Firstly, this is the least important blog post I’ve written. I’m not going to pretend this is a topic that matters. Yet, it’s a lingering question many French Canadian Habs fans outside of Québec often wonder about. So here it is.
Every NHL or professional sports team has a fanbase outside its regional area. That’s normal. There are lots of Bruins, Flyers, or Detroit Red Wings fans in Toronto or Ontario. However, the Montreal Canadiens have the strongest fanbase outside of Québec among the French Canadian population. It does happen that the odd French Canadian who lives outside of Québec isn’t a Habs fan. Though, Hab fans are the dominate gene with French Canadians coast to coast. So much so that Hab fans wonder why their compatriots aren’t fans. What went wrong?
Strangely, I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years.
I need look no further than my own family for some insight. My two youngest boys are Habs fans because I raised them to be so. I’m a good father. I watched Habs games with them in French. Bought them jerseys, hockey cards, and posters. It’s much like religion. You don’t really have much choice other than to follow what your parents teach you, at least a young age. Sometimes we make different choices, but usually, our family determines a lot of who we are.
It’s not always just a family thing. My being a Habs fan didn’t come from my parents. My father didn’t watch much hockey. It wasn’t until I started watching the Habs win all those Stanley Cups in the 60s and 70s as a young boy that my father became a fan. I was a fan because of two things. I went to a French Canadian school in Hamilton where most people were Habs fans, AND, one of my earliest childhood memories is a Montreal Canadiens hockey sweater from my grandfather when I was three years old. I can still feel the texture of its wool in my hands and see the glimmer of le Bleu Blanc Rouge crest.
Which hockey games are played in a person’s region also plays a part. Every French Canadian hockey fan I know who isn’t a Habs fan grew up in a region where the TV broadcasts were dominated by the regional teams. Whether it’s the Red Wings in south-western Ontario or the Leafs in most of Ontario, prior to the Senators in Ottawa, which team is playing on TV has a huge impact on creating a fanbase. Without influencers, like parents or friends, people will gravitate to the team that dominates their airwaves and media coverage. That’s why teams like the Leafs worked so hard for years to make sure Habs games were blacked out in the GTA and Golden Horseshoe. It’s not without deliberate planning that there are French Canadians in Southern Ontario who aren’t Habs fans, most often than not, they’re Leaf fans.
In addition to the regional media coverage and family influence factors there’s also the ethnic cultural factor. Most French Canadian Hab fans outside of Québec have made an ethnic connection to the team. It matters to them that it’s a French Canadian team. I’m not pretending the Habs are still a French Canadian team. It’s been decades since they’ve been dominated by French Canadians, or even had a French Canadian superstar. No, Jonathan Drouin doesn’t count. He’s no superstar. He’s no Guy LaFleur, Jean Beliveau, or Rocket Richard. Regardless, of the lack of French Canadian makeup of the team, it matters to the French Canadian Hab fans outside of Québec that the team is, to them, French Canadian. The Habs know this too. They go out of their way to brand their team as such, not just for the people of Québec who wouldn’t accept it any other way, but also for the French Canadians outside of Québec, over a million of us.
My anecdotal research indicates that French Canadians outside Québec who aren’t Habs fans don’t necessarily feel a strong connection to their French Canadian heritage. It’s not to say that it’s irrelevant to them, but rather that it’s not as important to them as it is for us Habs fans. Notwithstanding, there are a few French Canadians who aren’t Habs fans but do still have a strong connection to their ethnicity.
Being a French Canadian who’s lived outside Québec my whole life, I understand the connection to the region I live it. I’ve gone through periods in my life where my French Canadian background wasn’t as relevant to me. I’ve had to be intentional about wanting it to be relevant. Part of that has been keeping my connection to the Montreal Canadiens, as silly as that may seem to some.
Another major factor, especially in the context of the other factors, is the Superstar effect. Superstars in any sport are a leading factor in creating a strong fan base. Without a superstar, or a winning team, it’s hard to create or maintain fans. People love to support a team, but even more so, they love a superstar. Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, and now Connor McDavid are generational superstars that attracted young hockey fans in droves.
If you leave a young impressionable hockey fan to their own devices, they’ll gravitate to the sport’s superstars.
I can imagine that today there are thousands of French Canadian Oilers fans being created because of Connor McDavid and the superstar void left within the Habs.
At the end of the day, none of this really matters. Go out and support whatever team you want, even if it isn’t mine.
Or don’t support any team, in which case, you’re just weird (I had to say it, sorry).
Note: For the non-hockey fans. The picture above is my all-time favourite Montreal Canadien, Jean Béliveau. Le Gros Bill.