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Well, we never.

French Immersion rarely shirks from an occasion to rise to the barricades, and the Francophone half of our twin identities has a chip on its shoulder the size of the Mount-Royal cross on matters relating to language.

And as you can see by the absurd length of this post, we have lots to say on the subject, and we've even spent a little bit of time thinking about it.

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We promise not to let that happen too often, and no one here at FI expects any but the most masochistic among you to read to the bottom.

But if ever there was occasion to call the Impératif français hotline or dispatch the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste flying squad - loaded down with the collected works of Gérald Godin, a bunch of Mes Aïeux records and a choice selection of products from the terroir - this is it.

Louis Leblanc, first draft choice of the greatest hockey team in history and standard-bearer of Habs nation, is in the fast-lane toward assimilation in his first weeks as a student at Harvard University.

"I feel like I'm already an Anglophone," quoth Leblanc, a native of the worryingly bilingual Montreal suburb of Kirkland, Que., in an interview with the indispensable Mathias Brunet of La Presse.

It is to weep.

Unless it isn't.

Leblanc, like all Francophone hockey players, has a strong incentive to learn English, in that it's the lingua franca across the hockey world - yes, even the Habs practise in English, and have for at least a half-century if not longer.

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The kid even spent last year in Omaha, fer gawd's sake.

And while there is much to deplore in l'Affaire Leblanc (and yes, he was joking, for those unaccustomed to the hilariously sarcastic tone employed by our team of under-worked writers) it's not as spine-chilling as the research carried out by former NHL player Bob Sirois.

You see, it turns out the league has a bad case of "anti-Francophone virus".

Sirois has found players from Quebec, a plucky peuple whose recent population explosion changes nothing in the fact our overall demographic heft is declining relative to the vast oceans of Anglos who surround us, now represent an ever-smaller proportion of NHL players.

Oh, goody.

Another recurrence of the dreaded hockey-language nexus, for those who just couldn't get enough of "Frog"-gate I, the ongoing legal skirmish pitting Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan against former Liberal cabinet minister Denis Coderre (or should that be "Liberal" since his outburst against the leader he so wholeheartedly supports?)

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To be fair, Sirois' book appears to contain - what? You expect us to actually read it when there's hockey practices to be watched? - a sophisticated and exhaustive statistical analysis.

It establishes, among other things, that French-speaking Quebec-reared players are less likely to be drafted than their Anglo counterparts.

And the Francophones who do stick in the NHL are disproportionately more successful than Anglos, winning awards or trophies in almost 42 per cent of cases. This is apparently bolsters the argument that you have to be that much better than an Anglo to play if you're French-speaking.

Quebec-born French-speaking players are also less likely to find themselves in gritty, grinding roles on the third or fourth lines, and are routinely mis-portrayed as soft, defensively-reckless goal sucks.

Some teams are worse offenders than others, the more Franco-friendly ones include Buffalo, Philadelphia and Toronto (the villains of the piece are Phoenix, Dallas and Nashville - and to a lesser extent, Montreal).

But it seems to us that the book is also a tacit, but nevertheless devastating indictment of the QMJHL and the province's midget-AAA league.

If scouts can track down a prospect in Kazakhstan, surely they can get to Victoriaville, and if they don't like what they see, might it just be that the Q isn't giving them what they're looking for?

Is it coaching? Are they not practising enough? Are too many kids switching to soccer or football to sustain the flow of top prospects?

When was the last time a Quebec-based team made the final of the world's largest peewee tournament, held in Quebec City every year? 2003.

Could it be that NHL jobs that once went to Francos in an era of regional drafting rights are now going to Finns and Russians and Slovaks who may be less scouted and therefore more susceptible to being a draft-day bargain or a Zetterbergian late-bloomer?

Geoff Molson, the team's new chairman and principal partner, cited precisely those factors at the Habs' preseason golf tournament when asked if he will make a stronger commitment to bringing in more French-speakers (the answer was essentially yes, where possible).

But Sirois still singles out the Canadiens for particularly withering criticism.

"Quebec hockey players are headed for extinction with the Montreal Canadiens," he writes.

