Well, it seems the Habs' abject futility without Carey Price has finally driven some fans over the edge. As is usual when the team is doing poorly, the cries for the termination of the coach are rising like hurricane winds in August. This time, though, there's a different tone.
Lots of people disliked the return of Michel Therrien when GM Marc Bergevin hired him four years ago. He's never won much in the NHL playoffs, and in his two previous postings he taught his teams to play conservative, low-scoring hockey. It felt at the time of his second hiring in Montreal as though the newly-appointed Bergevin settled for a re-tread because he needed stability behind the bench to make up for his own inexperience. He also needed a French-speaking coach to fulfill his commitment to adding more Francophones to the team. Shortly before announcing Therrien would be his coach, Bergevin had this to say:
"There is no doubt in my mind that we must rely on more Francophones within our organization. We only have one scout in Quebec. I can assure you there will be more than that next season."
Of course, it's a desirable and admirable thing to honour the history of the team and the culture of the province in which it lives. Ideally, the way to do that would be by highlighting home-grown talent on the ice. In the real-world NHL, though, that's not easy to do. The real stars are known, assessed and ranked high in the draft, so if you don't choose in the top ten, you're not likely to acquire them without paying a crippling price. Filling lower roster spots with borderline Francophone players or washed-up stars doesn't really cut it for a team trying to showcase a local player.
Minor hockey registration in Quebec has flatlined, barely maintaining its 94-thousand players a year over the last eight seasons. The pool of players isn't growing and those who make it to the NHL is actually shrinking. Twenty years ago, in 1996, Quebec was second behind Ontario for the number of NHL players produced, with 97. This year, there are only 48 NHLers from La Belle Province. That drops Quebec down to fourth among provinces producing major pro players. It's the fewest number of Francophones in the league since expansion. It's telling that there were more players from Quebec in a twelve-team league than there are now in an NHL of 30 franchises.
One of the few promising young French players, Jonathan Drouin, is on the trading block in Tampa Bay and that's got Canadiens fans slavering to acquire him. It's true he's got ability and was a high draft pick, but he's unproven and the Lightning want a premium for him...particularly because they share the Habs division. If Drouin weren't local, he might not be on the radar, but because he is from Quebec, the temptation to overspend or take a big risk for a French star is there. If Bergevin's not willing to take the chance on a trade like that (and the fear is real he might do it), it's back to the draft. In that case, unless the Canadiens are bad enough or lucky enough to draft high and snag a real Quebecois star, they'll have to make do with Francophone management and coaches for their local content.
That's why the cries to fire Therrien sound different this time around. Sure, the team is playing some bad hockey and their playoff chances are dropping faster than the price of a barrel of crude, but fans aren't just saying "fire him." They know that if Bergevin dumps Therrien out of desperation, the "French" rule will force him to hire a replacement from a tiny pool of available candidates. Turns out fans are sick of it. They feel limiting options for linguistic reasons is handicapping the team. That's why they've launched a petition, in French and English, requesting that Habs management not only dump Therrien, but also that they not limit the search for a replacement to a Francophone.
Of course, there's a perceived assumption that a petition like this means there are no brilliantly qualified French-speaking coaches somewhere, who are waiting to come work for the Habs. That's not quite the point. If there is such a person available, it would be a boon for the Canadiens to hire him (or her.) If there isn't, it's healthier for the team to look at all candidates, regardless of language. That's what these fans are trying to say, and they're not wrong.
More than thirty years ago, Ken Dryden wrote in his brilliant classic, "The Game," that the Habs were at a crossroads.
"Slowly the team is joining the pack," he said, "It must learn to live and to compete like everyone else. Except, unlike everyone else, it must win and the French-Canadian character of the team must not be disturbed. 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 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."
The Habs arrived at the crossroads Dryden saw approaching in 1983 after they won their last Cup a decade later. Instead of choosing a path, the Canadiens have tried to be both winners and French-Canadian, neither one of them very successfully. Since '93, 20 of the league's 30 teams have made the Stanley Cup Finals. The Habs are not among that number.
Do you think Florida is where they are because Dale Tallon insisted on only hiring Florida-born coaches and favouring Florida-born players? Or that Tallon himself was hired because he hails from the Sunshine State? (Actually, in a sort of jolly irony, Tallon's a Quebecker.) Think about that to realize how desperate the Habs have become in what's no longer a league of culturally-based institutions, but cut-throat business. With the Canadian dollar in the basement, it's going to be harder and harder for Geoff Molson to pay the bills for mediocrity. The "French-first" approach will eventually die a natural death if the team is going to survive. It's time to put it out of its misery, and if a fan petition can get that message across, it's a start.