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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Francophone Pressure Too Much for the Montreal Canadiens?

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This post was originally published at The Hockey Writers

That guy at the office who is all too eager to point out discrepancies.  The one that fancies himself a walking, breathing, encyclopedia of vast, untapped knowledge.  He constantly finds fault in even the most mundane water cooler conversations and relishes any opportunity to ever so politely, yet, still, amazingly annoyingly, correct others.

You have forced a smile his way for years, carefully crafting every conversation to avoid even the slightest possibility of an argument.

But, then on your last day at work, you let him have it.

You explain how difficult it is to even speak in his presence.  How uncomfortable he makes everyone around him.  How you have tried to avoid him at every turn.

Maybe letting it all out wasn’t prudent, but somehow, you feel better for it.  It’s the refreshing type of honesty that only allows for itself in special circumstances.

Montreal Canadiens president Pierre Boivin is on his way out.

He  found that special circumstance this week when he spoke at length to Montreal Gazette writer, Dave Stubbs.

After many years of smiling politely towards a myriad of critics, fanatical supporters and even some crackpot media members, Boivin let loose.
Boivin spoke of a game forever changed, of the “immensely powerful, important, even dangerous” impact of the Internet and a social media that can topple governments when not rallying hockey fans…
And Boivin spoke about the Canadiens’ unique place in the fabric of Quebec, about how he’s surprised – and not – “that the following for the team is greater today than ever in its history.”
At times he sounded like a man weary and relieved to be exiting his post:
“I’ve learned that I’ve got a pretty thick skin,” Boivin said of what he’s discovered about himself in this job.
“I’m going to apologize because I’m bilingual and have as many English friends as I do French? No, goddammit. Am I going to apologize that I’m going to work for an anglophone company? No. What the hell. We live in the world here, not a ghetto.”

With other statements Boivin came off as defensive and a bit insulated.
“What really upsets me is when people don’t accept or believe that we put significant effort into doing much more than any other team to try to get francophone players.”
Boivin spoke of the NHL’s annual combine, when 60 of the most promising draft-eligible players are assembled in Toronto for interviews and exhaustive medical testing.
“We hold our own combine here for Quebec major junior players, mostly those who aren’t going to get drafted or (will be chosen) very late,” Boivin said. “We bring 20, 30 in and put them through all the tests. Why do we do that? To give them false hope? No, to hope that we’re going to find one. There are some out there. Where do you think (undrafted Canadien) David Desharnais comes from?”

Who doesn’t believe that the NHL’s only team in Quebec doesn’t go the extra mile trying to find francophone players?  Surely these disbelievers are the aforementioned “crackpots.”
It’s evident that his thick skin helped him through rough periods, but it has taken a toll on him over time.  Who would be immune to it over a long enough continuum?
Boivin’s personal revelation included statements that could be construed as excuse making.
They will no doubt raise questions, and of course, more criticism.

“When the team’s name is Canadiens,” Boivin said that morning through a wry grin, “we start perhaps with one strike against us…”

He continued: “If you had a star francophone player, nobody would be counting. You could have two – a star and a fourth-liner, and everybody would be happy. If you don’t have the star, then they want seven or eight, because it’s all about sens d’appartenance (a sense of belonging).

“If it’s a star, a Maurice (Richard), a Jean (Béliveau), a Guy (Lafleur), a Patrick (Roy), that’s all they need to feel the cultural and linguistic connection. If they don’t have the star, they want a whole bunch (of francophones) because one day they hate them, the other day they love them…

But wait, there’s more:

…Boivin says a political reality exists in the front office. The team’s general manager and coach should be bilingual, he says, which means the Habs “are severely competitively disadvantaged.”

Added Boivin: “There’s one general manager in the league this year who speaks French and he’s in Montreal. If Pierre Gauthier gets hit by a bus, what does (team owner) Geoff Molson do? Every other team says: ‘There are 29 others out there, how many contracts are up?’ Thirty assistant GMs might be prepared to step up, like a Steve Yzerman (in Tampa), and then there’s 30 AHL managers.

“So they have a pool of 90, (even if) not all are good or are available. We have a pool of three, four, five maybe? Sometimes none? It’s the same thing with coaches. And that’s a huge disadvantage when human capital is your most important asset. So we have to groom them.”

Stubbs made a great observation when he said “…Canadiens fans probably would cheer a Stanley Cup winner that spoke only Klingon…”

That my friends, is really the heart of the matter.

Win, and even your most ardent critics will be silenced… at least for a season.

In all honesty, my first reaction was to criticize Boivin’s “disadvantaged” remarks.

What successful organization bows to the ebb and flow of the will… and whim of it’s fanbase?  Certainly the fan fervor that  exists for Les Canadiens could fill two arenas, regardless of who skates out of the locker room.

Want a little less pressure?  Don’t take on the bloated cap numbers of an American, one hit wonder, like Scott Gomez.  You wouldn’t be better served giving Alex Tanguay another shot with the Habs?

Next in line for criticism was the francophone community surrounding the team:

You want more French-speaking players on the team?  Give us more Guy Lafluers, more Mario Lemieuxs and fewer Alexandre Daigles.  As Stubbs also pointed out, only 40 Québécois were regulars this season in the 30-team NHL.  What kind of charity do they expect from the Canadiens?

But, then I thought about it a little more.

In a market like Montreal, there will always exist an inordinate pressure, not just to win, but to do it with home-grown players… for a reason.

Across the globe today and throughout the history of humanity, any minority group or peoples face the possibility of the loss of their culture.  If their culture is not promoted, encouraged, or fostered continuously, it faces extinction.

Naturally, Francophones seek to promote their culture.  Quite naturally also, they would like to see it manifest itself in sport by way of the only NHL outlet left to them in the Canadiens.

What’s wrong with that?

Of course there will be a few who’s hopes and desires go to the extreme.

They may promote too vigorously, or too often.  They may go too far in their criticism.  Yet, it doesn’t mean that others cannot attempt to understand why their hopes and desires exist to begin with.

Pierre Boivin is not an excuse maker, just a guy letting off some steam after twelve pressure packed years.

Thank you for your refreshing honesty.

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