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.
“The people who are federalists and the people who don’t wish Quebec to become a country, who don’t wish French to flourish, they know very well that you must take over a certain number of symbols of identity. And me, I believe there’s been a taking possession by the federal power over the Canadiens club,” Curzi huffed.
Curzi’s boss, PQ leader Pauline Marois, who could become the next premier of the province, downplayed the idea of a plot. But she lamented the lack of Quebec players with the Habs, describing a non-Francophone team as a propaganda tool for the federalist cause.
The issue went viral. Everybody — from Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who denounced through a spokesperson the “politicizing of one of the few Quebec institutions shared by everyone,” to Stephane Laporte, a columnist with the French language La Presse newspaper, who insisted Quebec’s cultural “survival” depends on the dominant presence of homegrown Francophones on the team — took part in the latest installment of Canada’s national unity saga.
The truth is that the number of francophone Quebecers on the team has been in decline since the NHL, in 1969, ended a rule that gave the Habs the choice of picking two homegrown players before any other team could draft them. Recent years have also seen the rise of American and European players in the NHL. (Canadian players once made up 90 percent of the league, now they’re about half.) Quebec players, meanwhile, no longer exclusively dream of lacing skates with the Canadiens — they’re as mercenary about selling their talents to the highest bidder as anyone else.
But perhaps the crucial point is this: les glorieux — the glorious ones — haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1993. Losing is anathema to Canadiens fans — that’s the preserve of teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, those Anglo blokes who haven’t won a cup since 1967.
The fans of the most successful sports franchise in history are restless. And the Parti Quebecois — whose hopes for independence these days seem as dim as another Stanley Cup in Montreal — are trying to make the most of it.