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I remember distinctly Martin Brodeur swelling with pride during the latter stages of the 2003 Stanley Cup playoffs, when three of the four No. 1 goaltenders in the conference finals hailed from Quebec — Brodeur, Ottawa’s Patrick Lalime and Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere — and the fourth, Minnesota’s Manny Fernandez, was born in Ontario, but raised in Quebec.
“Oh, I remember,” Brodeur, now a Devils hockey department executive, told Slap Shots recently. “Those were the days.”
Eighteen Quebec-born netminders (plus Fernandez) started at least one game in the NHL that season. They were ubiquitous and they were elite, just as they had been since the days of Jacques Plante. Quebec-born netminders won eight of the 18 Vezina Trophies awarded from 1989-2008.
Now, they are an endangered species on the verge of becoming extinct. There are exactly two Quebecers in NHL nets this season: Vegas’ Hall-of-Fame-bound 36-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury and Detroit’s trade-deadline-bound 32-year-old Jonathan Bernier.
There are nine Finland-born netminders who have started at least one game this 2020-21. Plus eight who identify as Russian. Five from Sweden. Four Czechs. Two who hail from Germany. One from Denmark, one from Latvia, one from Slovakia. Sixteen Americans.
Again, two French-Canadians. This could represent the End of Days.
“There’s a few factors, I believe,” Martin Biron, whose 16-year career included stints with the Rangers and Islanders, told Slap Shots. “I’ve thought about this for a long time and have had discussions with a lot of people on the subject.
“One factor is obviously the European invasion — the Russians, the Swedes, the Finns, they’ve really developed their goaltenders to the level that was never there before. They have a structure in Europe that allows for development. They don’t rush their goalies. They allow them to play at their youth level, they don’t move them ahead two or three steps, they are able to play in the second league professionally and then they move them up to the top league.
“It really is a development model over there that I don’t think we have here, and it’s hurting, especially in Quebec,” said the loquacious 43-year-old Biron, currently an MSG analyst on Sabres games. “So that’s one factor.
“The second period is probably more of a direct factor to the actual goalies that are developed in Quebec. In my generation there was one hockey school in the summer you went to if you were a goalie and wanted to learn the game, and it was Frank and Benny’s Goalie School in Montreal. That was the Allaire brothers. They were the top. Everybody went there. It really set the development model in the province of Quebec.
“That school ended because Frank moved to Anaheim, Benoit took over the Montreal Canadiens before going to Arizona [and then the Rangers],” said Biron, selected 16th overall by Buffalo in the 1995 draft. “So that goalie school ended, and I really feel that left a void in the development of goalies in the province.”
Brodeur cited the evolving evolution of goalie coaches, “who all go to Europe.” But the NHL’s all-time winningest netminder also said he thought the lack of role models has its trickle-down effect, too.
“From my point of view, I looked up to Patrick Roy. Then I came with Felix Potvin, and there was something for young kids in Quebec to look at,” Brodeur said. “And then there were Jose Theodore and Roberto Luongo and some other guys who came after my age bracket.
“But after that, I can’t say why, but there’s really been no one to come along. First the Swedes and now the Russians put in development programs. I don’t think there is an easy solution.”
Biron believes there is another component to the story that fits into Brodeur’s assessment, and that is the Nordiques’ departure for Colorado following the 1994-95 season.
“This coincides with the generation of kids that stepped away from hockey,” said Biron, who grew up in Quebec City as a huge Nordiques fan and ‘‘hated Patrick Roy.’’
“You don’t have the same number of kids who play hockey in Quebec like you used to because after the Nordiques left, part of the hockey culture, especially in the eastern side of the province, kind of slowly faded away,” he said. “People started doing other things. They started playing soccer, they started going skiing. I think that may be associated with that lack of a role model.”
This is the game’s evolution, just the way seven of the NHL’s top 14 goal-scorers through Friday were born in the USA. Yet that doesn’t mean the ongoing obsolescence of French-Canadian netminders is no less startling to those steeped in NHL tradition.
Or as Plante, who carried the anglicized nickname of “Jake The Snake,” might have said: “Sacre bleu.”
You know who is having a pretty good season? P.K. Subban, who has all but eliminated The Big Mistake from his repertoire and is playing reliably understated hockey in New Jersey, that’s who.
The Spirit of 76 has one year with a $9 million cap hit remaining on his deal. If the Devils retain half, contenders with needs on the right side of the blue line could do much worse than acquiring Subban.
I have written this for years, but if the league wants to crack down not only on head hunters but also on the organizations that protect them, then: A) Teams should not be able to replace players suspended for headshots in the lineup, meaning they’d play a man short for the duration of the sentence; and, B) Head coaches should be suspended for the same length of time as the players they routinely enable.
I don’t think John Tavares has done enough at this point to be a Hall of Famer. Do you?
If you watched Jimmy Vesey during the 2017 playoffs, you would not have quite guessed this for the prize of the 2016 collegiate free agent class.
The Rangers beat the Flyers, 9-0, on Wednesday, The Flyers beat the Islanders 4-3 on Thursday. Or as John Sterling said, “That’s hockey, Suzyn.”
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