Leafs skip French classes

LANCE HORNBY, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 10:28 AM ET

The Maple Leafs know too well that the Montreal Canadiens derailed their playoff hopes last year, while it seems the one-time French Connection to Union Station has been cut.

As the Habs arrive tonight for the 750th regular season/playoff meeting between the teams, it's curious to note the Leafs are the only team in the Northeast Division without a Quebec-born player in their starting lineup (save for backup goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin), have not drafted a junior from there in four years and picked none higher than 88th since goaltender Francis Larivee went 50th in 1996.

"Insignificant," director of player personnel Mike Penny said yesterday of the draft history. "What I've done since I've been here (in 2000) is look for the best players, and I couldn't care less if they're from China or Japan.

"I was not aware of how long it had been since we drafted one, but if there is a (reluctance) about taking French Canadians on this team, I don't know about it."

A total of 182 Quebec juniors were picked in the National Hockey League since 2000, but a few are European born. At one time, the Leafs were very cozy with Quebec, with former Habs employees Cliff Fletcher and Pat Burns running the show and a roster that included Vince Damphousse and Yanic Perreault. There was even a line of Damphousse, Daniel Marois and Gilles Thibaudeau.

That trend has reversed somewhat with the likes of Scarborough born ex-Leaf Mike Johnson now playing the wing in Montreal.

Going back 15 years, the Leafs have drafted goalies Felix Potvin, Eric Fichaud, Larivee and current Marlie J.F. Racine, as well as signing Sebastien Centomo and Aubin as free agents.

The Leafs let Quebec-based amateur scout Bob Johnson go a few years ago, replacing him with New Brunswicker Allan Power and splitting the QMJHL between scouts such as Power, Mike Palmateer and Dave Morrison.

Aubin does not sense any anti-Quebec sentiment in the organization, but admits it would be great to hear his native tongue now and then.

"There are a lot of good speakers on the team (Chad Kilger grew up across the border in Cornwall and played in Montreal, while Kyle Wellwood was a top French Immersion student), but they're not French," Aubin said.

"Having a couple of Frenchies -- or whatever you want to call them -- would be nice and make it easier on me. I think Quebecers see the world a little different.

"I had a good relationship with Racine and (forward Dominic) D'Amour with the Marlies. It's nice to have one or two on a team to go and have dinner and have fun."

Tonight's game marks the second half of the vital Habs' series. Toronto has not lost in regulation to Montreal this year (2-0-2), but the latter remain nine points ahead. Etched in the minds of many Leafs are the back-to-back losses in Montreal last March that proved to be their playoff Waterloo.

"Maybe some of the guys who came back from last year heard enough over the course of five or six months about how that weekend did them in," coach Paul Maurice said. "I think we're built physically to play well against them. We've come into Montreal traditionally with a little anger and edge and that has helped us.

"At the same time, we've let them back in games."


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