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Debunking the Canadiens' French Territorial Rights Myth

It's been a long-lived trope that the success of the Montreal Canadiens was due only to them having unfair advantages gifted to them by the league, but it's time to put that myth to rest.

Richard Wolowicz

There is a popular myth—longstanding in fact, and more than likely perpetrated by decades of jealousy and frustration from fans of other teams—that the Montreal Canadiens' superiority from the early 1950s to the late 1970s was due to the simple notion that they had territorial rights to the province of Quebec's two (or more) greatest hockey talents annually.

Maurice Richard
Maurice Richard

The myth has gained ground since the 1979 season, when the end of the Canadiens' last dynasty coincided with the passing of players signed or drafted in the 1960s. But the myth that such Habs naysayers believe in, hockey fans and fans of truth, is complete and absolute bunk!

The small sliver of truth and fact behind the allowed Canadiens territorial rights clause fails to back up the claims of those who have cried "No Fair!" like whining children for years.

I first remember hearing about this when I was all of seven years old, in 1969.

Back then, I witnessed the myth being cemented into young impressionable minds around hockey rinks and in schoolyards by Maple Leafs fans needing a convenient excuse in explaining their own club's decline.

I grew up with kids who believed it then. I know some of them as adults who still believe it today. I heard it often enough that it made me question such a thing myself. The twisted yarn is so maligned and full of holes I've even heard it going so far as to include the drafting of Guy Lafleur first overall in 1971, as well as others, as part of its myth.

If the myth were true, the Canadiens would have also snapped up Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert, Gilles Gilbert, a couple of players named Pronovost, and Gil Perreault, among others. The possibilities are endless.  They would have likely never lost a game, nevermind the Stanley Cup.

Edouard "Newsy" Lalonde

Often when I am confronted by someone who brings up the territorial rights clause as the reason for seasons of Habs superiority, I ask the proclaimer to name a single player the Canadiens chose under this clause. Most can't name even one, and once they try, they are usually dead wrong. All are stumped!

Looking back on it now, and on how the mistruths have spread through time, it has become clearer as to why such inaccuracies and bluster would permeate sound logic: the finger-pointing nature of certain jealous fans, who have consistently avoided looking in their own team's backyard to explain their failings and consistent inferiorities.

It's almost as if an entire generation has agreed in unison that the myth would be their battlecry, their common shield of armour in the face of the Canadiens' standing during those three decades. One day, somewhere in time, a little light went off in someones head. I can almost see it now.

"Well no wonder the cheaters won all them damn Cups, the Kweebeckers got the two best Frenchman every year..."

I've long known the truth is othewise, and have long sought out sources that would back me up and explain it best, with insightful completeness, research and perspective.

Howie Morenz

One year ago, I stumbled upon a link to hockey historian and trivia expert Liam Maguire's site. As a Canadiens fan himself, Maguire has also been confronted with this myth numerous times, and sets the record straight. He has interviewed many on this very subject, including Sam Pollock, Scotty Bowman, Dick Irvin, Marcel Pronovost, Rod Gilbert, Yvan Cournoyer, and numerous others.

It seems the origin of the rule is as old as the NHL itself, going back to wartime days when the fortunes and faith of franchises fluctuated annually.

Contrary to popular belief, the NHL did not start out as an Original Six league. Many teams came and went, existing anywhere between two or three years up to a decade, including the original Ottawa Senators.

Not unlike today's revenue sharing programs amongst sports teams, league members back in the day found creative ways to assist each other in the struggle for the NHL's financial survival. Often this was done by way of player and monetary loans, but what team owners discovered back then was that local stars filled seats to great capacity.

This fact was evident even in pre-NHL days, and especially true in Montreal where a rivalry was built up to fullfill a demand for a French team to compete against the English Montreal teams of the day: the Wanderers and Maroons.

Howie Morenz

One year after the birth of the Montreal Canadiens (known then as Le Club Athletic Canadiens), it was decided that this would become the franchise that would cater to the desires of the French-speaking clientele. Slowly but surely, it filled its roster with French names and proceeded to become semi-successful on the ice, but teetering financially off it.

Over time, the Canadiens became the only Montreal franchise remaining, outliving both the Wanderers and Maroons, and winning Stanley Cups in 1916, 1924, 1930, and 1931. It fought on through the hard times of the Great Depression's financial ups and downs, but during a spell in the late 1930s the team was on the brink of folding.

It was in 1936 that the idea came up to offer the Canadiens the exclusive rights to two players per year as a means of maintaining interest and ensuring financial success. A threat of the club moving to another city was behind the idea to help reinforce the Canadiens roster.

To quote Liam Maguire:

"(It was) decided that the Montreal Canadiens could take any two players from the province of Quebec in a special draft. There was one rider however. None of these players could have already been previously signed to a C form (confirmation form) with any other club.

"At this time in the NHL and right through the late 60s amateur players were signed by NHL teams to C forms and then placed on their appropriate junior clubs or minor pro clubs depending on their age. The most extreme case of this was Bobby Orr. Orr signed a C form three weeks before his 12th birthday with the Boston Bruins. He was so young his parents signature was required. When he turned 14 he began playing for Boston's junior sponsored team, the Oshawa Generals. That's how Orr became a Bruin.

Dick Irvin, Sr.

"The hope was that there would be a spark from signing a French-Canadian kid, even better if he could play a bit. The thought was that this could help attendance and thereby help Montreal.

"It never did. What really helped Montreal at that time were two shrewd moves. One, a trade with the Montreal Maroons which brought them Toe Blake and two, the signing of Elmer Lach to a C form, who was from Saskatchewan by the way. He was signed after the Rangers passed on him. Lach attended their camp first.

