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The debate regarding the lack of francophone, and more specifically Quebec-born, players drafted by the Canadiens has persisted for quite some time. And, for those who believe that the franchise has a significant responsibility towards the French language and Quebec hockey, this summer has certainly provided fuel to the fire. Between the Habs apparent hesitancy at drafting locally and the dismal showing of Quebecois hockey at the draft, there has been much fodder for pundits and talking heads alike.
Following this year’s entry draft, Norman Flynn of RDS claimed that, instead of signing Quebec-born players post-draft, the Habs should have afforded them the thrill of being drafted in the later rounds. Later in the offseason, La Presse’s Rejean Tremblay went so far as to state that the Canadiens were taking advantage of their fans by not having more homegrown players and by not promoting the French language in Canada. Meanwhile, others simply continued to express their displeasure at the minimal amount of local talent drafted by the organization. Combine such sentiments with the miserable performance by the QMJHL at the draft and you have the beginnings of a crisis in the Quebec hockey system. After all, when two Californians are picked in the first round while Quebec had to wait until the third round to finally see Danny Biega selected, one quickly realizes there could be serious issues afflicting the game in the province. On top of that, the aforementioned Biega was not even a home-grown product but instead was developed in the American collegiate ranks, playing for Harvard, where Louis Leblanc played last season.
Furthermore, this summer’s subpar crop was not a statistical outlier but instead indicative of a downward trend. According to a study done at AllHabs, the amount of Quebec-born players drafted from the province’s junior circuit has fallen from 9.2% in the 1990’s to an average of 6.0% this past decade. Furthermore, no Quebecois has been selected in the top 15 over the past four years and many other draftees have difficulty developing into NHL caliber players. While Sean Couturier is projected as next year’s top pick, he is proving to be an exception as opposed to the norm.
In light of this decline, there has been a corresponding outcry demanding that the Canadiens assume a greater role in correcting the situation. A great deal seem to suggest practicing some form of cultural affirmative action when it comes to drafting, advocating that when two players are of equal talent, the Tricolore should select the local product. The logic here seems to be that it matters little if the team selects a QMJHL’er in the 7th round over another player since neither is likely to play in the NHL. However, late picks such as Sergei Kostitsyn, Gregory Stewart, Matt D’Agostini, Michael Ryder, Mark Streit and Jaroslav Halak prove that latter choices are anything but throwaways. Instituting a method where selections are made based on an individual’s hometown serves neither the best interests of the team nor hockey in Quebec. Such a solution is indeed short-sighted and would merely mask the problems of an increasingly wounded development system. Having said all of that, given the team’s deep historical roots and tremendous cultural significance, there can be no doubt that it also owes a responsibility towards the game in the province of Quebec.
As such, the team should take a leadership role in the elaboration of long-term solutions that will help address the issues currently facing the sport. Following the 2010 entry draft, Pierre Boivin asserted that it was time to hold a summit in order to discuss the challenges facing the game. As of this writing though, nothing seems to have materialized. The Canadiens should not simply sit idly by waiting for the rest of the hockey community to organize, but should spearhead efforts to get the game back on track. Be it by contributing the franchise’s significant expertise, visibility or financial resources, the Canadiens could participate in instituting changes that will benefit the game for many generations to come. For example, instead of simply participating in a vaguely defined summit that will probably provide more public relation gains than actual changes, the Canadiens could organize regular, yearly meetings to assess the state of the game with other prominent hockey figures. They could host junior league games at the Bell Centre, which would certainly help raise the Q’s visibility. Or they could offer a variety of workshops to young players and coaches alike in order to improve their abilities. Heck, they could even put those workshops on DVD, à la Alex Kovalev. In any case, solutions exist beyond blindly drafting homegrown players.
There is no doubt that the team must take a greater stake in the game in Quebec, but we must stop quantifying their involvement based on players on a roster and rather by measuring their role in the hockey community at large.
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