The Politics Behind the Sport

The pressure of playing in a hockey hotbed such as Montreal is legendary. The mecca of the hockey world is also the league’s oldest team, formed even before the NHL itself. As such, the Montreal Canadiens are not only one of the most important teams in league history, but is also a team that is embedded into the culture and heritage of the city itself. Over the century that the Canadiens reigned supreme in the hearts of Montrealers everywhere, the team has collected 24 stanley cups, the most out of any other team, cementing it as a winning team with a rich heritage. The hall of famers stacking the lineups of dynasty teams roll off the tongue, from Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy, to Maurice “The Rocket” Richard and Jean Beliveau. These players captured the hearts of decades of fans, and led to the eruption of joy as fans witnessed the team capture the championships.

While history is quite kind to the team, the immense success of rosters prior have made it almost impossible to live up to the high standards set before newer, current editions of the team. With an increase of teams in the league, different rules and all in all, a different game, teams are not as filled to the brim with stars as the dynasty teams of the Original Six, and with the increase of parity among the league, luck plays a much larger role in determining the championship teams of the “New” NHL. This simple concept is lost on many fans in Montreal, who after enduring quite possibly some of the worst editions of their beloved Habs in the early 2000s, and not witnessing a championship since 1993, (this past decade being the first time in history Montreal hasn’t won at least once in the decade) are getting more and more antsy for something to cheer for. Fans are desperately searching for that next big superstar to carry the torch for the team and live up the legacy of players like Lafleur. The biggest culprit of this being the Montreal media itself, who end up hounding players, calling them out, and creating huge controversies through articles and obvious French bias, end up piling on way too much pressure, and many players end up not being able to cope, and either leave or end up flat out not wanting to sign in the city. This creates a catch-22 where that search for the next big French superstar actually ends up preventing one from being found in the city.

The issue carries itself further, permeating into the politics of the city itself. Politicians even get in on the debate about French players and how Montreal needs to be politically correct and appease the fans by having a “quota” of francophone players. This once more leads to a hostile environment for players who are unable to cope. Most recently, the most successful playoff run for the Canadiens since the Stanley Cup win in 93, ended in the Eastern Finals, and the team was led to two huge upsets by the Toronto born Mike Cammalleri, who led the entire playoffs in goal scoring despite not making the finals, and the goaltending of Jaroslav Halak, a Slovak. Despite its magical run, the biggest headlines amongst Francophone papers alluded to the ultimate failure as a lack of French Canadian talent on the team. This view is entirely negative, as instead of noting the relative success for the year, they dwell on what they don’t have, and are stuck living in the past. Due to this, current players are led to believe that they have to all be hall of famers to garner any sort of respect, and the mass publication of this form of media is almost brainwashing certain less educated fans, who ended up booing players out of the city, only to see them have moderate success elsewhere, and then point to that success and argue that the team needs those types of players.

This is leading to a change in mentality in the grassroots level of hockey in Quebec as well. While certainly the higher levels are prepping the young players to one day play in the NHL, I’m talking specifically of lower level recreational leagues. The vast difference in mindsets between province are vast, and even in certain cases, the French bias can still be found in these levels, where kids are just playing to have fun. I personally have sat in the finals of tournaments here in Quebec, and have seen fights break out over the native tongue of some of the players. Keep in mind this is not taking place on the ice, where tensions understandably run high, but in the stands, where parents and siblings fling racial slurs towards Anglophone players on the team, and get into fights where authorities do end up having to get called to diffuse the situation. “I personally think it’s disgusting,” Monteuil defenseman Patrick Modafferi said. He himself being half French, half Italian, he has no allegiances in the French/English issue so evidently enveloping hockey all around Quebec. He agrees that the media is heavily to blame, and they need to refocus. “They don’t try very hard to cover up their agenda. It’s free press but when French speaking people read the newspaper in the morning and see how everything is related back to how French needs to be more dominant in Quebec over the English, they start to go along with it and it creates a lot of tension.”

The philosophy was painfully evident to one student, who preferred to remain anonymous. “When I used to live in Calgary, I played hockey and the vibe you would get from that is so much different. Back there it was a bunch of kids playing to have fun. Once I moved here and started playing, it was totally different. The whole argument over the French and English is something you don’t get back in Calgary.” While he agrees that it’s not a good thing to have, he understands where the popular opinion is coming from. “A lot of the people in the media now were growing up when the Habs had dynasty teams led by players from Quebec. The team is really a part of the culture, so I understand that they want more hometown players to feel connected to the French roots, but I don’t think they should be mixing politics into stuff like this. It’s a bad idea.”

When racism starts to permeate into the attitudes of youth hockey, played by kids and teenagers to have fun, I think everyone can agree that there is something wrong with the way people are approaching the situation. I feel that the only way to break out from the current mindset is to simply be more progressive. Many of the old-timers are set in their ways, yet hopefully with the ushering in of a new generation of people entering the workforce, hockey can go back to being a culturally significant form of entertainment for Montrealers everywhere, and stop being a political tool used by press and politicians alike to gain favour with the people.