MONTREAL – The dispute is quintessentially Canadian.
First there was debate about language, hockey was involved, provincial politicians piled in, separatists squared off with federalists and, finally, the Prime Minister’s Office has waded into this made-in-Canada melee.
Stephen Harper’s office has skated to the defence of the Montreal Canadiens after some provincial politicians took shots at the team for its lack of French players.
Members of the Parti Quebecois, the opposition party in Quebec, have in recent days derided the Habs as a pro-Canada propaganda tool.
By Thursday afternoon, the highest office in the land was dropping its gloves and bumping its way into the rhetorical brawl.
Harper’s office said Quebec sovereigntists should leave the hockey team alone. In doing so, the PMO sought to draw some political benefit from the skirmish.
It dragged the name of its own opponent—the Bloc Quebecois—into the affair, even though the Ottawa-based party hardly controls the public utterances of its PQ cousins.
“The sovereignty movement of (Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles) Duceppe is in the process of politicizing one of the few Quebec institutions shared by everyone, not only in Quebec, but in Canada,” Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas said.
“We all know that Mr. Duceppe also sees federalist plots everywhere.”
The Habs defended themselves earlier Thursday.
The team’s owner, Geoff Molson, was asked about the PQ’s criticism by reporters at the Canadiens’ annual golf tournament. Molson called it a funny question and said he wasn’t keen on responding.
But he then offered a curt dismissal of the accusation.
“We are in the hockey business and not into politics,” Molson said.
“I can tell you we don’t talk about politics in the dressing room.”
Quebec’s official Opposition leader, Pauline Marois, said this week the Habs have become a promotional tool for Canadian federalism.
She said she wished the team had more francophone stars she could cheer for. One of her PQ caucus members went even further: Pierre Curzi said recently the Habs are actively plotting against Quebec separatism—and that the exclusion of French-speaking players was part of that plot.
In making that argument, the PQ was picking up on a common complaint in recent years that the legendary team—once dubbed the Flying Frenchmen—has almost no French-speaking players anymore.
There’s only one Quebecois—Maxim Lapierre—in the Habs’ regular lineup, which is equal to the number of Danes and Belarussians on the roster. By way of comparison, the team has four Americans and three Czechs.
Many commenters over the years have indeed urged the Habs to be mindful of their role as a local cultural institution; they bristled, for instance, at the fact former captain Saku Koivu never bothered to learn French.
But when language controversies occasionally flare up around the team, other fans react in frustration and say they wish people could keep their politics and their hockey separate.
Some of the players at the golf tournament weathered questions about language Thursday.
The man rumoured to be the team’s next captain, Brian Gionta, said he’d like to learn French. His teammate, Scott Gomez, also tested out a few lines in the language of Moliere for the assembled media.
Gionta said his wife has hired a French tutor and that he’s been trying to pick up some of the language simply by talking to people. He said he wants to learn some French regardless of whether he becomes captain.
“I don’t think it matters if you have a (captain’s) letter on your jersey or not—it’s a great culture and we want to be part of it,” Gionta said.
“We came here, we embraced the culture and we want to experience it. We want to learn it and be part of it.”
In Quebec City on Thursday, members of the federalist provincial government called the great puck polemic a piece of evidence that the Parti Quebecois is becoming increasingly radical.
But at the Habs’ golf tournament, the team owner was sounding rather stoic about the situation.
“This team is part of the culture, it’s part of our fabric . . . and it’s emotional for people and everyone has the right to their opinions for sure,” Molson said.
“But I’m definitely not going to be the one that’s going to get into a political debate about whether we’re federalist or not. The important thing is I’m really focused on having a good hockey team.”