"From 1936-43 Montreal protected 14 players (two per season) through this special draft. Unfortunately, none of them ever played a minute in the NHL. Reason being, anybody who could tie their skates and chew gum at the same time were already long signed by other NHL teams including the Canadiens who certainly weren't going to survive solely with this rule."

The root of the myth may lie in the fact that just prior to the Habs landing Blake and Lach, the Canadiens first two stars were Edouard "Newsy" Lalonde and Aurele Joliat; both owners of French-sounding names. Along with Georges Vezina and the Cleghorn brothers, these two succeeding heroes, who were at one time traded for one another, were important facets of the Canadiens success in the 1920s and 30s.

What many may not know is that neither Lalonde or Joliat was a home-grown talent. Lalonde was billingual, and was born in my hometown of Cornwall, Ontario (a great source of pride!), and Joliat was an Ottawa-born player of Swiss descent. The Canadiens next superstar, Howie Morenz, was also an anglophone of Swiss descent, plucked from Stratford, Ontario.

Frank J. Selke

In the excellent book Lions In Winter by Chris Goyens and Allan Turowetz, Joliat comments on his acquisition from the Saskatoon Sheiks for the popular Lalonde in 1922. As Habs fans were upset at seeing a French-speaking player leave, Joliat adds, "Still, it was easier for (GM Leo) Dandurand to trade for me than for a Dick Smith."

Maguire further clarifies the myth's mystique by stating that the reasons the Habs survived the 1930s doldrums had nothing to do with the territorial rule and everything to do with Lach and Blake working out brilliantly with a player the Habs didn't have in their future plans.

Sam Pollock

"The rest of the league passed on Montreal GM Tommy Gorman's offer of a trade for what seemed to be a very brittle but explosive goal scorer named Maurice Richard. Richard had suffered injury after injury in his first three years of pro. Gorman tried to unload him but nobody wanted him.

"Needless to say Richard's coming out party in 1943-44 and the subsequent effect he had on the game in the next 17 years has been well documented but suffice to say, these were the three major reasons (Lach, Blake, Richard) for the success of the Habs over a nearly-two-decade span - not some bullcrap rule that, although was well intentioned, did nothing to extend Montreal's stay in the NHL at that time. In fact they were even worse in 1940 than they were in 1936."

Bolstered by the "Punch Line," the Canadiens would win the Stanley Cup in 1944 and 1946, but Maguire states that there were two other pieces to the puzzle that would ensure Canadien supremacy for the coming decades.

"It happened in 1946 and 1947, respectively. With the French Canadian rule now rescinded and Montreal rolling with two Cup victories in a three-year span something else was going to be needed for the franchise to rise to the extreme greatness they would see in a few short years."

To the distress of Maple Leafs fans, they unwittingly assisted the Canadiens a second time, and in similar fashion. The first had been the firing of coach Dick Irvin, Sr. years earlier, who continued to be as successful with Montreal as he'd been with Chicago and Toronto.

"Toronto owner Conn Smythe fired Frank Selke, Sr. and Montreal quickly hired him. Selke had a vision about a series of teams in the minor leagues that would be stocked with players that Montreal would sign to C forms. These minor league teams and the players on them were soon to be known as a farm system.

Rejean Houle

"This was the origin of the farm system as we know it today. It took the rest of the NHL two to three years to catch on to this idea but they did and they've all benefited from it but Montreal had a tremendous head start and in some instances they purchased the rights to an entire league to get a certain player.

"They did this for Jean Beliveau and Bobby Rousseau. In Beliveau's case it didn't matter because he told the Habs to get stuffed anyway. He was happy in Quebec and there were only two players in the NHL making more money than Jean who was in the QSHL. That was Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe. Finally Selke was able to sign Beliveau in 1953 when, as he put it, 'I opened up the vault and said help yourself Jean!' Great quote.

"The move in 1947 was the hiring of Sam Pollock. Pollock came under the tutelage of Selke and finally in 1963 became his successor as GM of the Canadiens.

"In 1963 the NHL finally realized there were a glut of players, post second World War 2 births, that were coming of age to play in the NHL and even with the C form system, stones were being left unturned. For the first time a draft was implemented. There was never any thought that this would one day become the life blood of the NHL.

"In 1963 the NHL finally realized there were a glut of players, post-World War II births, that were coming of age to play in the NHL and, even with the C form system, stones were being left unturned. For the first time a draft was implemented. There was never any thought that this would one day become the life blood of the NHL.

"At the time the six NHL teams would draft in a rotating order any player who had not signed a C form. Ken Dryden was a draft pick of the Boston Bruins. Boston traded Dryden to Montreal.

Michel Plasse

"In 1963, the French Canadian rule was brought back for the Montreal Canadiens. It was not necessary, no question about it, but Selke and Pollock worked a sweet deal and got it back on the books. However the same rules applied. The player could not have signed a C form with any other team.

"From 1963-67 none of the players Montreal selected played one minute in the NHL, ever. Finally in 1968, they drafted their first live one. A goalie named Michel Plasse.

"In 1969, it was determined that this would be the final year of the draft in this manner and the sponsorship of Junior A teams would cease to be. All players were to be 20 years of age or older and they would be eligible for a Universal Amateur Draft.

"Montreal was given one final kick at the French Canadian can and they made the most of it by selecting Rejean Houle and Marc Tardif. That was it for the French rule.

"By then Sam Pollock, or "Trader Sam" as he was known, was working magic year in and year out on draft day and by flipping players in Montreal's farm system that had been so expertly set up years before by Selke and ran by Pollock for draft picks. Players like Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Mario Tremblay, and several others, were selected with picks that Pollock acquired through trades."

This should clear up any misconception about this long-believed fallacy, born primarily by frustrated anti-Montreal fans who for decades suffered through parade after Stanley Cup parade.