Beyond Politics is a Habs’ Reality

HabsPolitics

A never ending topic, a discussion coming back to the table periodically, is the one about the need for a bilingual coach and for the number of players from Quebec with the Canadiens. Back when they won Stanley Cups, the Quebecois contingent was always strong and many were important contributors. Of course, the beloved Habs are fortunate enough to have the most diversified fan base on the planet and in Canada, where you stand on the topic is, more often than not, based on the primary language that you speak, with little to no respect or understanding towards the other side’s wants and needs.

This year, the Canadiens started the season with only two local products in their ranks: David Desharnais and Torrey Mitchell. We have to thank the injury to Tom Gilbert to have a third one when Mark Barberio was called up. We all know the story of how Desharnais is the scape goat of many fans and media members, particularly in the Anglophone portion of the fan base, and Mitchell and Barberio are escaping the blunt of the crowd. Ironically, only one has a French name…

But why is this happening? A few years ago, some “influent” people met at a summit on hockey to discuss the topic. It is a fact that the QMJHL didn’t seem to be competitive at the Memorial Cup, and that there has been a decline in the number of players from the “Q” being drafted for several years now, an issue that Gilles Courteau doesn’t take lightly, and neither is Hockey Quebec. It is also true that there are fewer and fewer Quebecois in the NHL but the teams who have them seem to appreciate being able to count on them. Whether it’s Luongo, Burrows, Perron, Després, Duclair, Vermette, Bergeron, Talbot, Deslaurier, Danault, Beauchemin, Tanguay, Savard, Demers, Huberdeau, Lecavalier, Scandella, Ribeiro, G. Bourque, Gélinas, Brassard, Pageau, Chiasson, Letang, Fleury, Vlasic, Marchessault, Paquette, Parenteau, Perreault and even Drouin (3rd overall pick), we’re talking about players contributing to their team’s success!

But why this phenomena?

Is it due to the economy? Is it because kids now days have so many other choices of sports? The economy and the choices are similar in other provinces, and those provinces don’t seem to suffer as much, at least not when looking at Team Canada Junior’s overall success and at at the number of players drafted from the WHL and OHL. Unfortunately, some prefer crying discrimination, choosing to blame others instead of facing the problem by looking in the mirror.

I have my theory… Several years ago, Canada went through a dry spell at the international level and Hockey Canada searched for answers and reasons. Seeing the level of skills in Europe, they looked in the mirror and realized that not enough time was spent on developing skills and too much time was allocated for games. They also recognized that in order to develop those players, coaches have to be qualified. That’s when they implemented the Program of Excellence, which Wayne Gretzky (amongst others) was part of. If someone wants to coach minor hockey in Canada, they need to take some extensive coaching clinics and the suggested ratio practice to game has since been increased to four practices for every game played!

Someone told me a few years back that Hockey Quebec didn’t want to follow suit, preferring to keep the status quo without Hockey Canada’s help. We saw them eventually change their mind, some 20 years later than the rest of Canada, and scramble to catch up, looking for solutions, by creating summits of their own. It goes to show that sometimes, one can learn just as much relying on others’ experience instead of waiting to experience it themselves, while being just as efficient and mostly, learning quicker.

How can the Canadiens help?kids

Even living in British-Columbia some 4,000 kilometres away, I can recognize the importance and even the need to have players from Quebec playing for the Montreal Canadiens.

You see, Montreal is different than any other NHL city if only from the fact of the language spoken and that, whether fans want to agree with it or not. Yes, many in Quebec (especially in Montreal) are bilingual but a vast majority in the rest of the province, including children, don’t understand English. They do want to be able to not only understand, but relate to the players, to have some sort of connection with them, with the team.

It is just as important when looking at marketing, as all 82 Habs’ games are televised on TVA Sports and RDS (French station, French commercials for French speaking people), as well as for corporate boxes at the Bell Centre when the majority of the investors are French and do business in Quebec, in French, not counting the publicity sold by the organization in and out of the rink.

As for the attachment and commitment to French speaking Quebecois, it’s nothing new as if we go back in history, going all the way back to the conception of the Montreal Canadiens, to the root of the team, it was created in the mind set of creating a rivalry, having a team of French players, playing against the English, the Maroons.

Later on, Maurice Richard was not only a great player but foremost, he was the idol of a nation, Quebec, a symbol standing tall against the English, an ordinary guy from home, a neighbour who was the best in a sport that we loved, playing for the Montreal Canadiens! And it was a similar feeling towards Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur after him.

I remember about 45 years ago when I started playing hockey and growing up through the minor hockey systems in Sherbrooke, I had the privilege of being able to associate myself, to relate to players like Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Guy Lafleur, Yvon Lambert and Mario Tremblay amongst others, players who gave me the hope of a dream… I did not speak or understand a single word of English. If you were to ask the younger ones, they would tell you that they lived similar situations by looking up to Patrick Roy, Guy Carbonneau, Claude Lemieux, Stéphane Richer, Vincent Damphousse, Pierre Turgeon and Eric Desjardins… If those players from my neighbourhood, who speak my language, can make it big, why can’t I dream of doing the same, was I thinking to myself?Lafleur

You see, it’s more than admiring hockey players. But as young boys playing hockey (or liking the sport) and as a Habs’ fan, it was a motivation, an example that young boys from Quebec can succeed, achieve their dream of one day, wearing the red, white and blue and have their turn at being idolized, admired by young hockey players as they did themselves.

