Football

French factor

Rookie Etienne Légaré made his way from Quebec to the Toronto Argonauts rookie camp at the beginning of June, secure in the knowledge he'd worked hard to become reasonably bilingual.

Growth among Quebec players in the CFL has increased at a rapid pace

Argos rookie Etienne Légaré was part of two Vanier Cup titles with Laval. ((Dave Chidley/Canadian Press))

Rookie Etienne Légaré made his way from Quebec to the Toronto Argonauts rookie camp at the beginning of June, secure in the knowledge he'd worked hard to become reasonably bilingual.

What the 260-pound defensive lineman and former star at the University of Laval discovered on arrival was the need to learn a third language.

Texan.

Toronto's new line coach is Rex Norris, a highly educated Masters in Education holder originally from the Lone Star State's Horseshoe Bay and with 35 years experience teaching football.

Breaking barriers

For Etienne Légaré, rookie defensive lineman with the Toronto Argonauts, there is one moment when growing up French and still learning English creates a problem that people on the street generally don't face.

That's when you've been beating on someone along the line, your adrenalin is up and suddenly you have to ask a question of a teammate or coach in the heat of a game.

"Sometimes it's so hard to just to find the word because you are tired and you're on the field and you're exhausted and you look for your word for a question just before a play starts — that's the hardest part when English is your second language," he says.

There is increasingly a place to turn, however.

"There are more French now in the CFL, so I can ask when I'm on the field there are some guys to speak French with, so … I can ask "ou'est?" and I can speak in French with other players just to be sure."

And other barriers have dropped as well, says Hamilton's Guillaume Allard-Caméus. People aren't surprised when you are French.

"[Teammates] say to me 'just say what you want to say, and we'll figure it out."

Overcoming Texas twang

But that accent took a little getting used to for the young Quebecer.

"My coach is from Texas, some other coaches are from I-don't-know-where in the United States, and there's a bunch of guys from the whole county of the U.S., so sometimes it's really hard," says Légaré, who turned a lot of heads after being taken by the Argos in the first round of the 2009 college draft.

"It's a reality," he added, as the equipment managers were loading up the truck following Toronto's season opening win last Wednesday in Hamilton. "Sometimes it's really tough to understand English with a specific accent."

Everyone better get used to this, however, because another reality around the Canadian Football League is that the Quebec influence has grown at tremendous speed in the last half-dozen years from a mere handful to around 34 from La Belle Province in Week 1, most of them first-language French players.

Quebec infusion

That's around 20 per cent of the non-imports. If growth continues at this rate, in another five-10 years about half the league's non-imports (what the CFL calls Canadians) will be from Quebec, the majority first-language French.

Right now, Montreal has six Québécois, Calgary and Toronto five, Hamilton four and on down to B.C. with just one.

There's also one first-language French coach — Marcel Bellefeuille in Hamilton — though he's originally from Ottawa.

Here's a few other numbers:

  • Of the 45 players on Canada's 2009 national junior football team (under 19), 31 are from Quebec. That club made the finals of the inaugural world championship this past weekend, losing to the host Americans.
  • According to numbers from two seasons back provided by the Football Canada website, the 100 Canadian players at NCAA Division 1A colleges included 21 from Quebec, and that percentage is thought to have grown.
  • The Cégep college football system (based in the schools that act as a bridge between high school and university in Quebec) now features large AAA and AA divisions and is spread all through the province.
  • There are more than 24,000 players registered with Football Quebec this year. That has grown from just 5,600 in 1993. It also means a huge growth in the number of coaches certified to work with those youngsters, beginning from the age of five.
  • There are 30 Cégep college teams now, seven of them at Triple-A and 22 at Double-A level.

What ultimately has made such a difference, however, seems to go back to the high school level, says Tiger-Cats rookie running back Guillaume Allard-Caméus, who graduated this year from a Laval program that has won four of the last six Vanier Cups in the Canadian university league.

"In Quebec there has been this phenomenon in high schools where [they] had a big problem of guys quitting school and there has been a lot of football programs put in to discourage guys quitting school," says Allard-Caméus.

There are thus a lot more players available who will then ultimately find their way to university and all along the line they're getting coaching that continues to improve.

Another interesting point: When you head to Cégep after grade 11, athletes can have three years of eligibility so football players are playing that third season in the fall of their final semester and then heading to university in January.

That gives them a chance to acclimate to the new school, get used to their teammates and learn the systems before camp opens the following August.

Maturity counts

Ultimately, Quebec-raised players are coming into pro football a year older than their counterparts from the rest of Canada and that's something broadcaster and former star lineman Chris Schultz has often said can be the difference between being a young man and a grown man.

"I agree with that. He's right," said Argos' centre Dominic Picard, another Laval grad who has been in the league four years. "We got more playing time and we get to play more games and it reflects what's going on."

And it's not just French people, he points out. With two English Cégep in Montreal (and six overall in the province), there is a growth of English-speaking Quebecers coming along as well.

Légaré does see one down point to the extra year — he's starting his CFL career at 26, rather than 24 or 25, so perhaps it'll end a little quicker.

On the other hand, he's a healthy 26. And in the grinder of pro football, that's a big deal.

Québécois in the Canadian Football League as of Week 1:

Montreal Alouettes (7)

  • Martin Bédard (Fullback)
  • Étienne Boulay (Safety)
  • Luc Brodeur-Jourdain (Centre)
  • Éric Deslauriers (Receiver)
  • Danny Desriveaux (Receiver)
  • Paul Lambert (Guard)
  • Mathieu Proulx (Safety)

Toronto Argonauts (6)

  • Jean-Nicolas Carrière (Defensive tackle) — born in Ottawa, raised in Quebec
  • Obed Cétoute (Receiver)
  • Davis, Adrian (Defensive End)
  • Étienne Légaré (Defensive End)
  • Dominic Picard (Centre)
  • Brad Smith (Receiver)

Hamilton Tiger-Cats (5)

  • Guillaume Allard-Caméus (Running back)
  • Cédric Gagné-Marcoux (Centre)
  • Alexandre Gauthier (Guard)
  • Marwan Hage (Offensive line)
  • Matt Robichaud (Linebacker)

Winnipeg Blue Bombers (3)

  • Steven Holness (Defensive back)
  • Pierre-Luc Labbé (Linebacker)
  • Shawn Mayne (Defensive End)

Calgary Stampeders (6)

  • Jabari Arthur (Receiver)
  • Marc Calixte (Linebacker)
  • Randy Chevrier (Defensive tackle)
  • Alain Kashama (Defensive end)
  • Fernand Kashama (Running back)
  • Miguel Robédé (Defensive tackle)

Edmonton Eskimos (3)

  • Mathieu Bertrand (Fullback)
  • Kevin Challenger (Receiver)
  • Patrick Kabongo (Offensive line)

Saskatchewan Roughriders (3)

  • Jocelyn Frenette (Guard)
  • Marc Parenteau (Offensive line)
  • Jonathan St-Pierre (Offensive line)

B.C. Lions (1)

  • Bwenge, Alexis (Fullback)