Legault wants more Quebecers in hockey — that’s where his priorities are

The Premier has embarked on a project that’s simultaneously self-indulgent and an example of Quebec-first election-year optics.

On Thursday, Premier François Legault unveiled a new plan for revamping hockey in the province of Quebec.

The Premier has assembled a committee featuring a who’s who of Quebec hockey personalities, including former Habs like Stéphane Quintal, Jocelyn Thibault (who Hockey Quebec recently appointed as their new executive director) and Guillaume Latendresse; former NHLer/present-day RDS anchor Marc Denis (who is leading the committee); and former Canadian women’s team players Caroline Ouellette and Kim St-Pierre (the latter of whom was recently inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame). 

Alongside nine other members, this committee is designed to propose solutions for how hockey in Quebec could better itself going forward, which they’re expected to do by April 1, 2022. Their primary motive will be to increase participation within the game among young Quebecers, in addition to fostering national pride in the province.

That same day, Premier Legault announced plans during a press conference to meet with embattled NHL commissioner Gary Bettman “in the coming months” to discuss the possible return of the Quebec Nordiques to the NHL. La Presse reports that Legault has even gone as far as to appoint Quebec’s Minister of Finance, Éric Girard, to spearhead talks with Bettman and potential investors.

François Legault wants more Quebecers in hockey — that’s where his priorities are

In a vacuum, these plans seem prudent for improving conditions for a sport Legault deems to be “part of [Quebec’s] identity”, especially as participation in hockey has noticeably declined in Quebec in recent years. One need only look at the state of minor hockey in this province to understand that something is off — or at least, relative to the rest of Canada.

The QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) has struggled to produce first-round talent over the past 10 NHL drafts compared with the CHL’s other two leagues, the WHL (Western Hockey League) and OHL (Ontario Hockey League). Between 2012 and 2021, only 32 players — an average of just over three players per year — from the Q have been selected in the first round. The WHL and OHL have produced 59 and 74 first rounders respectively within that timeframe. 

There are also only 51 Quebec-born players who have played in at least one NHL regular season game this year. The number of Ontario-born active players who have done so? 169. Clearly, all is not well right now with Quebec’s approach to developing quality hockey talent.

This fact no doubt bothers Premier Legault, who has publicly lamented the lack of Quebecers on the Montreal Canadiens roster specifically. In a way, it seems as if Legault is the type of person who’d rather pick David Savard and Cédric Paquette in his fantasy hockey pool over Cale Makar and Connor McDavid.

For any place to truly become a hotbed for young hockey players to learn and grow in, an excellent grassroots system is necessary. Ideally, this should also allow for greater participation among young players from lower-income families (particularly given how expensive playing hockey can be) and/or visible minorities — two things Legault seemingly hates, but two things that are also necessary for maximizing Quebec’s talent pool of future NHLers.

A quick reminder, also, that not a single person of colour is on Legault’s 15-person committee for improving Quebec hockey. This from the same person who insists there’s no systemic racism in this province. This includes Indigenous communities, in particular — with whom Legault has had a fractured relationship, such as in his refusal earlier this year to make Indigenous People’s Day a statutory holiday in Quebec.

All of which brings me to the bigger issue here.

It’s difficult not to interpret this announcement as Legault disproportionately prioritizing his love for the game, as well as his pro-nationalist interests, while on the job. Quite simply, Quebec society has infinitely more pressing issues to be worrying about right now. There aren’t enough physicians in our healthcare system (whom the provincial government has gaslighted in response). Wait times for family doctors are years long. Religious symbols are still banned from being worn in public. An opioid crisis is also ongoing in Quebec, one involving nearly 600 deaths just last year. Leave it to The Rover’s Christopher Curtis to drop truth bombs like this one:

François Legault & hockey: The NHL needs more Quebecers and more Quebec teams

Affordable housing remains a major issue, especially when Legault himself clearly has no clue how much apartments in Montreal are rented for nowadays. Immigration rates, which have famously decreased under Legault and his CAQ government, will be rising next year, but such an increase is primarily due to an ongoing labour shortage.

Oh, and we’re still in the midst of a whole-ass pandemic.

To Marc Denis’s credit, he acknowledges the importance of a robust grassroots hockey system. He also isn’t wrong when he says that, “if we keep doing the same things over and over, we’re going to get the same results we’re not liking.” Geoff Molson, Marc Bergevin and Dominique Ducharme would do well to take cues from this statement with regards to the Montreal Canadiens’ violent tire fire of a season thus far.

Speaking of the Canadiens, here’s a side note. Having more Quebecers in the NHL as a result of the Premier’s plan isn’t going to solve the Habs’ problems. This team hasn’t had dibs on the rights to young Quebec players in a very long time. It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that basing choices for player personnel, coaching and management on identity politics is incredibly limiting for a sports franchise — a topic Habs Twitter loves to beat like a dead horse.

David Savard Montreal Canadiens Habs Quebecers hockey
2020-21 Stanley Cup winner David Savard, playing poorly with the Montreal Canadiens this season

The Canadiens organization has handicapped itself in this regard for many years, perhaps because Molson may still be spooked by the 2012 protest outside the Bell Centre over hiring unilingual anglo Randy Cunneyworth as interim head coach. Regardless, this hockey club’s responsibility shouldn’t be to act as an embodiment of Quebec nationalism. Its responsibility absolutely must be to win hockey games. Having a stronger francophone presence within the team is only worth it if that team is still good enough to win a Stanley Cup.

Just so I’m clear: if many future Habs players end up being Quebecois and also genuine difference-makers, then great! But having Quebecers on your team for the sake of it — especially given the subpar play of Savard and Paquette in particular this season — isn’t going to get you far in a league with 31 other franchises and obscene amounts of parity. 

The Canadiens will have to always prioritize the best players, regardless of nationality, to build a Cup-winning team. That’s just how the modern NHL works.

Don’t get me wrong, Quebec hockey does need an overhaul in philosophy and structure from the ground up if they want more Quebec-trained players to achieve excellence in the sport. But the societal climate surrounding it makes this whole initiative seem rather insignificant by comparison.

Frankly, it feels as if François Legault is putting his own selfish passion for hockey — as well as him being up for re-election in less than a year — above the wants, needs and everyday lives of his constituents. And that isn’t right. ■

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