Slim pickings for next great Quebec NHL hockey star

Few French Canadians are prominent in modern professional hockey. What happened to the legacy of Rocket Richard?

Bruce DowbigginWhile the Boston Bruins have done well enough when he was injured this season, Patrice Bergeron clearly remains the straw that stirs the Bs’ drink. The 32-year-old centre doesn’t put up Alex Ovechkin numbers but he’s the kind of difference maker every team needs.

He’s helped make his linemates Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak into stars. His value is reflected in his many selections as an all-star, multiple winner of both the Selke Trophy and Lady Byng Trophy, and his almost automatic choice when Team Canada plays a big event.

It’s also probably safe to say he’s the best French Canadian in the National Hockey League at the moment. What’s surprising is how little competition he has for that title these days. Hockey is blood and bone (sang et os) in Quebec, built on the legacies of Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau, Mario Lemieux and Vincent Lecavalier.

There have been great goalies such as Jacques Plante, Bernie Parent and Patrick Roy.

French Canadian defenceman such as Serge Savard, Denis Potvin, Guy Lapointe, Jacques Laperriere, J.C. Tremblay and Raymond Bourque are enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

And yet, the pickings lately for a bust in the hall are slim.

The past year has seen Marc-André Fleury (first overall pick by the Penguins in 2003) maybe finally establishing his hall of fame credentials, leading the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights into the second round of the playoffs. Jonathan Marchessault was a sensation this year in Vegas, totalling 27 goals. But the 27-year-old has just 65 in his career.

The promising Pierre-Luc Dubois, picked third overall in 2016 by Columbus, notched 20 goals and 48 points in his rookie season. Claude Giroux did tear it up for Philadelphia (second in the league in scoring), but the 30-year old hasn’t built a hall of fame career yet.

Sean Couturier of the Flyers isn’t really French Canadian. His dad is from Quebec but he grew up in the U.S.

More typical is Jonathan Drouin, drafted third overall by Tampa in 2013. He was touted as the next great French Canadian but held out in Tampa then flopped in Montreal this year with just 13 goals. The Panthers Jonathan Huberdeau was similarly a top pick (Florida selected him third overall in 2013). He had a nice season this year with 27 goals, but he’s totalled just 95 in his career.

David Perron has enjoyed a successful career (he had 66 points in Vegas) but injury issues have kept him from the status of superstar.

They’re all young enough to change the narrative but they’re light years behind the platoon of young superstars emerging from other sources.

Defenceman? Wow. Kris Letang of Pittsburgh was the only French Canadian D-man in the top 40 point getters on defence this season. Otherwise, only San Jose’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic belongs in the conversation of notable D-men from Quebec.

Goalies? After Fleury, it’s a very, very short list. You have to go way down the goalie stats to find Jonathan Bernier (Colorado) and he’s a backup.

When it comes to developing the next superstars, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and Europe lead the pack with the Western Hockey League (WHL) and America’s National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) following up. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL, with teams in Quebec and the Maritimes) does create star players, but the percentage of those who are French Canadians has dimmed in the past decade.

Dubois is a rare commodity, a French Canadian taken third overall in the draft. Only one other French Canadian went in the first round in 2016. Just one French Canadian went in the 2017 first round, two in 2015, none in 2014, Drouin and three others in 2013, none in 2012, Huberdeau in 2011 and none in 2010.

As Bergeron shows, you don’t have to be a first rounder to become a star. It’s also true that prospects are emerging from everywhere in the world, and so French Canadians – who used to have better odds – have to compete in a far bigger talent pool. But that hasn’t kept the OHL from turning out a motherlode of young stars.

There are many other factors in play. Access to elite training, cost, warmer winters eliminating outdoor rinks and cultural preferences for other sports all play some part.

Still, the days when former Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock getting the top two French Canadians as protected draftees was considered a steal are long gone.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.


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