There aren’t a lot of things still considered sacred in Canada. There’s hockey and… well, there’s hockey. And when it comes to the country’s two most-historic National Hockey League franchises, countless Canadians are coming to terms with the changing multicultural face of their people. If only the teams weren’t losing.
For the uninitiated, the two teams are the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. With almost two centuries of professional hockey between them, they are the two pillars of Canadian society. We’re not exaggerating. In much of Canada, particularly the sprawling province of Ontario, the Maple Leafs are a symbol of all things Canuck-y, right down to their namesake. In Quebec, the Canadiens, also known as les Habitants, may be the last remaining bastion of French Canadian culture. But as with most things, globalization has changed some of that.
In Montreal, the team’s bilingual general manager Bob Gainey made a number of wholesale changes this past summer, including the hiring of new coach Jacques Martin, whose French background made him an ideal choice to lead the Francophone institution. But the new players hired by Gainey have taken les Habitants’ history and flipped it. The team known for its Flying Frenchmen lineage is now led by a number of English speakers, among them a Mexican from Alaska and two Italians, one of whom is Jewish. Even more shocking is how Quebec’s largely French-speaking population has been surprisingly understanding.
In Toronto, currently stuck in a 40-year run without a Stanley Cup, the team’s ownership has place the team in the hands of a new braintrust made up of (gasp, eh!) Americans. In general manager Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson, the Maple Leafs’ yankee leaders have also assembled a crop of new players, including American defenceman Mike Komisarek. Maple Leafs fans have had their druthers so far, but mostly because the team has yet to win a game two weeks into the season.
Of course, in a pro hockey league that now sees players hailing from California and Slovenia, Canadian teams are casting a larger net in finding talent. The Quebecois pool has taken a particularly-strong hit. After developing many of the world’s greatest players, Quebec players now make up roughly 6% of the NHL. But for a country that has cast the bulk of its spiritual lot in winning a hockey gold medal at the upcoming Olympics, Toronto and Montreal fan acceptance of their changing teams may be the single greatest example of Canadians truly embracing globalization. Honestly, we’re not exaggerating about this “Canadians live for hockey” thing.