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Montreal seeks homegrown spark

Like Matt Damon and Bill Gates, Louis Leblanc dropped out of Harvard.

After his freshman year, he chose to leave the hallowed halls in 2010 for shopworn Verdun Auditorium and a club called the Montreal Juniors of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which sort of makes you wonder if Leblanc was brilliant enough for Harvard in the first place.

Anyway, rather than teaming up with Ben Affleck or Paul Allen, this hockey dropout is currently in partnership with Andrei Kostitsyn and Lars Eller -- at least until Jacques Martin decides to juggle his lines. Martin, of course, is the coach of the Montreal Canadiens, which, as an institution, could have been labeled the Harvard of the NHL as recently as two decades ago.

Alas, times change. The glorious history remains, as the Canadiens will not hesitate to remind you, but expectations for the franchise have been downgraded. It is now like a good state university, indisputably profitable and more than serviceable, having reached the Eastern Conference Final the same year that Leblanc was bidding adieu to Harvard Yard and the Charles River, but elite in reputation only. Put it this way: you don't need to have top boards to get onto the Canadiens. Until Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole came along to give the team some respectable size on the wing, the Habs were hardly along the boards at all.

Leblanc was called up from the minors last week for a three-game California swing. He played tolerably well, picking up an assist in Los Angeles in Montreal's lone win. He played his first home game on Tuesday against Columbus, a debut that has spiked the buzz about a game against a franchise that is so far underground it might as well be in the Witness Protection Program.

There is a disproportionate interest in Leblanc, something well beyond the natural curiosity of glimpsing any first-rounder for the first time. (Leblanc, a natural center who can play the wing, was the 18th player selected in the 2009 draft, which was held in the Canadiens' home arena.) He is a local, having grown up in a western suburb on the island of Montreal, 25 minutes, give or take rush-hour traffic, from the Bell Centre. He also is a francophone, which, in some small measure, shores up the identity of a franchise that has lost its accent as it has lost its way.

When hockey turn sour in Montreal -- 11 wins in the first 27 games certainly qualifies as a lemon -- the talk in the city, beyond the reflexive Scott Gomez bashing, tends to turn to the linguistic composition of the roster. The murmurs -- and sometimes shouts -- are there are not "enough" francophone players on the team. Of course, no one ever has quite been able to define "enough."

GALLERY:Montreal Canadiens legends

Is five enough? Ten? Fifteen? (According to someone plugged into the Quebec City hockey scene, if Pierre-Karl Péladeau ever gets to relocate an NHL team to the Old Capital, a third of the players on Les Nordiques II will be les gars de chez nous.

Until Leblanc's promotion from AHL Hamilton, the Canadiens had two. There was David Desharnais, the diminutive center who is flanked by Pacioretty and Cole on the Two-and-a-Half-Men Line, and Mathieu Darche, who once studied at McGill, which flatters itself as the Harvard of Canada, and who now skates among the bottom six forwards. (There are also two French-speaking Swiss defensemen, Yannick Weber and Rafael Diaz, but they are as exotic as eating the salad after the main course.)

In any case, Desharnais and Darche are worthy fellows but not exactly The Rocket, Jean Béliveau, Guy Lafleur or Patrick Roy -- the nearly unbroken lineage of homegrown megastars from the 1940s to the mid-1990s that made the Canadiens, well, the Canadiens.

There are a lot of English speakers in the city who roll their eyes when the linguistic politics of hockey surface, no matter if the discussion is who should play for, coach, manage or even own the team that Montreal novelist Mordecai Richler once labeled "a spiritual necessity." (GM Pierre Gauthier speaks French and English. Just not often, at least to the media that covers his colossus.) These Anglophones think excellence, or at least competence in this age of lowered expectations for Les Glorieux, should be the only criterion.

Unfortunately those proponents of a strict meritocracy are missing the point -- at least to a point. Consider the origins of team sports. It's always been about "us" versus "them," our street against your street, our school against your school, and our town against your town. In the context of a primarily French-speaking province that knows and adores hockey, the "us" should be acknowledged and honored.

The tricky part, then, is defining "us." For many in the province, the definition strictly is linguistic and geographic -- in other words, French-speaking Quebecers (although they would gladly expand that to include the pride of Hearst, Ont. -- splendid Flyers forward Claude Giroux). The problem: you can jot down on a napkin the truly high-end French-Canadian players in the NHL. A dozen names, perhaps. Maybe 15 depending on what you think of players like veteran Simon Gagné, who is now in Los Angeles.

The fact is, in a 30-team league with a universal draft, no team can ever corner the market on French-speaking talent. Of course, the Canadiens could have done a better job of drafting and developing locals -- in 1998 Montreal took Éric Chouinard 16th overall while his junior linemate, Gagné, went 22nd to Philadelphia -- but tying identity solely to language and geography, and building a team accordingly, is as limiting and misguided as ignoring those factors entirely.

There are other aspects of civic identity, however, one that Montreal management largely has missed in assembling the team. In a city that values style and embraces creativity, the Canadiens ice a safety-first team that runs counter to the way Montrealers generally see themselves.

The Canadiens' failure is not one of falling short of some mythical quota, but one of imagination.

The players who have most touched the city in recent seasons were not French Canadians but the problematic Alexei Kovalev, an artiste in style and temperament, and defenseman P.K. Subban, whose game is layered with curlicues. Indeed when Martin scratched Subban last season, there was general outrage about his efforts to stifle the player rather than applause that the team, with its dandy rookie exiled to the press box, actually won a few games in a row.

If Montreal were winning Stanley Cups with regularity, none of this would matter. The last parade down Ste. Catherine St. occurred in 1993, so it should. There have been 21,273 at every game in the sold-out Bell Centre since the 2005-06 lockout, but TV ratings on RDS this season are down about 14 per cent. On a more subjective scale, the buzz in the rink, the soundtrack of the franchise, has seemed muted this season. This current iteration of the Canadiens, lagging even the rebuilding Ottawa Senators in the Northeast Division, has not made many new friends and might be in the process of temporarily alienating some old ones.

Maybe Leblanc hops over the boards against the Blue Jackets and starts a new era, like another Harvard dropout, Mark Zuckerberg, did with this Facebook thing. A bright bilingual star, if Leblanc ever becomes one, could heighten the element of patrimony and reconnect the next generation of fans to the team.

GALLERY:The Canadiens' 24 Stanley Cups

But in the interim -- barring a miracle on the ice or a French immersion program in the dressing room --principal owner Geoff Molson needs a team that dazzles as often as it wins if he wants to properly reflect his fabulous city.

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