Longtime New York Rangers announcer Jack Filman was once asked the origins of the word "hockey." He replied that it was from an aboriginal word, hoghee, that meant, "it hurts!" Hockey history is full of such myths, and the purpose of this blog is to take a closer look at them and discuss the surrounding historical issues. (BTW hockey probably originates with the French word, hoquet, which referred to the hooked shape of the sticks used to play similar stick-and-ball games.)

Language and Hockey, the Canadian specifics

Today, a Globe & Mail editorial took on the Parti Québecois criticism over the Montreal Canadiens and their lack of French-Canadian (read Quebecois) players. When I was scanning the papers yesterday it seemed to be an English paper thing – I didn’t see it in any of the French language newspapers at all, although today I see Le Devoir used it to frame their article on the Habs' Quebecois prospects. The Journal de Montréal also contributed, noting that there has been some criticism from other (unnamed) sources in the last few months. The issue has also pushed Geoff Molson, lead owner of the Habitants, to say he wouldn’t stand in the way of the return of the Nordiques.

I've written about (mis)historicizing the Habs before, and the Globe & Mail editorial repeats a few of the annoyances that I like to take issue with. The first is minor: not including Howie Morenz on their list of non-French Canadiens stars. Morenz was the greatest star of the 1920s and early 1930s, and shows that the Habs always had prominent non-French players. (Tangent: I recently taught my 21-month-old son to chant “’Oww-ee, ’Oww-ee” on the way through Mitchell, Ontario.) The second and more important myth is the 1955 Richard Riot is good example of how “linguistic tensions have played a role in the Habs’ history.” Benoît Melancon’s excellent book The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard shows how the linguistic/political aspects of the event were at best uncertain at the time, and that its relevance to the Quiet Revolution was revised over time to create a usable past (check out this interview with the author).

If you want real relevance to linguistic tensions, then focus on the 1976 election of the PQ and the subsequent Canadiens-Nordiques rivalry, which split fans along federalist and nationalist/separatist lines (and more importantly for some, divided them according to the beer they drank, Molson’s (the Canadiens owners) or Carling O’Keefe (the Nordiques owner)). Ken Dryden’s The Game discussed this from a player’s point of view, and Rick Salutin’s play, Les Canadiens, puts this period in a larger context of Quebec history.

The issue that the PQ might want to address is probably the real reason that the Habs are no longer a team of French character – the decreasing participation of Quebeckers in the NHL in general. As mentioned in one of the articles, no Quebec-developed player was chosen in the first two rounds of the 2010 NHL draft. That’s an ominous sign, I think, of a failure in the player development system (if, as the PQ implicitly suggests, success is defined as playing in the NHL). I admit there is a whole other kettle of fish to consider here, namely the possibility of discrimination against Quebeckers in the NHL (see Marc Lavoie’s work, among others), but my point is that while the Habs could maybe be doing a better job scouting Quebec Junior B, they don’t control the whole system anymore like they did in the 1950s and 60s, the heyday of Richard, Béliveau, and Plante (and Harvey, Moore, and Lach…).

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