The province that produced Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Patrick Roy is asking itself why so few of its 21st-century players have made it to the NHL’s top ranks – and finds the answer is a complicated mix of economics, globalization and social change

A pantheon of Quebec hockey greats, clockwise from top left: Guy Lafleur, shown in 1977; Jacques Plante and Maurice (Rocket) Richard in 1960; Patrick Roy in 1993; and Jean Béliveau in 1958.
The Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail
Béliveau. Lafleur. Roy. Lemieux.
The names need little explanation for Canadian hockey fans. They are just a few of the immortal Québécois players who graced the game in the 20th century with butterfly goaltending and scalding slap shots.
But something has changed in the home of Maurice Richard. The cadre of Quebec players in the NHL has sharply declined over the past 20 years. The newspaper Le Devoir estimated that the number who regularly lace up for an NHL team has been roughly cut in half since the turn of the millennium.
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Meanwhile, in a subtler change also lamented by the provinces press corps, the Quebec players who do make it to the grand circuit seem less illustrious than their forebears. Where are todays Marcel Dionnes, Luc Robitailles and Gilbert Perreaults?
When the NHL made its centenary list in 2017 of the 100 best players in league history, 24 were Quebeckers (including all of the above). Despite the exploits of current stars such as this years first overall draft pick Alexis Lafrenière, the Florida Panthers Jonathan Huberdeau and the Boston Bruins Patrice Bergeron, it is hard to imagine many of the provinces contemporary products joining that rank. Its true that on the levels of stars, there arent many francophones, said the sports historian Michel Vigneault, a course instructor at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
A man takes a picture of a child at a Maurice (Rocket) Richard statue outside Montreal’s Bell Centre in 2013.
Graham Hughes/The Globe and Mail
In a province where hockey has historically taken on the trappings of religion, the decline of homegrown icons brings about regular hand-wringing. The veteran sportswriter Michel Beaudry wrote a February column for Le Journal de Montréal titled Were going down which noted that Alberta, with its 50 NHLers, had the same number as la belle province, with half the population. The Toronto area alone had 29 NHL players last season, Mr. Beaudry noted dejectedly more than double the number from Montreal and its suburbs.
What accounts for the apparent decline of Quebec hockey? Its not easy to explain, said Mr. Vigneault. Its not just one event or one idea. There are multiple variables.
Raw economics may be part of the story. Quebec francophones thrived on the ice in an era when scrappy origins were an asset in building hockey greatness. Guy Lafleur cleaned pig stalls to stay in shape as a kid. Maurice Richard famously hauled furniture into his familys new apartment the same day he scored five goals in a game.
But where once hockey was a rural and working-class pursuit, its elite levels are now often inaccessible without money. High-end equipment, registration fees, and specialized lessons have made the sport increasingly expensive for ambitious young players. A recent report by the U.S. market research firm WinterGreen Research found that Canadian families spend an average of almost $1,800 a year on the sport.
The countrys hockey factories now reside in its richest pockets: Toronto, the big cities of Alberta, and Saskatchewan, with its resource wealth. Quebecs relative poverty its GDP per capita is only about 85 per centof the national average may have become a drag on its hockey prodigies.
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The Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins stand for O Canada before an Eastern Conference qualification game this past August, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in progress.
Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images
Ryan Compton, an economics professor at the University of Manitoba and a hockey dadhimself, has seen the games gentrification first hand, in a year-round grind of costly travel and paid ice time.
Youre just drawing from a different segment of society, he said. Its not going to be surprising if youre going to have areas of the country falling behind economically, that youll have them falling behind from a hockey perspective.
The American parents Prof. Compton has noticed dropping their kids off at tournaments in luxury SUVs represent another trend in the professional game that has affected Quebec: the rise of the U.S. and Europe. Canadians once made up about 90 per centof NHL rosters; now its less than half. The leagues expansion into the Sun Belt states, and the fall of the Iron Curtain, brought new pools of skill that inevitably diluted Quebecs share of the worlds top players.