And the support

Having said that, with everything that has happened in recent years, it is evident that one needs a particular personality to succeed in Montreal as in today’s NHL, they fill your pockets with money at the very beginning of your career, you are recognized everywhere in town, puck-bunnies and all, and everything that comes with what I call “vedettaria”, an illness which swells the head of its victims, giving them the impression that they’re bigger than what they really are. It looks like the only cure is to send them to another city by trading them, which has for effect to take down the swelling and bring back the work ethics that saw them get the success that brought them to the NHL to start with. According to some, Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre are the most recent ones to have suffered from it but we find other similar cases over the years, guys like Mike Ribeiro, José Theodore and Pierre Dagenais amongst others…

While we can point fingers to players from Quebec, it seems like every young player coming to play in Montreal is subject to it. We saw guys like Higgins, the Kostitsyn brothers and Price falling to it, with some recovering on time it seems and we’re hearing similar stories about Alex Galchenyuk today. That’s why it’s crucial to find great veterans to mentor those young players, to teach them the ropes, what to avoid and teach them how to become true professionals on and off the ice.

In spite of what some may think, it is very important to have local players (from Quebec) on the Montreal Canadiens’ roster but even more important is the selection of those players as well of how they are supported. You need to have a certain quality, a define personality to succeed in Montreal and it’s even more true when it comes to local players.

Don’t people remember the fiasco surrounding the Randy Conneyworth interm coach promotion? Even the owner, Geoff Molson, recognizes the need for it. Thankfully, Habs’ GM Marc Bergevin also recognizes the need.

So if you think that by trying to justify your need to put down locals behind the team’s performances, you will change simply by getting rid of the French speaking coach or players, you are fooling yourself but you are not fooling those who have been following this team long enough. Pierre Turgeon, Vincent Damphousse, Guy Carbonneau (the player), even Lafleur were chased out of town. So were Alain Vigneault, Claude Julien, Guy Carbonneau (the coach) and Michel Therrien the first time. Now you want Desharnais and Therrien gone again? If history has proven one and one only thing, it’s that you won’t be satisfied with the next French speaking guys either. Do some soul searching and for everyone having to listen and read your constant complaints, give it a rest.

Go Habs Go!!!

Then There is Tomas Plekanec

PlekanecFuture

While they may not have provided fans and media with good hockey in some time, the Montreal Canadiens’ organisation has been very generous in issuing statements and analogies that are sticking to people’s mind. Whether it’s the comments by GM Marc Bergevin about taking 100% of the blame or his fox hole comments about his coach, or Michel Therrien’s comment about how he would like for all of his players to go home after games to eat milk and cookies, we have been pretty spoiled.

Well one of those players who we know is going home to eat his milk at cookies, a guy who is known as a true professional on and off the ice and who never gets any press for the bad reasons, it’s Tomas Plekanec. Heck, many will agree that he doesn’t even get enough press for what he does well, even.

The Canadiens’ top centre has scored at least 20 goals in seven of his last eight full seasons (not counting his 14 goals 47 games in the lockout-shortened season) and he has only missed 12 games to injuries in nine years.

However, his 46 points in 81 playoff games with a minus – 18 differential isn’t anything to brag about. The playoffs are a time of year when you expect your top players to elevate their game and Plekanec has consistently disappointed, especially when your team is counting on you as heavily as the Habs do on him. He basically seems to disappear when the game gets rougher or the checking gets tighter instead.

For some reason, Bergevin decided to re-sign Plekanec early in the season instead of waiting after the holidays. A brand new two-year, $12 million contract which, thankfully, comes without a NTC or a NMC was agreed upon on October 16, 2015. Prior to signing his extension, Plekanec was playing on the top line and had five (5) goals and seven (7) points in his first five (5) games. Since then, he has added only four (4) goals and 21 assists in his next 45 games played. Six (6) of those points came in two games, a three points performance against the Buffalo Sabres on October 23rd and three more points against the New York Rangers on November 25th. This season, he is on pace for 14 goals and 40 points. Further, he has a minus – 8 differential in his last five games.

On a team struggling to put points on the board, look no further. Plekanec leads all forwards with 18:46 of ice time per game, including 2:52 per game on the powerplay, placing him third on the team amongst forwards behind only Max Pacioretty (3:13) and Brendan Gallagher (3:10).

We keep hearing fans, particularly those who have always hated coach Michel Therrien’s guts, claim that he preaches a “defensive” system which prevents offensive creativity. Ironically Plekanec, who happens to be inside the dressing room, in meetings and on the ice during practices, disagrees. He says that he has never played a style of hockey that was as aggressive on puck recovery as the one the Canadiens have played under Therrien.

“If we make plays at the right time, we have all the freedom in the world. I never heard the coach saying you can’t beat your guy 1-on-1, but if you make a turnover at the blue line and get scored on, that’s not how to make a play. If you look at all the guys like [Jonathan] Toews, [Patrick] Kane and those guys, they make those plays, but you don’t see too many turnovers from those guys. When there’s no play, they just chip it in. There’s nothing wrong with chipping the pucks in the zone and wait for the right time to make that play. I don’t think we have any structure of not making those plays.”

Considering that Plekanec has also been a part of multiple international competitions, which include the World Junior Championships, the World Championships and the Winter Olympics, it says a lot folks.

Now what is Bergevin to do with Plekanec considering the team’s poor performances? Does he have any value on the trade market? Would someone agree to take on the 33 year-old $6 million per season contract over the next two years? Time will tell, but as I’ve been saying for a long time now, this team must improve down the middle if they hope to become a serious contender, Carey Price in or out. And there are only so many players to turn to if the team needs to shed some salary…