There are now only four French-speaking players on the Habs, the Flying Frenchmen of yore are no longer.

You'll be stunned to hear that none of the four wanted to comment on Sirois' book today.

To us, this is actually the nub of the problem.

When hockey plays as big a part in the forging of a collective identity as it has in Quebec - lots of scholarly types have looked at the question, hockey in the 1940s and 1950s was a vehicle for cultural emancipation, the Rocket showed it was possible to take on the Anglos and win - any perceived slight is magnified.

Many Quebecers get the sense that the game that helped make them who they are is now closed to them, that the verve and Gallic flair of the hockey played on rinks all over this province is sneered upon by a bigoted Anglo-dominated hockey oligarchy.

It also hints at a few uncomfortable home truths about the changing society here in Quebec, where allophones and immigrants are making up an ever-greater share of the population.

It's only natural to rage against the dying light. Plus the Habs haven't won a thing since 1993 (captain: Guy Carbonneau, the pride of Sept-Iles, leading scorer: Vincent Damphousse, of Montreal).

So just because the analysis has its flaws doesn't mean Sirois is all wrong.

There are fewer French-speaking NHLers. The disappearance of the Quebec Nordiques has not helped in that regard, and the Habs no longer have as many homegrown players as they did in their glory years.

There remains a stultified, xenophobic streak among hockey men (hello Don Cherry!), who tend overwhelmingly to be English-speaking white guys in their 50s.

There are still only a handful of blacks in the NHL, Leafs draft Nazem Khadri is only the second Muslim to be drafted into the league in the first round. And as Sirois also points out, French players are also routinely under-represented on Team Canada at both the senior and junior level.

These are facts.

But they don't, in our judgment, amount to incontrovertible proof of systemic discrimination at the NHL level, nor do they uncover a great anti-Franco conspiracy.

And the author doesn't always help himself.

For example, Sirois draws a link between GM Bob Gainey's work in Montreal and his previous job in Dallas, and says the number of Francos drafted on his watch (which began in 2003) has fallen sharply.

Yes, except, it isn't true.

A (very) quick tiptoe through the stats reveals the Canadiens drafting boffins - led by Trevor Timmins, who has a well-known fondness for taking obscure U.S. high school and minor college players - took two Francophones among their eight picks this past June (they signed three more as undrafted free agents).

And in the previous four drafts, 12 of the 47 players selected were French-speaking (that includes Swiss pair Mark Streit and Yannick Weber.)

Not a great record, admittedly.

But in the five drafts before that the Habs took 46 players - only nine of them were Francophones.

Now, we're not all that good at math, but…

And the fact is that unless the Francos in question have names like Brassard, Lecavalier, Bergeron (as in Patrice), Brière, Vlasic, St. Louis, or Gagné (who the Habs rather shockingly passed over in favour of the unlamented Eric Chouinard) it's not going to make a whit of difference to whether the Habs win.

And we doubt it would have helped even that nice fellow named Beauchemin (Habs draft, and one of the few to comment on the book: he doesn't see the discrimination) had signed here instead of Toronto.

And notwithstanding Sirois' analysis, the QMJHL may be coming back into vogue among NHL scouts.

We'll merely point out that even if there were no Francos drafted in the first round of the 2008 draft, five Quebec-trained players were taken in the first round last June (ok, one of them was Dmitri Kulikov, but he more than gets by in French).

In all, 23 players from the 18-team Q were taken, eight fewer than the 22-team WHL, and 12 fewer than the 20-team OHL, which had a bumper crop of prospects.

It's not an outrageous return for a league that hasn't exactly dominated national competitions at the pee-wee, midget or major junior levels over the last 25 years.

But those determined to see demons will usually find them in the dark shadows.

The book's cover - which Sirois says is meant to be ironic - features a big, nasty red-clad (read: federalist) bull facing off against the plucky, blue-wearing (read: nationalist) frog.

For those unfamiliar with the Quebecois vernacular, Anglos, and especially Westerners, are derisively referred to as "les boeufs de l'ouest" (or "western bulls").

On an issue where symbols and perceptions often seem to carry more weight than reality, that'll surely make the other solitude more receptive to the arguments, wouldn't you say?





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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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