montreal does not have a team in the NFL so I chose the Patriots, not because of their name or what they represent but simply because I like what I see on the field.

Why does politic has to take over every freaking sport blog ?

Anonymous said...

I think that a large part of the argument for having more local boys on the team is about the higher level of pride and dedication they might play with...
I don't like Rejean Tremblay (I call him "Mr. 1st person"), but I can't help but feel, like he does, that when players become more than mercenaries (or PME's), they play harder. But that doesn't mean thay have to be french...this is MONTREAL's team, and this city is not 100% french.
Manu

J.T. said...

@Joel: Listen, I know the majority of Habs fans...French-speaking AND English-speaking...want good hockey. We ALL love hard work and great plays, because that's what good hockey IS. But the reality of hockey in Montreal is that you can have a player like Saku Koivu, who worked harder than anyone, fought through adversity and made every winger he played with better, yet is still regularly criticized for not speaking French. The sad thing is, Koivu CAN speak French, but was reluctant to do so because he knew his imperfect grasp of the language would be picked apart publicly. Of course, the criticism of him was in large part because he was captain. But, if hockey fans really want what's best for the team, why would they care whether the captain speaks French or not? I also know this is unimportant to many, many fans who, like yourself, just want to see the team win. My post wasn't about you or the thousands like you. It was about the critics who put such pressure on the team to be French, even if the players and managers who fill the language requirement are the wrong ones for the team, that management caves and hires them anyway.

The point I'm making is that it would be wonderful to have a French star on the team...and a French supporting cast and a French coach. Not just because of a need to address the masses in their mother tongue (especially because I believe most Montrealers speak both English AND French) but because every team likes to have hometown boys playing for it. And it would be great to see the Canadiens revive that historical identity again. But I think language can no longer be a deciding factor in choosing who will fill important roles on the team. I think Gainey, who's from the last glorious dynasty that featured great French players, is trying too hard to recreate it. I wonder whether he would have hired Jacques Martin if he were unilingual? Or traded high draft picks for Alex Tanguay if he weren't from Quebec? Maybe he would have. But I worry that hockey decisions at the management level are being made because of language, and that's where the team goes wrong.

J.T. said...

@Joel: I got your comment in response to mine, but can't edit it before publishing. So as you had included a "do not publish" request, I have to decline to publish the whole thing. However, yes, I do appreciate that most fans loved Koivu. Unfortunately, the people who help create views of the team publicly, on the radio and on television, and online, used Koivu's lack of fluency in French to belittle him as a person and captain.

I guess that's what it all comes down to for me. I'm really tired of the media's creation of an artificial division between French and English, both on the team and within the ranks of fans. We all want the same things...we want a winning team with a proud local identity. All the rest is irrelevant. I'm sick of disgruntled politicians and pundits trying to make language a divisive issue, and putting so much pressure on team management that they fall for it. I'm sick of having "token" francophones on the team instead of really good French-speaking players, just so they can say there are "X" number of francophones in the lineup. Bring me Maxime Talbot for the third line and I'm happy. Give me Georges Laraque and I'm not. It has to do with quality, not ethnicity. That should be the only consideration in choosing a team.

Jean-Vincent said...

Nice try, J.T., but I think you're barking up the wrong tree -- The Habs gave up a long time ago on the idea of being a French-Canadian club, much like the Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Liga is Basque, for example. Especially since Gainey the pragmatist has been G.M. I don't think there's ever been so few French-Canadians on the team and look at who we let go last year -- Bouillon, Dandenault, Bégin, Huet, Brisebois, etc.

This being said, a few points:

- Not being an exclusively French-Canadian club doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing a better job of scouting in our own backyard.

The last few years, especially under Trevor Timmins, we've been mainly drafting American prospects and NCAA players. Fine. I can see the rationale in that -- More time to develop them, smarter players, better athletes and persons, etc.

Still, the province of Quebec remains a hockey hotbed with a LOT of players and many good ones which we seem to make a habit of passing up on -- Claude Giroux, Kris Letang, Alex Burrows, Maxime Talbot, Simon Gagné, Martin St-Louis, et al.

What's wrong with checking out the local market and signing players who'll want to bust their guts for the club they grew up admiring, à la Steve Bégin?

- The Saku Koivu issue, which anglophone reporters seem to bring up every few weeks or so to underline the hardship of being a unlingual anglo player on our team.

