LAS VEGAS – Nick Suzuki learned some French who grew up in southwestern Ontario.
Knowing that big responsibility was around the corner, he went to work dusting off and trying to improve those skills this summer.
The 23-year-old is well aware that there is a long way to go. Nor does Suzuki deal with Quebec politicians with regard to his mastery of the province’s official language.
He was named captain of the Montreal Canadiens on Monday, and the center’s ability to speak French immediately became a topic of debate.
With the Quebec provincial election campaign in full swing, party leaders applauded the decision to give Suzuki the stressful job as his fourth season with the Reconstruction Club approaches. They all added that he should be able to communicate with fans of the Original Six franchise in both French and English.
“A lot of Quebec politicians want (the players) to speak French and that’s fair,” London native, Onton, said at this week’s NHL/NHLPA players’ media tour outside Las Vegas.
“French is spoken more in Quebec than English.”
Suzuki said that all Canadian players should have a certain level of French, but living and working in a largely bilingual Montreal presents some challenges.
“We don’t use it often and we don’t try it often,” he added. “(Politicians) have the right to think that the players should speak French.
“I feel like I know what I’m talking about a little bit when I’m talking. I read better than I can hold a conversation. I’m in a very good place. I can improve too.”
Meanwhile, his former teammate Philip Danault has no doubts that his old teammate – who took charge of his team early in Montreal – will make it into the new role.
“So proud of him. He deserves it,” said the Quebec-born Danault, who signed with the Los Angeles Kings last summer after six seasons in Montreal, of the youngest captain in Canadian history. “He’s very serious about what he does, and I don’t think he could be better than Nick.
“You can tell he really has the advantage to be a great captain. I’d love to move from Montreal, and I respect that. He’s going to do a great job.”
Coach Martin St. Louis encouraged Suzuki to take some time to evaluate the decision to take on the role after the topic was originally brought up a few months ago.
“Being a young guy and being a big market like Montreal, I think he just wanted me to make sure I was ready,” Suzuki said. “I was going to accept him right away, but I just listened to him and talked to a few other people.”
One of them was the only captain he played for in the NHL.
“Shea Webber was a man I leaned on,” Suzuki said of the veteran defender, who missed last season with a foot/ankle injury that could end his football career.
The 37-year-old was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights in June in a salary cap move, which helped open the door for Montreal to name 31Street The Captain in Franchise History.
Suzuki shared in their conversation “He said I’m ready.” “It gave me a lot of confidence.”
The Canadians are poised to have another massive leadership void this season, with goalkeeper Carrie Price likely to land a long-injured reserve with a knee problem that contributed to his appearance in just five games in 2021-22.
“It’s hard to see and hear,” Suzuki said of the 35-year-old. “It’s sad. He wants to have a rival, and he can’t do that. I know it’s hard for him. We want him to make a full recovery and be healthy.
“You don’t want to get hurt all your life. You just want him to recover and see what happens next.”
Canadians have undergone massive changes since they had a surprising run in the 2021 Stanley Cup Final.
St. Louis replaced sacked Dominique Ducharme in February, and while the results weren’t all that different on the ice, the mood around the team has changed dramatically with the Hall of Fame winger in charge.
“We were put in every position to succeed,” Suzuki said. “The whole team is starting to play better.”
However, the Canadians still finished last in the overall standings before winning the NHL Draft Lottery and securing the #1 pick on their home circuit.
Suzuki was on stage inside Bell Electric Center when Montreal general manager Kent Hughes stunned the hockey world with a pass on Shane Wright – a center long seen as the agreed top pick – and took on Slovakian winger Juraj Slavkowski.
“When we won the lottery, everyone[on]the Shane Wright train,” said Suzuki. “But as the process went on, he (Slavkovsky) was gaining a lot of strength. He could definitely see why they liked him so much. He’s a great guy, and he looks really strong.
“I honestly didn’t know (the choice) when I was on stage. It was a surprise to me.”
Suzuki was also shocked by the range of emotions inside the ring the moment Slafkovsky’s name was announced.
“It was unreal,” he said. “When we picked him it was a shock, and then (fans) rallied around him.”
And while there is a strong case that Canadians should do everything in their power to give themselves the best odds at centering landing star Conor Bedard – seen as the game’s next-generation talent – in the 2023 draft, Suzuki believes Montreal could challenge in the wild-spot. card this season.
“For the players, it’s all about winning matches,” he said. “We are not entering the season and we want to pick the lottery.”
Originally acquired from Vegas as part of a deal for ex-Canadian captain Max Priority, Suzuki understands the level of faith the organization has shown him.
It all started with an eight-year, $63 million contract extension that began this season before sewing a “C” onto his shirt.
Now is the time to start refuting that belief.
“It feels great,” he said. “Definitely a historic streak of leadership in Montreal.
“Proud to be in that group.”