Hockeys globalization also helped put an end to the tradition of Quebec teams recruiting from their own backyard. The Habs had always built a reservoir of local talent by sponsoring farm teams across the province, in one case buying an entire amateur league to secure the services of Jean Béliveau. Most francophone players dreamed of playing for the bleu-blanc-rouge anyway. (Denis Savard wept after the Canadiens passed on him in the 1980 draft.)m
When the Quebec Nordiques joined the league in 1979 with a fleur-de-lys insignia and a challenge to Montreals supremacy over the provinces hockey loyalties, it created an arms race for French-speaking Quebeckers that accelerated the trend. People counted the number of francophone players on each team, said Mr. Vigneault, the historian. It was always this battle.
But when the Nordiques left for Colorado in 1995, it ended the practice of provincial one-upmanship, and the Canadiens interest in Quebec players seemed to wane. The Habs most popular skaters of the last two decades have included Saku Koivu, a Finn, and P.K. Subban, a Torontonian of Jamaican descent.
P.K. Subban, then of the Montreal Canadiens, speaks to reporters in Ottawa in 2013.
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Even Quebecs once-fabled bumper crop of goaltenders has withered. Inspired by Montreals brilliant netminder Patrick Roy and coach François Allaire, who both emphasized the low-to-the-ice butterfly style, a generation of talented goalies such as Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur emerged from the province in the 1990s.
But goalies everywhere soon adopted the butterfly, and Quebec lost its edge in the crease, too. There were an astounding 18 Quebec netminders in the NHL for the 1999-2000 season, noted Mr. Beaudry, compared to just six last year.
The provinces hockey pipeline isnt drying up at only the highest level; its kids have been turning away from the sport as well. Recreational registration in Quebec has declined over the last decade, from more than 100,000 players in 2009 to about 87,000 last year, a steeper drop than anywhere else in the country, according to Hockey Canada figures. The Western provinces saw increases in registrations during that stretch.
Gone are the days depicted by Roch Carrier in The Hockey Sweater, when legions of boys played shinny next to the church, pomaded their hair like Maurice Richard and declared that their real life was on the skating-rink.
Quebeckers discovered other pastimes. The Montreal Olympics in 1976 introduced the province to new sports, while immigrants from southern Europe and North Africa brought a taste for soccer, said Mr. Vigneault.
The Canadiens stopped winning Stanley Cups (their last was in 1993), while the CFLs Montreal Alouettes started winning Grey Cups, helping spark renewed interest in football among Quebec francophones. The most popular athlete in the province right now might just be Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a Super Bowl-winning offensive lineman for theKansas City Chiefs, and a medical school graduate to boot, who opted out of the current season because ofCOVID-19 and volunteered in a Quebec long-term care home at the height of the pandemic.
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Kansas City Chiefs player Laurent Duvernay-Tardif poses next to an ice sculpture of the Vince Lombardi trophy at a Montreal event this past February.
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Its unlikely, of course, that anything will ever truly dethrone hockey in Quebecs heart. Millions of people from the Gaspé peninsula to the Eastern Townships still thrill to the game; fully 94 per cent of Quebeckers continue to root for the Canadiens, according to a 2015 survey.
But if the sports place in the provincial psyche has shrunk, and the geyser of Geoffrions and Cournoyers has abated, that might just be a sign of progress. When Rocket Richard appeared on the scene in the 1940s, Quebecs economy was dominated by an anglophone elite. Worshipping the ember-eyed right wing filled a need for francophone heroes in an era where national pride was hard to come by, argued Benoît Melançon, professor of literature at the University of Montreal and author of The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard.
There werent many models of success in the world of French Canadians, said Prof. Melançon. Success in hockey replaced success in other spheres.
The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s changed that. Even as Richard gave way to Béliveau, and Béliveau to Lafleur, the francophone majority asserted itself in other areas, with an explosion of cinema and popular music, and language laws ensuring French speakers would have a place in the corporate world. The Montreal Forum was no longer the only place to shine on a big stage.
Quebeckers continued to love the Canadiens and their native-born stars. But there was a difference, said Prof. Melançon: We needed them less.
Gilles Beliveau in 1979-80, Guy Lafleur in 1984 and Jean Béliveau in 1969.
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