Former NHL player Bob Sirois has just released a book which claims the NHL has for some 40 years been anti-francophone, a hypothesis he supports with pages of statistics, graphs, and numeric material.
The difficulty in dealing with Sirois’ allegations in Le Québec mis en échec
(Quebec Bodychecked) is that if you agree with what he says, you are saying ALL NHL general managers and ALL coaches for the last 40 years have systematically and knowingly been prejudiced against francophone Quebeckers.
And if you disagree with what he writes, you have to present an argument which is, by nature, anti-French-Canadian. However, a cursory examination of his main arguments suggest there is no racism, no anti-French-Canadian bias whatsoever.
As Sirois shows, statistics – while concrete, factual, and having the aura of being irrefutable – can be manipulated. Here is a perfect example taken from this week’s NHL.com.
Alexander Ovechkin has “only” nine goals this year despite having taken 61 shots to date. This “weak” shooting percentage of 14.8 per cent has him ranked exactly 100th in the league. Three players on the winless Toronto Maple Leafs have better shooting percentages.
Worse, Ovechkin has just a single goal on the power play, tied for 43rd in the league and “clearly” indicating he is not very effective when coach Bruce Boudreau puts him out with the extra man. Toronto’s Matt Stajan, on the other hand, has three goals on the power play. Pretty lousy stats for Ovechkin, eh?
It is, of course, impossible to react to the publication of Sirois’ book overnight with a massive set of graphs, charts, and stats to counter his claims, but by looking at a few of his bigger complaints it is pretty obvious Sirios is not approaching his subject matter objectively.
Let’s face it: before the former NHLer (286 games with Philadelphia and Washington, 1974-1980) started Chapter One of his book, he knew what he was going to write, and he set about finding every possible number to bolster his argument. In one way, this is good. Any writer needs a strong thesis followed through with perseverance and dedication. However, his intentions – and the implications of those intentions – are harmful and cannot go unchallenged.
Let’s start with his biggest accusation, that the NHL is not admitting as many French-Canadians as players from other provinces. In 1966-67, the last year of the Original Six, 100 per cent of all players in the league were Canadian. Since then, of course, and accelerating after perestroika in 1991, Europe has provided many more players. As well, the American college ranks, along with the incredible efforts of USA Hockey, have cut into that perfect percentage to a combined tune of 45 per cent.
In the last decade, Canada has provided consistently 55 per cent or so of NHLers, a number that seems certain to remain fairly constant for the foreseeable future.
So let’s look at a few real numbers in Canada and apply those to the NHL.
Sirois’ biggest statistical error is to consider NHLers in terms of ratio to the entire population of the country. But what does a little old lady in Northern Quebec, a pre-schooler in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and a businessman in Sudbury, Ontario, have to do with hockey? Very little, indeed.
Let’s instead consider ratio in terms of hockey players
across the country, and for that we can refer to an excellent demographic breakdown provided by Hockey Canada
In 2005-06, there were 482,483 male registered players in Canada. Of that number, 83,215 (or, 17.2 per cent) were from Quebec. There were 518 Canadians in the NHL that year, and 91 from Quebec (or, 17.6 per cent). The percentage of Quebec-born players in the NHL is almost identical to the overall number of participants.
Where’s the proof of racism here?
A tongue-in-cheek comparison to Ontario suggests that the NHL (a) favours Quebeckers over Ontarians and (b) discriminates against players from Ontario. After all, of the 518 Canadians in ’05-‘06, only 199 were from Ontario, just 38.4 per cent of all Canadian NHL players.
The next two years show little difference. In 2006-07, Hockey Canada reported 471,572 players across the country. Some 90,304 (19.1 per cent) were from Quebec and 201,671 (42.8 per cent) from Ontario. That same year there were 496 Canadians in the NHL, 80 (16.1 per cent) from Quebec and only 190 (38.3 per cent) from Ontario.
In 2007-08, the most recent year for which Hockey Canada has stats, there were 480,656 players from British Columbia to Newfoundland. Of that number, 94,001 were from Quebec (19.6 per cent) and 204,769 from Ontario (42.6 per cent). There were 489 Canadians in the NHL that year, 71 (14.5 per cent) from Quebec and 189 (38.7 per cent) from Ontario.
In short, there are more than double the number of hockey players from Ontario than Quebec, even though the general population of the two provinces is about the same. Ratio to population is a meaningless measurement, and ratio to hockey players – the relevant variable – clearly indicates no bias whatsoever.