If Saku had spoken a few words of broken French, people would have been delighted and that would've been the end of that. But after ten years of being CAPTAIN of the main professional sports team in a francophone market, I think it's a mark of disrespect not to be able to adress fans in their own language. Or stupidity. Period.

Now, I've lived in Europe for twenty-odd years and strangely enough, football players here, when they get transferred -- and as you well know, they get transferred a LOT -- learn to speak the language of the country where they go to. The French players learn Italian when they get shipped to Rome and the Dutch players learn Spanish when they get transferred to Barcelona. So they can talk to their fellow players, reporters, fans, coaching staff.

Makes sense, no?

Why can't it be the same when you land in Montreal (or possibly, eventually, one hopes, Quebec city)? Are soccer players that much smarter than hockey players?

Mmmh, it may be best not answer that last question.

- Maxime Lapierre was ket over Kyle Chipchura for one reason only -- He can skate like the wind. No knock on Kyle, but he's too slow for a fast team. Skating's always been a part of the Habs' mystique and hopefully, that's one thing that'll never change.

Maxime is having a bad season. He's young, he's impressionable, he's let it all get to his head. Let's just hope he has the mental fortitude to bounce back.

Look at Guillaume or Pouliot, they bounced back in a big way!

- Now, what's got me worried is that French-Canadian players DON'T want to play here anymore. Vincent Lecavalier, Daniel Brière, Latendresse, Luongo, Fleury, so many that have said they'd rather play elsewhere. Now that's worrisome. What kind of an image is our club acquiring if even home-grown talent, after having watched the team on TV their whole lives, doesn't want to play here?

There -- Thanks for taking the time to write your blog, it's always a great read, very funny, and you've got a great mind for hockey. As a matter of fact, you're downright obsessed!

How do you find the time?

Cheers,

JVF

Anonymous said...

I fail to understand why English speaking people seem to think that French Canadian people didn't like Koivu. Saku was idolized by everyone, becaause he always gave everything he had to give. When he came back from cancer, was the Bell Center 21273 seats filled with English speaking fans ? What about all these yearly Yum Yum practices with 21273 fans cheering mostly Koivu.

Koivu made the BIG mistake of not playing the Rusty Staub/Gary Carter card. Learn 50 words of French repeat them all the time and then sign big publicity contracts to appear on local TV. He took the other road and a few journalists happened to mention it a few times. That's all.

The big deal was made by the Montreal English media who created a frenzy every time someone had the "audacity" to mention it.

It's as if the French media would conclude that all English speaking people are anti-THIS or anti-THAT because they watched Don Cherry on HNIC.

The rest is bull....

Paul B. said...

Your writing as well as your passion for the CH are absolutely amazing. I don't always agree with you (particularly with this post) but I always enjoy reading your stuff.

Shan said...

I think there's a huge discrepancy between what the people think and what the French media say. We listen way too much to a few old blowhards and many French Canadian people see them as fossils and poor representatives of their beliefs.

If we put together a winning team, French or not, yes there'd be complaints from those who wish to complain, but it'd be much easier to ignore them.

Anonymous said...

@Patrick

I am also Québécois (pas de Québec par contre!) and I totally agree with you. We are (or should be) passed the French language.

It is clear to me that it will never happen again. Listen, the legitimate French Superstars in the league DO NOT want to sign with Montréal. Period. Why must some fans (and media) linger on about this. I don't care who is the player, I see the crest on the chest.

E said...

here's the thing i always come back to: there are 29 other franchises in the nhl who have no particular concern for language or origin in their choice of players, yet many of them still manage to be just as mediocre as the canadiens year-to-year. you could ask their gms, their coaches, their owners, and they'd tell you they were just trying to get the best person available, period. and despite all that honest effort and lack of ethno-linguistic concern, those teams still blow.

i don't think what little remains of the canadiens' predilection for french players/coaches/managers is the difference between winning and losing; had they tossed out the whole language issue a decade ago, it's still pretty likely they'd be exactly where they are now (or so near as hardly matters). yes, better to win as an anglophone team than lose as a francophone one (and most of the nationalistic quebecois habs fans would probably agree with that), but if it's a choice between losing in french and losing in english- well, what's the thing that makes us special, in this post-dynasty age?