Whether it was the hiring of Claude Julien, Michel Therrien, Jacques Demers, Mario Tremblay, Guy Carbonneau, Alain Vigneault, or Jacques Martin, the necessity of attracting Francophones at all levels of the Montreal Canadiens organization including management, coaching, and on-ice talent, has been perceived by many as a self-imposed constraint, a negative factor that only served to drop the club from the pack. For others it was a question of cultural pride taking priority in the team’s hiring practice. The team has done little to quell these concerns with their decades-long drought of not winning a Stanley Cup and an unchanged hiring policy.
This practice will never change. This unique Francophone foundation has become a central part of the team’s identity, a unique job prerequisite not found anywhere else in the National Hockey League. Some will see this as a self-imposed limitation, but in the business world, a wise strategist and leadership group would recognize it for what it could be: a competitive advantage over everyone else.
Therein lies the major tenet of this article: the acceptance that this French-Canadian prerequisite is not a crutch, but a differentiator.
What makes this hard to swallow is that for the longest time the Canadiens have not found a way of building a successful strategy that would exploit this differentiator, and generally relied on straddling the fence of placating the fanbase and media with external hires that checked all the right boxes.
Enter the new ECHL franchise in Trois-Rivières.
The new affiliation becomes a strategically important one for the Montreal Canadiens because it allows them to groom people at various positions, from hockey operations to administration, and of course on the ice, as confirmed by John Sedgwick during his press conference to discuss the partnership with the new ECHL franchise. “There’s an opportunity to potentially bring up young coaches, equipment managers, athletic therapists,” he said. “It can create a bit of a feeder system if you create it that way.”
A parallel to this new opportunity can be drawn to the successful way European organizations are built, with under-16, under-18, and Junior teams to go along with the minor pro farm team and main roster. These organizations promote from within very often, which allows continuity in processes, approach, and identity. In a similar vein, the Canadiens will be creating a competitive pipeline that allows them to broaden the positions available, increase the talent pool, and groom people as they work their way up the organization.
We have already seen the positive step made by bringing the American Hockey League farm team to Laval. It has attracted a top-level head coach, and has already graduated front-office people to the Canadiens’ structure. On the ice we have seen the tremendous jump in quality for players, and can count one full-time graduate in Jake Evans, and plenty of others getting time in the NHL and not looking out of place.
To view difference as a weakness is in itself already accepting defeat. In such a competitive environment as professional sports one cannot have this mentality. In order to truly be successful you must embrace that difference as part of your identity, and build a strategy around understanding and exploiting how it sets you apart.
The province of Quebec is filled with passionate individuals who love hockey and want to be a part of it. Having Laval and now Trois-Rivières allows the Canadiens to cast a wider net, and not allow this talent to slip through their fingers and join other organizations. The Canadiens will now be able to establish a succession plan for many posts, and maintain what is most important for their brand, their unique identity, from a point of strength, not from a point of concession.