"Rocket" Power Ignited The Habs First Language Controvery - Back in 1911!

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If ever you thought that language issues and concerns were ingrained into the fabric of Quebec and Montreal society for longer than you can recall, you are absolutely right.

In regards to the Canadiens and hockey in the province of Quebec, there is still the opinion in some quarters that the Canadiens require players of French Canadian descent in order to retain it's identity and prosper accordingly.

It's the kind of hogwash that amuses true Canadians and the type of fuel that enfuriates those with nationalist sentiments.

Recently, I finished reading the D' Arcy Jenish book "Montreal Canadiens - 100 Years Of Glory", and one of the more captivating passages had to do with this issue at the creation of the club. Those familiar with the Canadiens origins know that the club was created to fill a need amongst the French speaking populace for a hockey club that they could refer to as their own. The initial chapters in the Jenish book discuss these origins in great detail, and it is fascinating to learn that the language issue was there upon the club winning it's first game in it's history. 

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A quick summation of the events of 1909-10 and beyond, at the occasion of the Canadiens birth:

The original Canadiens team, unveiled to the public on December 4, 1909, was the brainchild of two men, Montreal Wanderers part owner Jimmy Gardner, and J.Ambrose O' Brien, owner of three hockey clubs in the Ottawa region. Both men were enraged at being left out of the newly formed CAHA,and sought to create their own rival league. All that was missing was a team of French players in Montreal to compete with the CAHA rival Montreal Nationale. The Canadiens survived due to O' Brien and Gardner's NHA league being quickly deemed superior, and after a dismal 2-10 season, the club was turned over, through much complication, to local Montreal interests headed by wrestling promoter George Kendall Kennedy.

Since the outset, it was an NHA mandate to stock the Canadiens with only French born and bred players. The team had lost money in its very first season of operation, in one part due to the fact that the better French speaking players had the club over a barrel in salary negotiations. French players could only dress for Le Canadien, and no other club.

In the team's second season, more money was dispersed on player's salaries, and with the addition of Georges Vezina in goal, the club became a rabid draw. The French media covering the team, La Patrie, Le Devoir, and others, adopted the Canadiens as their own. In fact, after the team very first win, Le Devoir sports editor Tancrede Marsil marvelled at what could be achieved with players from their "country"! 

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Owner Kennedy made what was perceived as a rare public relations mistake that first season. In February, he traded for the Quebec Bulldogs James "Rocket" Power, a defenseman of Irish - Canadian heritage. At Le devoir, Marsil fumed!

He regarded Power's aquisition as betraying the clubs principles - which was to to dress an all French lineup. In Marsil's slant, there was no place on the team for English - Canadians on a club that stood to represent French Canadians. Many readers of Le Devoir agreed with Marsil.

A lengthy response was delivered by reader J.W. Clement, who accused Kennedy of "polluting the character of the Canadiens and of creating a deplorable and ill - advised precedent by allowing Anglo - Saxon blood to infiltrate this club which we are proud to call our own."

Kennedy, Clement went on, "does not understand, like us, the national pride bequeathed to us by our forefathers."

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But the issue of nationality was far from cut and dried, as another reader, identified as M.D. pointed out He noted that Edouard "Newsy" Lalonde and Eugene Payan who were on that edition of the team may have french Canadian names, barely spoke the language and were English in outlook and temperment.

James Power, on the other hand, had an English name, but spoke perfect french. According to the reader, Power was "one of us, by his language and his French Canadian character."

Imagine, English outlook and temperment versus French character determining a roster spot on the Habs!

In the course of a couple of seasons, the issue of language on the Canadiens faded away for a good while.

James "Rocket" Power was not resigned in 1911-12, but prior to the start of the 1912-13 season, Kennedy and the Canadiens argued for, and won, the right to dress two English speaking players per season. The remaining NHL clubs were henceforth allowed two French speaking players on their rosters as well.

When in 1911-12, Kennedy signed defenseman Pud Glass to a contract, no one - not Marsil, not the fans, and none of the NHA league governors - complained.

Apparently, Marcil and his readers must have decided above all else that winning was most important.

It was a lesson learned 98 seasons ago. Still today, to some it has not sunk in.

Quotations and partial content derived from D' Arcy Jenish - "Montreal Canadiens - 100 Years Of Glory".

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