National Post (National Edition)
MONTREAL'S FLYING FINNS.
The Montreal Canadiens used to be known as “the Flying Frenchmen.” The term originated during the First World War, when the Franco-Ontarian line of Jack Laviolette, Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre led the team to its first Stanley Cup in 1915-16. The tag held through the decades as players like Richard (both Maurice and Henri), Béliveau, Geoffrion, Lafleur, Plante, Bouchard, Cournoyer, Savard and Lapointe played their way to having their jerseys retired in first the Forum and now the Bell Centre rafters.
We don't say “Frenchmen” anymore, of course. That term was cancelled long ago. Today we'd call them the Flying Francophones. Care with words is important in Quebec. Given the way intergovernmental relations are going, it probably won't be long before “Canadiens” itself causes problems. The lost-in-Quebec federal Conservatives may already be debating whether to support changing the team's name to something less irksome to soft nationalists.
Critical name theory aside, what would be most realistic today would be “the Flying Finns.” Of the 10 players Montreal protected in the expansion draft for the new Seattle Kraken, three are Finns: Joel Armia, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Artturi Lehkonen. Lehkonen, a defensive forward, does actually fly around the ice. The other two are not so fleet of skate: Armia is a big, defensive-minded, puck-controlling forward; Kotkaniemi, a gangly 21-yearold with a good wrist shot and great vision who has not yet hit his stride.
OK, of the 10 who were protected, six others are English-speaking Canadians (Josh Anderson, Jake Evans, Brendan Gallagher, Tyler Toffoli, Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson) and one is American (Jeff Petry), so “Montreal Canadians,” with an Anglo A rather than a Franco E, would be most apt.
But the most overrepresented country on the roster is Finland, a nation of just 5.5 million, barely more than British Columbia. Although the three protected Finns scored only 17 goals during the 56-game regular season (about which nothing was regular this year), they notched another 15 in just 22 playoff games. Tough, reliable playoff performers are what teams want these days, and Finland has a reputation for producing the grittiest Scandinavian players.
What's most notable about the list, however, is the absence of francophones. Phillip Danault, a shutdown centre born in Victoriaville, Que., and Jonathan Drouin, a slick forward born in Ste-Agathe, Que., were left off — Danault because of bitterness over a lingering contract dispute and Drouin because in four years after coming over from Tampa he has not thrived in Montreal.
If you prefer “francophone” to be a linguistic rather than ethnic term, none of Montreal's protected Anglos can say more than “Merci,” even those who have been with the team as long as nine years. The original Flying Frenchmen were brought to Montreal because the Canadiens' thenowner wanted to appeal more to French-speaking fans.
Francophones are still the biggest part of the fan base but only one Anglo player, forward Paul Byron, can do French interviews — even though French hockey interviews are mainly English: scoré, checké, game, overtime, power play, peekay (penalty kill). Professional sports is an entertainment business. You'd think the team could get young players to spend a couple of hours a week with charming language teachers. You don't have to speak perfect French to live in Montreal. But you should be able to speak some.
That language clearly doesn't matter says something about business in a competitive world. It's widely agreed that Montreal's general manager and coach have to speak French. But the current incumbents, Marc Bergevin and Dominique Ducharme, are clearly focused on winning and they believe Finns can win.
These days much public policy seems based on the assumption that people don't really calculate benefits and costs. Those who support further extension of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, for instance, argue it doesn't affect recipients' thinking about whether to stay on benefits or go back to work.
Yet many of these same people who supposedly don't make such calculations spend lots of their time watching professional sports, where calculation is endemic. For instance, another aspect of the NHL protection draft is that it forces teams to reveal who they think they've overpaid. Thus Montreal did not protect two players everyone acknowledges were key to this spring's run to the Stanley Cup final.
Had Montreal won, goaltender Carey Price almost certainly would have won the Conn Smythe Trophy for most valuable player in the playoffs. But he turns 34 next month, is often injured and is paid more than $10 million a year. Similarly, team captain and stalwart defenceman Shea Weber, soon to turn 36, has a cap hit of $7.8 million a year through 2025-26.
Assuming Montreal does still want these two players, it's betting Seattle will decide that paying that much money for players closer to the end of their careers than the beginning isn't worth it and will pass, letting Montreal keep them as well as their Flying Finns. But the lesser-paid Finns, though not the contributors Price and Weber are, are at this stage better value per dollar, as Seattle likely would have realized.
Millions of Canadians follow this kind of calculation on a daily basis. Most of them also want the best people for their favourite team, regardless of nationality. Yet when it comes to businesses, policy-makers want to impose detailed regulations and obligations of all sorts, with no apparent thought to how it will affect their ability to perform.
We usually talk about how sports is like life. But maybe life needs to be more like sports.