Ex-NHLer alleges bias against francophones

A former NHL player claims in a new book that he has documented proof that there's a bias against French-Canadian players in the NHL.

New Bob Sirois book chronicles difficulties of French-Canadian players

A former NHL player alleges in a new book that he has documented proof there's a bias against French-Canadian players in the NHL.

Bob Sirois makes the argument in Le Quebec mis en echec: la discrimination envers les Québécois dans le LNH (Quebec Bodychecked: Discrimination against Quebecers in the NHL ), which will be released Tuesday.

Sirois uses draft lists and NHL rosters over the past decades to make his case, documenting all Quebec-born players in the league.

"I wanted all the facts, because even myself I didn’t know," he says.

For Hockey Night in Canada Radio host Jeff Marek, it's not that Quebec isn't still churning out a healthy number of NHLers of various positions and skill levels.

Rather, it's more about an unrealistic expectation that one province could keep up the 1950s to 1980s levels of NHL participation in the wake of the evolution and globalization of the league.

"The reality is the rest of the world has caught up," Marek said in an interview. "The days where every year either Gilbert Perreault, or Guy Lafleur or Marcel Dionne were selected first overall, those days are gone.

"That ship has sailed. Helsinki, Stockholm, Moscow, Prague have all caught up to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League."

Top picks often from outside Canada

Indeed, Canadians have been selected as the top pick in just five of the last 11 NHL entry drafts. There have been Americans, Russians and a Czech-born player.

Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was the only Quebec-born player to be selected first overall during that span, although Vincent Lecavalier and Alexandre Daigle were in the top spot in the 1990s.

The spectre of discrimination against Quebec-born players has come up both for academic scrutiny and less sober analysis just about as long as hockey has been played in this country.

The 1955 Rocket Richard suspension by league president Clarence Campbell led to a fervent Quebec nationalist reaction and a riot. 

A study of 1977-78 NHL compensation data suggested there was evidence of possible salary discrimination against French-Canadian defencemen compared to their anglophone peers.

The pre-eminence of the world junior hockey tournament over the past two decades in Canada has led to debate as the top teens picked for the national team don't always reflect a neat geographical distribution.

Quebec teams win 4 of 28 Memorial Cups

Don Hay and Hockey Canada in 1994 had to fend off charges of bias from QMJHL officials after only Daigle and Eric Daze were selected among six Quebec players who tried out.

More recently, there was disappointment among some Quebec hockey observers when Jonathan Bernier, who started the 2007 season with the Los Angeles Kings, was passed over three months later as starter for the Canadian team by coach Craig Hartsburg in favour of Steve Mason.

Sirois notes that about 19 per cent of Quebec players who made it to the NHL were not drafted, according to his research, compared to a rate of 10 per cent among the rest of the league's players.

In other words, more Quebec players have had to scrap to find a place in the NHL.

But does a player drafted in the seventh round and born in Ontario or Alberta really hold any kind of advantage over an undrafted free agent from Quebec? More importantly, are the numbers affected by a perception about the Quebec-born players itself or the QMJHL as a whole?

Teams from Quebec have won just four of the last 28 Memorial Cups, with nine going to Ontario Hockey League teams and 15 to Western Hockey League representatives.

"Once upon a time, Quebec had the best hockey system in the world — hands down," said Marek.

"The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has always been an offence-first hockey league ... it's high-flying, it's action-packed, it's a fun league to watch. Does it translate to the NHL game? Not as smoothly as it used to."

The 55-year-old Sirois can no doubt relate to the plight of the Quebec player struggling to crack the NHL.

He played 286 NHL games in the 1970s, but couldn't establish a foothold with the powerhouse Philadelphia Flyers. He flourished with 54- and 61-point seasons for a relatively new Washington Capitals squad very short on skill.

Sirois said too often Quebec skaters have been considered for the top skill positions on forward and defence, or nothing at all.

"I played in the NHL with all kinds of players … and I saw a lot of players playing there who weren’t even comparable to Jacques Cossette … to Michel Déziel, I would say … I’m just naming these two, they’re both in Hall of Fame of the Quebec hockey league. And they were great players, they were tough players, they were goal scorers, but they weren’t able to break the lineup on the first line [and didn't play at all]."

Sirois singles out NHL clubs Buffalo and Philadelphia for praise in mining Quebec for talent, but criticizes Bob Gainey, both in his terms as general manager in Dallas and now in Montreal.

"He was there [in Dallas] for eight years, and in the eight-year period he was there, he drafted two Quebecers," said Sirois. "I don’t think he would have done that if he would have been eight years in Montreal and drafting only two Quebecers in Montreal."

Even among the depth players on a roster, Marek doubts that individual teams are thinking much about where someone was born.

"With so many millions of dollars, jobs, careers on the line, no one's going to let [bias] get in the way of putting the best team on the ice," says Marek.

For his part, Sirois takes pains to say he holds no grudge against the NHL and that he only wants to start a discussion based on facts and not emotion. 


With files from The Canadian Press