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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.

“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.