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The French-English divide in hockey

August 19, 2011

The title alone feels like it’s ripping open old wounds, wounds not yet healed. It’s evokes thoughts of the Quebec separatist movement of the 1950s and 1960s, age-old tension between Ontario and Quebec, questions of nationalism and of economic disparity. Language rights, like national rights, often lie at the heart of identity. Hockey has been no different. As a bilingual country, and the world’s leading producing of top-notch hockey talent, Canada, and by default, the NHL, knows acutely just how much language has affected the game.

My motivation though for this post came from tension in the major-junior circuit. In the QMJHL this year alone there have been a couple of smaller-scale controversies. The Q is unique among the CHL in that it includes provinces that are both majority French and English. Quebec and the Maritimes banded together in the name of major junior hockey. There are teams scattered across eastern Canada, and players may just as easily be drafted to a team located in a place that doesn’t speak his native language. Alas, that’s hockey: players cross borders every day to place in foreign places where they’re at a linguistic disadvantage.

But nowhere has the divide been more painful, more pronounced, than between French and English Canadians. I speak as an American on this issue, so forgive my ignorance where it exists. But stigma is still attached to Quebec and the foibles of the French language. Players still have some leeway in where they play, and what’ll they speak there. I think it deserves some exploring.

Back in the early NHL, players were allotted to teams territorially, at least to start their career, which worked well for the Montreal Canadiens, and for Francophone players. Fast-forward to Eric Lindros and the 1991, with his decision to eschew the Quebec Nordiques in favor of heading back to Oshawa and forcing a trade to the Flyers eventually. His decision, to the surprise of no one, rested with the fact he was drafted by a Quebec-based team. He didn’t want to learn French. The Ontarian refused, plain and simple.

And for someone with skill and potential, regardless of how outrageous the demands, accommodations will always be made. And thus they were. But I don’t know that any player in today’s NHL would refuse to report to the Habs. And I don’t know the NHL will ever be pushed into that position again. Most players are honored. Strathroy, Ontario-born Nathan Beaulieu, whose last name was somewhat deceiving, was breathless and tickled pink at the fact the Habs had taken him. And if a team springs up in Quebec City.

I think much of this may have to do with the fact many Americans and Europeans, as well as many Anglo-Canadians, have been playing happily and successfully in Montreal in recent years. Indeed, the winnowing away of Quebecois players on the roster may ring alarm bells to some, but it seems to have generally dispelled any misgivings players or their families might have about joining the team. Saku Koivu, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, PK Subban et al. have demonstrated that donning the CH doesn’t mean you abandon your roots, or that you’ll be challenged by your non-French lineage each day. Indeed, it is the most storied NHL franchise. Perhaps it’s the messaging that’s swayed me, but playing in Montreal, playing in Quebec, is akin to shooting on Georges Vezina in 2011, to playing in the old Forum, even though it’s gone, to playing in the best place in the world. That said, again, I doubt Quebec City will have trouble either. The fact is that with supply and demand what it is, to get an NHL chance is as good as gold. Most players will gladly take that.

And players like Patrice Bergeron, a Quebec City native and QMJHL product, have no trouble at all suiting up for the Bruins. Sure, there’s an osmotic effect at work, as he’s entering a majority language team, and the majority NHL country, but still. Vinny Lecavalier, Marc-Andre Fleury and dozens of other proud Quebecois have risen through the Quebec system and played in Anglophone places. The largely non-Quebecois Habs roster has done the same, and there may be players that have dismissed playing in Montreal we’ll never hear about. But the fact remains a happy cadre of players call Montreal home, and they’re learning French, growing with the culture.

But at lower levels, in the major junior system, this persists. Cole Harbor, NS-native Nathan MacKinnon more or less forced a trade out of Baie Comeau and to Halifax. He is a highly-regarded prospect for the 2013 draft, and was drafted first overall. He stated reasons that involved wanting to explore his options (NCAA) and waited out the storm, until the predictable happened, and he forced a trade. Sure, it’s his prerogative, but he also ripped apart two teams and organizations and shuffled around the lives of several other players simply because he’s entitled to do so. That doesn’t seem fair. And in the end, most agreed language was the dominating factor, along with the relatively weak Drakkar team.

Going the other direction is a curious happening this summer. Halifax Mooseheads’ second overall pick Jonathan Drouin has yet to report to the team. The Quebecois is merely 16, and would like to finish out high school at home, and continue playing for his stacked AAA midget team. His stated reasons related to maturity and schooling, but one can’t help but think there’s a sense spending another year immersed in the home language is what’s at stake.

Quebecois pride hasn’t diminished in the slightest, nor has the prevalence of the French language. Trouble attending school for Anglophone or Francophone players living in opposing provinces will continue to be problematic. The language wars are still alive. They could be slightly less politically-charged today, but their persistence is worth taking note of.

While the NHL may not be plagued with this issue, lower levels could continue to be. As long as the QMJHL continues as a joint-Maritimes-Quebec endeavor, this problem will prevail. Unless, of course, more intensive education of players is looked at. The aim of the QMJHL is development. And for development’s sake, both on and off the ice, players will take the measures needed to ensure success. This is includes simply being able to go buy a coffee and use your native language. Using a tongue not your own is stressful, it is exhausting. And these 16 year-olds are not out of line to have reservations about playing in a place that’s not home for more than one reason.

But if conventional education in both French and English in the provinces continues, and former players, agents, coaches and parents and teams at all levels work together at combatting the fears and spinning the move as a positive, that can only be a good thing. Overcoming adversity instead of staying within one’s comfort zone may be the more valuable gain. There’s a shared and collective sacrifice to playing that should be acknowledged–demanding trades and creating upheaval for reasons like language are simply not enough. Hockey is beloved and played well across the Q’s territories. It should be embraced as such, in a unified way.

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