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The Untold Story of Discrimination in Professional Hockey Against French-Speaking Players

Every December, just before the World Junior hockey Championships, Canada’s hockey decision-makers pick the country’s Junior Team Canada, and every December Quebec hockey players are told that they just don’t make muster. Canada’s hockey brass even managed to keep the great Mario Lemieux off that team when he was still a junior in the Quebec hockey league. It was said that Mario Lemieux was unable to adapt to the Canadian hockey style.

Over the past ten years, an average of 1.8 Quebec hockey players have made Junior Team Canada, yet Quebecers represents almost 25% of the population of Canada. History can be expected to repeat itself this year as the team prepares for the 2011 International Ice Hockey Federation Championships to be held in Buffalo, New York, December 26 through January 5.

This ritual face slapping that Quebec hockey players must endure is in fact a bi-annual tradition: it also occurs in June at the annual NHL Entry Draft. Unless they are superstars, aspiring Quebec hockey players know that when the NHL experts meet, at equal or comparable talent, they will not choose a Quebecer, nor will they choose a European, or even an American. They will inevitably choose a “good ol’ Canadian boy.” The figures show that only the very best athletes from those nations will make it to what is in fact the English Canadian National Hockey League. Though ownership of NHL hockey teams in the United States is American, hockey operations on those teams are seventy percent Canadian, which explains the imbalance.

The acceptable racial slur

Ever since Maurice Richard dazzled hockey fans and fought his way to hockey’s summits, the question of discrimination against Quebec or French-speaking hockey players has festered. The French-language media discusses it regularly, especially when stories circulate about the only racial slur that appears still to be acceptable in professional sports, “F***in’ Frogs.”

American sociologist David Marple was the first to conduct a quantitative study. After establishing that African American had to be exceptionally good to play regularly on the professional basketball circuit in the 1970s, he set out to determine whether French-speaking hockey players experienced similar discrimination in the NHL. His study led him to conclude that, like African Americans in basketball, French-speaking players were more productive yet played fewer games. Though his study opened new ground, his conclusions were based on a single hockey season. Were his conclusions to bare out over several seasons, however, there would be cause for concern. Others reached similar conclusions such as Professor Marc Lavoie of the University of Ottawa and Neil Longley now of the McCormack Department of Sport Management, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

In the hope of establishing a long-term fact-based analysis, I compiled comprehensive data on the NHL draft since 1970, on use of Quebec hockey players by NHL teams, on NHL coaches from Quebec, and on hockey players recently drafted by nation. (Canada, USA, Quebec, Russia, Sweden). (It should be noted that the Parliament of Canada formally voted to recognize Quebec as a nation in November 2006). I also analysed each of the tenacious myths that circulate in Canadian hockey circles, such as “Quebecers play poor defensive hockey,” “they are the best goalies,” or “they are smaller.” The results are published in my book Discrimination in the NHL, Quebec Hockey Players Sidelined (Baraka Books).

The results of the study are striking. For example, about ten percent of the hockey players in the NHL are not drafted during the NHL Entry Draft, but manage to obtain visibility and make professional teams through other channels. However, almost twenty percent of the French-speaking Quebec hockey players now playing in the NHL were never drafted and had to fight their way into the league some other way. Another striking statistic concerns individual trophies and awards. Between 1970 and 2009, 176 French-speaking Quebec hockey players played in more than 200 games (three seasons).

Seventy-four of them or 42% received individual trophies or awards, which is much higher than the average for NHL hockey players. This indicates that only the most talented Quebec hockey players have managed to have long careers in the NHL, while those who would be on the second and third lines were quickly eliminated from the league.

When I made this point on the Canadian sports channel TSN’s show Off the Record, host Michael Landsberg asked former New Jersey Devils star Bobby Holik, originally from the Czech Republic, what he thought. Bobby Holik replied, “I agree with him 100%. Because I’ve experienced it myself where I believe I had to fight for my spot, fight for my ice time, more and longer than the Western Canadians or Ontario-born and raised.”

Bobby Holik’s reaction shows that Quebecers are not alone in experiencing discrimination in the NHL. Comparative figures by nation regarding the numbers of minor hockey players registered and the numbers drafted by the NHL and playing in the NHL confirm these observations.

Registered Minor Hockey Players by Nation
and Presence in the NHL (2009-10) *

Nation

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