- Ryan S. Clark is an NHL reporter for ESPN.
Montreal Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki has learned French in bits and pieces over time. He knows enough to show his gratitude when he’s at the grocery store or grabbing coffee at a drive-thru. He has seen how saying “Merci” after interviews can go a long way with the fans.
There are the one-liners he and his teammates have used with the athletic trainers and the equipment staff during everyday interactions. He has also had the chance to ask friends a few questions and pick up a few phrases that help him in his everyday life.
Now there is a plan in place to ensure Suzuki and every Canadiens player who wants to learn French will have that opportunity. The Canadiens are reinstituting a voluntary French language program for their players that will be taught by former Canadian Olympic high jumper Alain Metellus, who had his first meeting with the players on Jan. 10.
“It’s been awesome,” Suzuki said about having a voluntary French program. “[Canadiens vice president of hockey communications Chantal Machabée] has done an amazing job and really encourages guys to use French. That motivates us and it makes us feel comfortable being able to do that.”
Machabée was hired by the Canadiens after spending 32 years at French broadcaster RDS as a sports reporter who covered the team. She said the decision to reinstate the program came from Canadiens owner Geoff Molson who, along with Machabée, believed that having more players who spoke French would allow them to have an even stronger connection with fans.
“It goes a long way with people,” Machabée said. “It shows them that you really care about the team, the city and the fans. People in Montreal really appreciate that.”
When Suzuki was named captain before the season, there were Quebec politicians who called on the 23-year-old to learn French. Suzuki said he took French classes growing up, which was part of the curriculum back home in London, Ontario.
Suzuki said he started to relearn French after his rights were traded to the Canadiens as part of the Max Pacioretty deal with the Vegas Golden Knights. He had a membership to Babbel, an online language program. He used it at first but stopped for a few years before using Babbel again in the summer.
“You can type your answers and you can speak your answers into your phone and it will tell you if you are saying it right,” Suzuki said. “It has not been an everyday thing. We’ve been pretty busy (with the season), and I like doing it to relax when I have down time.”
Machabée began the search for a tutor prior to the season starting. She was gathering résumés when a mutual acquaintance told her about Metellus. What stood out about Metellus, who grew up in Montreal, was the idea the team could have a tutor who could teach them French in a way that was more relatable rather than the traditional approach.
Another detail Machabée said she appreciated about Metellus was he could connect with players about what it means to be an athlete with media obligations trying to learn a new language.
Metellus, who speaks English and French, also lived in Germany. He learned how to speak German and was able to parlay his knowledge of foreign languages to teach English and French in a corporate environment.
“I know what it feels like to learn a new language from scratch,” Metellus said. “What it feels like is when you say something is insurmountable. It’s like being right-handed and being asked to write with your left hand. You think it is impossible.”
Metellus said the key to learning a new language is realizing a person’s native language is not the standard.
“I often tell people, ‘This new language is just different,'” Metellus said. “The perspective changes and you have to have the right angle. If you have the wrong one, you are always going to be pissed off.”
So what is it like to be the captain of the Canadiens who is also trying to learn French at the same time?
Just ask Brian Gionta. The longtime NHL right winger grew up in Rochester, New York, before spending four years at Boston College. Gionta spent seven seasons with the team that drafted him, the New Jersey Devils, before coming to Montreal. He spent five seasons in Montreal and was captain for four of them.
Gionta and his wife sent their children to a French immersion school. They befriended one of the mothers at the school, who also turned out to be a foreign language tutor, and she taught Gionta and his wife.
Gionta said learning French came with its challenges. He admitted there were times when his French was probably not the strongest. But he still wanted to show he was making the effort whether it was greeting the media in French before doing an interview in English or when he spoke a few lines on opening night to announce the team.
“The fans were great. My five years in Montreal were probably the best of my career,” Gionta said. “We had a great experience with it. The fans, the media, the organization. All of it was great to myself and my family. … I was not necessarily worried about trying to win people over or worried if I lost a few people if I was not good at it. But it was about trying to do the best I could in the culture that is Montreal.”
Machabée shared the anecdote of how Suzuzki met Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby when they were at the NHL player tour in Las Vegas before the start of the season. She said Crosby told Suzuki how he did not speak French when he played in juniors for the Rimouski Oceanic but was able to learn.
She recalled how Crosby told Suzuki everyone in Rimouski was patient with him and how they appreciated his effort with learning French. Machabée then pointed out how it was a skill Crosby can continue to use because he has established close relationships with current and former teammates, such as Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang and Max Talbot, who are all native French speakers who grew up in Quebec.
Suzuki, who spoke to ESPN earlier in the season, said he has never done an entire interview in French. He has opened and closed interviews in French. But he does eventually want to reach a stage in which he can do a full interview in French.
“I spoke French when I was named captain, but that was just a sentence at the beginning and end of interviews,” Suzuki said. “I am not there yet but would eventually like to get to that point.”
Metellus wants the same thing for Suzuki and any Canadiens player who is interested in learning the language. Metellus said he wants to get a feel for everyone’s proficiency level and also find out what they want to work on.
From there, he will work with the Canadiens’ communications staff to establish a schedule that works for the players. They’re still working through certain details like whether they will do individual or group sessions. Either way, Metellus said the plan is to have in-person sessions when the team is in Montreal while doing remote sessions through videoconference whenever they are on the road.
“When the general public sees that a Montreal Canadiens player is improving their French or making the effort to learn it, the respect goes to the moon,” Metellus said. “The general public will really, really appreciate that. They are going to say, ‘At least he is making an effort,’ and that is what people want to see. If I am able to play a part in that, then, it’s all good in the hood.”
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