The NHL's French Canadian Stars: Where Did They All Go?
Postcards from the NHL playoffs: While the Boston Bruins have done well enough when he was injured this season, Patrice Bergeron clearly remains the straw that stirs the B’s drink. The 32-year-old centre doesn’t put up Alex Ovechkin numbers, but he is the kind of difference maker every team needs.
He’s helped make his linemates Brad Marchand and David Pasternak into stars. His value is reflected in his many selections as an all-star, multiple time winner of the Selke and Lady Byng Trophies and his almost automatic choice when Team Canada plays a big game.
It’s also probably safe to say he’s the best French Canadian in the NHL at the moment. What is 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) is maybe finally establishing his HOF credentials, leading the expansion 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 HOF career yet. Plus he’s from Ontario, even though he played in the QMJHL.
Ditto Sean Couturier of the Flyers, whose dad is from Quebec, but who grew in the U.S.
More typical is Jonathan Drouin, drafted third overall by Tampa in 2013, who 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. Only San Jose’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic belongs in the conversation of notable D men from Quebec.
Goalies? We mentioned Fleury, but after that 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 OHL and Europe lead the pack with the WHL and NCAA following up. The QMJHL (with teams in Quebec and the Maritimes) does create star players, but the percentage of those that 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— are having 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, cultural preferences for other sports— all play some part. Still, the days when Canadiens GM Sam Pollock getting the top two French Canadians as protected draftees was considered a steal are long gone.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on his website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand will be available this fall.