The Columbus Dispatch

Can ex-jackets goalie save Quebec hockey?

- Michael Arace Columnist

We know Marc Denis can carry a team, or that he will try his best even if it kills him.

In 2002-03, “Goaltender Denis” as then-radio man George Matthews called him, was asked to put the Blue Jackets on his back. Given that the Jackets were one of the worst teams in the league the previous season, and would be once again, this was quite a burden. But, by gum, the indefatiga­ble, baby-faced 25-year-old gave it his all.

Denis saw more rubber than the I-70/71 split. He made 77 appearance­s, won 27 games and posted five shutouts. He set a then-record for minutes played in a season with 4,511. Given the (minus) defensemen he had in front of him, it was a remarkable campaign.

Nearly 20 years later, Denis, a Montreal native, is being asked to help save his province.

To wit: Quebec Premier Francois Legault earlier this month held a press conference at the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens, to announce that a committee is being formed to study why the province is finding it increasing­ly difficult to produce hockey players, and to recommend solutions.

Denis, whose 13-year pro playing career ended with a cup of coffee with the Canadiens in 2009, and who is now wellestabl­ished as an analyst with the French-speaking RDS network in Montreal, was named to chair the committee. Solid choice. Quality human being. The New York Times expounded on the issue at hand in its national print editions Saturday. The headline: “Quebec Has Fewer NHL Players Than Sweden!” The Gray Lady used an exclamatio­n point in a headline! When was the last time that happened? The punctuatio­n is appropriat­e.

Sweden has 71 Nhlers at last count. Quebec has 51. Finland, with 40, is gaining fast.

“I accepted to be head of a committee to oversee the developmen­t of the sport of hockey in the province of Quebec,” Denis said via text. “Our mandate is to establish the state of affairs, identify issues and deliver proposals in a report for the spring.”

Of the 34 players who wore a Blue Jackets jersey over the course of the 2002-03 season, 24 were from Canada. Four were from Quebec (including Jeanluc Grand-pierre) and another (Kevin Dineen) was born in Quebec.

Of the 26 players on the Jackets' current roster, six are Canadian and none are from Quebec — the largest of Canada's 10 provinces by area and, after Ontario, the second-most populous.

In fact, your 2021-22 Jackets — maybe the most internatio­nally diverse team in the NHL — are representa­tive of how the league has morphed over the past halfcentur­y. The change began when the

league began modifying its draft rules in 1963, late the Original Six era. It continued apace through numerous expansions over five decades, as 26 teams were added.

Expansion, along with the fall of the Berlin wall, the growth of the players' union and the redistribu­tion of revenues, and other factors (such as television and Wayne Gretzky) have made the world's best profession­al hockey league a beacon for the world. That, in turn, has led to global growth of the game.

Canadians still represent the largest share (43%) of the league's players. The U.S. representa­tion has continued to grow, but at 27% it's a distant second place. Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic, combined, make up another 24%.

The Jackets are the best example of the NHL melting pot: Six Canadians, six Americans, four Swedes, two Finns, two Swiss, one Czech, one Dane, one Latvian and one Frenchman (from France, not Quebec).

In fact, there are more Columbusbo­rn-or-raised players (three) wearing Union Blue than there are Quebecers. If that sounds strange, maybe it shouldn't. Maybe the Jackets are doing a better job growing the game at the grassroots level in Ohio than the Canadiens are doing in Quebec.

Denis will figure it out.

He said, “(The) broad spectrum that we will look into: accessibil­ity; grassroots; athlete developmen­t; coach formation; referee retention; women's hockey; competitio­n models and programs; etc.”

Columbus has room to do more, as there remain swaths of central Ohio (and beyond) where opportunit­y remains beyond reach, often for financial reasons. The issue is much bigger in Quebec, where the premier has called for a task force because it sickens him when he sees a Canadiens team with no Quebecers, as happened last season.

When the Canadiens won five Stanley Cups in a row in the 1950s, and four in five years in the 1960s, they did so with players they had once stashed on junior teams they sponsored. In a sense, they had talent on every street corner of the province, and they knew this type of AAU game better than the American idiots in New York.

The Canadiens have won 24 Stanley Cups, three fewer championsh­ips than the Yankees and seven more than the Celtics. They last lifted the Cup in 1993. In 2017, when the NHL named its 100 best players in 100 years, there were 24 former Canadiens on the list, 14 of whom were born in Quebec.

Other Quebecois on the 100 list, among others, are Mario Lemieux, Marcel Dionne, Mike Bossy and Martin Brodeur, who thrice eclipsed Denis' record for minutes played in a season.

This is out of left field, but . . . Major League Baseball needs to look at how it invests in its future. It barely fertilizes its grassroots in North America. Shame on them.

My view: The Crew and the Blue Jackets make a decent job of it but they've only scratched the surface.

On a larger scale, Finland had a reckoning and began supporting lower-income areas 10 years ago, to excellent results. Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen played a part.

In Quebec, the government is backing Denis and a panel of 14 to plot a course. It'll be interestin­g to see what he/they come up with by the end of March. Knowing Denis, it will be edifying.

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 ?? COLUMBUS DISPATCH FILE PHOTO ?? Goalie Marc Denis set a then-record for minutes played in a season with 4,511 while with the Blue Jackets in 2002-03.
COLUMBUS DISPATCH FILE PHOTO Goalie Marc Denis set a then-record for minutes played in a season with 4,511 while with the Blue Jackets in 2002-03.

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