Montreal’s Obsession with Character and Grit

One of the main mantras since Marc Bergevin took over as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens has been the word character. Whenever a player is drafted or acquired by the club, most quotes coming from management tend to mention the character of said players. It is presumed character players are important and teams can’t have enough of them, but what does it actually mean to have “character”?

What does it mean to have character?

The Oxford online dictionary defines character as “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.” In hockey, that term appears to be more collective. Character guys are typically described as the ones who will do anything to win and are all about the crest on the front and not the name on the back. For the Habs, character seems to go hand and hand with “grit”. The organization seems to favour gritty type players, the ones who aren’t flashy and are considered safe bets.

Bergevin has made it his mandate to fill out the rosters with “character” guys. However, his definition of character has never been made clear. He and head coach Michel Therrien seem to share a fondness for third and fourth line players, the kind of players who fit the old stereotype of guys who will grind and fight their way. For several years, Brandon Prust was the poster boy for this mindset before being traded. He was the guy who fought his way into the NHL and would do just about anything to win.

At the draft especially, when asked about their newly drafted prospects, Bergevin and director of scouting Trevor Timmins are quick to mention character. But you can only judge so much when it comes to 18-year-old boys. Many of them have a lot of growing up to do and more often than not mature greatly as they develop further.

Too much grit, not enough skill?

However, is there such thing as putting too much emphasis on grit? At the 2013 NHL draft, Montreal passed over local kid Anthony Duclair in favour of Connor Crisp. Duclair was the superior player by far yet there were some questions about his supposed “character” due to issues with inconsistency and a suspension over attitude issues. There were no supposed red flags surrounding Crisp. Now? Duclair is lighting it up in Arizona while Crisp hasn’t looked like much of a prospect.

It is clear Duclair has matured since his draft year and it is showing. Montreal would also draft Martin Reway later on in that same draft. Despite his small stature, Reway just might have the most tantalizing offensive skill set among Montreal prospects. But he has had concerns over shoddy defensive play and attitude issues and because of that, Reway is hardly mentioned by Montreal management.

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Philosophy change

It is good that the Habs want quality individuals to represent the franchise but if their meaning of character on the ice is grind and fight, that mandate needs to change. At the draft, you need to pick players with high upside. These are 18-year-old players you are talking about. In most cases, they need some time to grow up as not every kid walks into the NHL with the maturity of a Jonathan Toews. Montreal can’t afford to miss out on the Duclairs of the world all in the name of “character” and “grit”.