Sirois also looks at the World Junior (U20) Championship and criticizes Hockey Canada for not selecting more French-Canadians to the team over the years. Sirois is more right than wrong to say that fewer Quebeckers than average have been chosen to Team Canada, but he fails to mention a much more telling fact.
Starting in 1982 with the Program of Excellence, Hockey Canada has sent “best of” teams to the World Juniors (U20) rather than club teams (often the previous year’s Memorial Cup champion). Since 1982, teams from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League have won the Memorial Cup a grand total of four times in 28 years. Four.
Wouldn’t a cursory hypothesis suggest the league that wins the national junior championship most often have more of the best players? Indeed, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) has won the Memorial Cup nine times since 1982, and the Western Hockey League (WHL) a very impressive 15 times. This alone should suggest – without delving into particular names or years – that the majority of World Junior Championship players should have come from the WHL.
Furthermore, there have been six French-Canadian coaches at the World Juniors between 1982 and 2009, meaning Team Canada has had a French-Canadian coach 21.4 per cent of the time that Hockey Canada has made the selection. If Quebec accounts traditionally for about 17 per cent of players (and let’s say a like per cent of coaches), then French-Canada has been more than fairly served behind the bench at the World Juniors.
Sirois’ painful desire to paint hockey in the NHL and right across Canada as racist also fails to take into account a major survey conducted by the IIHF of European participation in the NHL. The study, which covered the seasons 2000 to 2006, suggests that too many roster spots are being taken by mediocre European talents for positions which could adequately be filled by North Americans.
The study also suggests the NHL should have fewer Europeans on the third and fourth lines and more North Americans because it allows European leagues to populate teams with their native players, and consequently allows European prospects more time to blossom into a bona fide NHLer (or not).
Thus, the decline in French-Canadians in the NHL merely parallels a decline in the general Canadian population at the expense of Europeans.
In his last year as a player, Wayne Gretzky was asked to compare the current game to the game when he and his Edmonton Oilers were in their prime, winning games with double-digit goal totals and setting all kinds of scoring records. In addition to the usual “players today are bigger, faster, and can all shoot” answer, Gretzky noted the biggest difference was “system” hockey.
He said that in his days coach Glen Sather had no system beyond the traditional breakout play. There was no left-wing lock, no 1-2-2 setup between the blue lines, little obstruction, little “defence first” coaching.
If, as Sirois states, French-Canadians are perceived to be lazy defensively, who is to blame for their reduced numbers? Today’s game is not the game of Guy Lafleur flying down the wing, Jean Beliveau carrying the puck up ice, or the Pocket Rocket ragging the puck at centre to kill a penalty. It’s about two-way hockey, and if French-Canadians are unwilling to backcheck, why should they be given a spot on a team just because they can stickhandle in a phone booth? Lamentably, that’s not the way hockey is played anymore.
It’s too bad Sirois chose to make racism the answer to a truly troubling trend. In truth, the decline of Quebeckers in the NHL is alarming, but to blame this on racism is ignorant. Sirois, or, more likely, someone else, should do a more objective paper examining why there are evermore fewer French-Canadians in the league, particularly from Montreal, the birthplace of hockey (in 1875) and the NHL (in 1917).
In 2007, the Canadian Soccer Association released its cross-country statistics. That year there were 850,000 registrants, 19 per cent of whom lived in Quebec. Thus, while there were 94,001 hockey players in Quebec that year, there were a staggering 161,500 soccer players! Now there is a real concern for French-Canada, Hockey Canada, and anyone who loves the game in Canada.
Sirios probably doesn’t know the story of Guy Hebert. Hebert was born in Troy, New York, a small town in northeastern United States. He loved hockey, loved to play goal. He played university hockey at a place called Hamilton College in nearby Clinton, not exactly the college of choice for most future superstars of the NHL.
Hebert was a low draft choice by St. Louis in 1987, but didn’t make the NHL full-time until 1993, with Anaheim, after years of perseverance. Early in his career, before he became a confident and quality NHL goalie with the Ducks, Hebert put an accent on the first “e” in his last name so that pro scouts and managers would think he was a Quebecker and assume he was a star goalie in the making, not some joe-schmo from upstate New York.
Now, why in the world would an unknown, unproved goalie want people to think he came from a place that everyone in the NHL has hated for 40 years? Strange.
ANDREW PODNIEKSThe opinions in this column are solely attributed to the writer and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the IIHF.