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Hockey: Quebec bemoans decline of homegrown players on Canadiens

Montreal's storied hockey team has sparked a debate about Canadian identity.

Montreal Canadiens
Jaroslav Halak of the Montreal Canadiens makes a save against the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, May 20, 2010. (Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

TORONTO, Canada — Hockey has always been more than just a game in the French-speaking province of Quebec, and the storied Montreal Canadiens have always been more than just a team.

It sounds like a cliche that some might use to describe Boston and the Bruins or Detroit and the Red Wings. But the depth of feeling for the Habs is in a league of its own.

For many Quebecers, the 101 year-old hockey club is the on-ice embodiment of the province’s francophone identity. And when something that significant is involved, it’s only a matter of time before pucks get mixed up with politics.

Some years ago, Canadian writer Rick Salutin wrote a play, "Les Canadiens," that placed the hockey team at the heart of Quebec’s nationalist movement. The play’s first act recreates the 1759 battle of the Plains of Abraham, when England’s army beat France in a field near Quebec City and made the territory an English colony. In the pivotal scene, a dying French soldier tosses his rifle — and his cause — to his son. The son catches what turns out to be a hockey stick.

It’s an exaggeration to describe the home of the Montreal Canadiens in their glory years — the Forum — as the modern setting for Plains of Abraham grudge matches. But for the longest time, it wasn’t that far off the mark.

For decades, the French Canadian majority in Quebec toiled for an English Canadian minority that controlled the province’s economy. It was a different story in the Forum. Led by French Canadian hockey stars — Georges Vezina, Butch Bouchard, Jean Beliveau, Guy Lafleur and Patrick Roy, to name only a few — national pride was restored to the unrivaled tune of 24 Stanley Cups.

French Canadian players were cultural icons, none more so than Maurice “the rocket” Richard. In March 1955, when Richard punched a linesman during a game against the Boston Bruins, underlying cultural tensions exploded. The president of the Nation Hockey League, Clarence Campbell — seen by many as a symbol of the Anglophone elite — sparked a riot by suspending Richard for the playoffs. Fans trashed Montreal’s downtown.

The team always had its share of English Canadian stars, not to mention English Canadian management. But its sense of identity was unambiguous: hockey fans throughout the NHL knew the team as “The Flying Frenchmen.” And this takes us to the latest controversy, which, like so many in Quebec, is hard to imagine happening anywhere else in North America.

The spat was kicked off by Pierre Curzi, an actor turned high-profile member of the provincial legislature with the Parti Quebecois, a party devoted to making Quebec an independent country. (In 1995, while the PQ was in power, it held a referendum that came within a few thousand votes of breaking up Canada. The premier at the time, Jacques Parizeau, showed the ugly side of nationalism by partly blaming the loss on “the ethnic vote” — Quebecers who aren’t, as is often said in the province, of “pure-wool” stock, which means they’re not descendants of France’s original settlers.)

During a mid-September TV interview, Curzi lashed out at the fact that only three francophone Quebecers now play with the Montreal Canadiens. The other 20 or so players are English Canadians, Americans and Europeans. To Curzi, it smelled of a federalist plot — “federalist” being the label given to those who want to keep Canada united.