The state of hockey in Quebec has been criticized in recent years, so much so that a summit was organized last year to discuss what should be done to improve on the number of elite players the province produces every year.
However, the necessary changes were already put into effect long before that summit was held in August, 2011, and they have begun to bear fruit.
When Hockey Canada announced its 23-man roster for the upcoming 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia, there were five players who were born and trained in Quebec on the list. It was the highest number of Quebec-born players to be named to the team since the delegation of six Quebecers that played for Canada in 2000.
"Everything we do at Hockey Quebec is to graduate as many players as possible to Hockey Canada," said Hockey Quebec's director of player development, Paul Ménard. "So we're happy, but it would be nice to have more. There's never enough, and we can't feel satisfied."
The 2013 edition of the Canadian junior team features Phillip Danault of Victoriaville, Que. (Chicago Blackhawks), Jonathan Drouin of Huberdeau, Que. (eligible for 2013 NHL Draft), Charles Hudon of Boisbriand, Que. (Montreal Canadiens), Jonathan Huberdeau of St-Jérôme, Que. (Florida Panthers) and Xavier Ouellet of Terrebonne, Que. (Detroit Red Wings).
All five of those players went through the entirety of Hockey Quebec's "integrated structure" that was implemented six years ago, a program that identifies 300 of the province's elite players at the age of 13 and provides specialized training and competition until they reach junior age.
"It's something that's meant to challenge the players and give them all the tools we can," Ménard said. "I would say that over the past five years, we've innovated new programs every year."
Since that Canadian junior team in 2000, only once has Canada included as many as four players who were born and trained in Quebec, and that was back in 2003. On three separate occasions in that span, there was only one Quebec player on the team.
While Ménard may have been pleasantly surprised with this year's haul of Quebec players wearing the Maple Leaf, Gilles Courteau was not.
That's because the commissioner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League expected it to happen, partially because two of the three assistant coaches for Team Canada come from the QMJHL -- Mario Duhamel of the Drummondville Voltigeurs and André Tourigny of the Rouyn Noranda Huskies.
"It's just recognition of the talent that we have in our league," Courteau said. "But also, the presence of two of our coaches to identify players helped."
In past years, many of the players selected to Team Canada from the QMJHL were not from Quebec. From 2007-2012, the QMJHL had 24 players selected to represent Canada, but half of them came from either the Maritime provinces or Ontario. This year, one of the QMJHL's six players on Team Canada comes from the Maritimes -- Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia's Nathan MacKinnon.
The makeup of Team Canada has not been the only source of criticism for Quebec's hockey structure.
Courteau, the QMJHL and -- to a lesser extent -- Hockey Quebec have come under attack on repeated occasions over the past several years following the province's poor showings at the NHL Draft, particularly in the first round. Over the last nine drafts, only once has Quebec produced more than two first-round picks. That came in 2009, when four Quebec natives went in the first round.
On two occasions since the 2004 NHL Draft not a single player from Quebec was chosen in the first round, and last year only one -- Michael Matheson, chosen 23rd by the Florida Panthers from the United States Hockey League's Dubuque Fighting Saints -- was among the first 30 names called.
However, Courteau believes the trend is in the process of reversing itself, and he thinks the changes at Hockey Quebec have played a role in that reversal.
"We feel players are arriving to our league ready, and among the elite players, they're arriving even more ready," Courteau said. "And our scouts who cover midget hockey say there are more on the way."
But Courteau also points out that changes have been made in the QMJHL as well, and that they are doing a better job preparing players to graduate to the next level.
"We've done a lot of hard work in terms of our coaching," Courteau said. "We have far more qualified personnel on our coaching staffs now, whether it's goaltending coaches, nutritionists or athletic therapists. Our players now have all the resources necessary to make sure they succeed."
NHL scouts have been excited about the 2013 class of players coming out of the QMJHL for quite some time. Aside from MacKinnon and Drouin -- who could both be top-five picks -- there may be as many as six other players from the QMJHL who could have their names called in the first round at the 2013 NHL Draft in Newark, N.J., and five of those top eight players hail from Quebec.
Whether or not that many players from Quebec become first round draft picks in June, the simple fact that it is possible means this year's strong crop of Quebecers on Canada's WJC entry is not likely to be a one-shot deal.
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