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Le Quebec mis en échec: On French-Canadians in the NHL

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[A version of this post originally appeared in French.]

Ex-NHLer Bob Sirois published a book earlier this week detailing discrimination against French-Canadian hockey players in the NHL. Sirois alleges discrimination in a number of ways, but I found one claim to be particularly interesting:

"Only francophones of the highest level were able to have lasting careers; the other Quebecois hockey players were quickly eliminated from the NHL." - National Post, Oct 19, 2009

Now I don't have any way of separating Francophones from Anglophones in my database - there are simply too many Francophone Johnsons and Anglophone Desjardins in Canada to figure it out solely by surname. But we can see what percentage of games played by Canadians in the NHL were played by people born in Quebec historically:

1994-2009 1980-1993 1967-1979 1945-1966
ON 40.3 45.6 48.6 44.4
PQ 17.7 16.2 19.8 19.7

(Note: For the sake of brevity, I've cut the other provinces off the table - you can see it here.) Whatever decline there has been in Quebecois players making it to the NHL has been matched by a similar decline in Ontario-born players. Ontario's decline is even steeper in light of its population growing at three times the rate of Quebec's over the last 30 years. Quebec still produces fewer NHL players per capita than Ontario does, but this is not evidence of a conspiracy; the explanation, as in other provinces, might be structural: Saskatchewan produces twice as many NHLers as Manitoba, despite similar populations.

So if the distribution of players hasn't changed much in the last 50 years, does that mean that two equally-talented players, one from Ontario and one from Quebec, have the same likelihood of playing in the NHL? How do they compare to players from the WHL?

To answer this question, I took every player who played in the QMJHL, OHL and WHL since 1981 and looked at his scoring in his draft year. To eliminate the impact of the high-scoring mid-1980s, I normalized each league and season to the current NHL offensive levels: three goals per game, 1.7 assists per goal, and 82 games per season. (Players who played fewer than 40 games in their final season were not counted.)

I then further divided these players by their scoring levels. The first group included all players who, after normalizing their stats, scored 82 points or more in their draft season. The second group consisted of players who scored between 57 and 81 points. Let's first look at what happened to the group of 82+ scorers:

% Drafted
96 93 95
NHL GP @ 24
60 48 39
Pts/82 @ Age 24
67 62 58

This group made up approximately 4% of regular players in each league. Over the course of more than 25 years, virtually every one of these players was drafted, regardless of where he came from - the only major miss among the French-Canadian group was Stephan Lebeau. At age 24, the QMJHL players score less and play less than the OHL players, but more than the WHL players. While it's surprising that QMJHL players didn't hold up their scoring as well as the Ontarians - they do if we only look at Age 19 or Age 20 NHL seasons - WHL players did even worse. So it's hard to draw the conclusion that Quebecois players were particularly hard-done-by.

But what about the next tier of players, the 11% of players who scored between 53 and 81 points in their draft year:

53-81 pts
85 69 86
>82 pts
96 93 95

Here we see what Bob Sirois probably saw in his own analysis - once we're not talking about future stars, QMJHL players are much less likely to get drafted - 20%. And if we look at Games Played at Age 24, the difference is even larger:

GP @ 24
53-81 pts
16 12 19
>82 pts
60 48 39

Players in the 53-81 points group did equivalently well in the NHL at Age 24 regardless of what league they came from, averaging 38-41 points per 82 games. Yet QMJHL graduates played 50-70% less than their counterparts from the OHL and the WHL. While star Quebecois players are impossible to ignore, 3rd- and 4th-liners are much less likely to make the team even if they have the same skills - no question, Bob Sirois is right.

And who's wrong? Jeff Marek, of Hockey Night in Canada Radio, for one. In an interview with the CBC, Marek claims:

"The reality is the rest of the world has caught up. The days where every year either Gilbert Perreault, or Guy Lafleur or Marcel Dionne were selected first overall, those days are gone. That ship has sailed. Helsinki, Stockholm, Moscow, Prague have all caught up to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Once upon a time, Quebec had the best hockey system in the world — hands down. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has always been an offence-first hockey league ... it's high-flying, it's action-packed, it's a fun league to watch. Does it translate to the NHL game? Not as smoothly as it used to."

Where do I even start? First of all, when you control for the influx of Europeans into the NHL, the number of Quebecois players has gone up relative to the number of Ontarians. Second, it's simply incorrect to call the QMJHL "high-flying": goals per game are just 3% higher than in the OHL over the last 30 years. And over the last two seasons, the OHL has had higher scoring than the QMJHL - are they both now "offense-first hockey leagues?" Third, the notion that the QMJHL no longer "translates to the smoothly as it used to" is not supported by any data - nothing has changed.

As Attorney-at-Law Lionel Hutz said on The Simpsons: "All I have is hearsay and conjecture. Those are kinds of evidence." No matter what data you brought to the table, I doubt there's anything you could do to change Marek's mind.

The statistical analysts among you might ask if there a market inefficiency to be exploited here. Sort of. The value of a 3rd- or 4th-liner is not particularly high, and cutting your 14th best player in favor of your 19th might cost you a point in the standings. It's not nothing, but no coach is going to lose his job over one win every two seasons.

And that's why this situation has been able to persist for so long. If virtually every team was making a mistake and there were freely-available players out there who could give teams a two-win boost in the standings, somebody would jump on them. Think of Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson coming over to the WHA from Sweden in the mid-1970s. Somebody would do it even if there was a chance it might work out. Think of Mike Smith drafting as many Russians as he could in the early-1990s.

What surprises me is how many people feel the need to deny that such a situation could even exist. Maybe I've read too many Mordecai Richler novels (no, not the ones about the kid who says everything twice) but it hardly surprises me to find out that people from Quebec are discriminated against, whether it's consciously or unconsciously. Don Cherry would probably get fired from an American network for the things he says about Quebecers, and yet he was voted the 7th-Greatest Canadian, right behind some guy who got a Nobel Peace Prize for creating the first UN Peacekeeping force. Bob Sirois' book will certainly lay out the facts, some of which can't easily be explained away with terms like "high-flying", and ultimately people will have to come to grips with the evidence.