LAS VEGAS — Nick Suzuki learned some French growing up in southwestern Ontario.
Knowing that great responsibility was just around the corner, he set to work to dust off those skills and hone them this summer.
The 23-year-old is aware that there is still a long way to go. Suzuki also has no problem with Quebec politicians challenging his command of the province’s official language.
Named captain of the Montreal Canadiens on Monday, the center’s ability to speak French immediately became a topic of discussion.
With Quebec’s election campaigning in full swing, party leaders hailed the decision to give Suzuki the high-pressure job entering his fourth season with the Rebuild Club. They all added that he needed to be able to communicate with fans of the Original Six franchise in both French and English.
“A lot of Quebec politicians want[players]to speak French, and that’s fair,” the London, Ontario native said at the NHL/NHLPA players’ media tour just outside Las Vegas this week.
“French is spoken more than English in Quebec.”
Suzuki said the Canadian players should all have some level of French, but living and working in largely bilingual Montreal presents some challenges.
“We don’t really use it that much and don’t get to try it that much,” he added. “(Politicians) have the right to think that players should speak French.
“I feel like I know a little bit what I’m talking about when I speak. I read better than I can converse. I’m in a pretty good place. I can get better too.”
Former teammate Phillip Danault, meanwhile, has no doubt that his old teammate – one he took under his wing early on in Montreal – will thrive in the new role.
“Very proud of him. He deserves it,” said Quebec-born Danault, who signed with the Los Angeles Kings last summer after six seasons in Montreal, of Canada’s youngest captain in history. “He takes what he does very seriously and I don’t think he could be a better fit than Nick.
“You could see he already had an edge to be a great leader. I like Montreal’s move and I respect that. He’ll do a great job.”
Suzuki was encouraged by head coach Martin St. Louis to take some time to weigh the decision to take on the role, having originally raised the issue a few months ago.
“Because I’m a younger guy and it’s a big market like Montreal, I guess he just wanted me to make sure I was ready,” Suzuki said. “I would have accepted it immediately, but I just listened to him and talked to a few other people.”
One was the only captain he played for in the NHL.
“Shea Weber was a guy I leaned on,” Suzuki said of the veteran defender, who was out last season with a foot/ankle injury that could very well end his playing career.
The 37-year-old was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights in June as part of a salary cap, which helped open the door for Montreal to appoint the 31St Captain in franchise history.
“He said I was ready,” Suzuki said of their conversations. “Give me a lot of confidence.”
The Canadians are poised to face another massive gap in leadership this season as goaltender Carey Price is likely to end up on long-term reserve with a knee problem that helped him play just five games in 2021-22.
“Hard to see and hear,” Suzuki said of the 35-year-old. “It’s just sad. He wants to compete out there and he can’t. I know it’s tough for him. We want him to make a full recovery and be healthy.
“You don’t want to be hurt your whole life. You just want him to recover and see what happens after that.”
The Canadians have changed massively since their surprise run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals.
St. Louis replaced the fired Dominique Ducharme in February, and while results weren’t all that different on the ice, the mood on the team changed drastically when the Hall of Famer winger was in charge.
“He put us in every position to be successful,” said Suzuki. “The whole team just started to play better.”
However, the Canadians still finished bottom overall before winning the NHL draft lottery and securing the No. 1 pick in their home arena.
Suzuki took to the stage in an electric bell center as Montreal general manager Kent Hughes stunned the hockey world by passing Shane Wright – a center long viewed as a consensus top pick – and Slovakia winger Juraj Slafkovsky took.
“When we won the lottery, everyone was on the Shane Wright train,” Suzuki said. “But as the process progressed, (Slafkovsky) picked up a lot of steam. Can definitely understand why they liked him so much. He’s an amazing guy, looks really strong.
“Honestly, I didn’t know when I was on stage. It was a surprise for me.”
Suzuki was also struck by the range of emotions in the arena when 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’s a strong argument that the Canadians should do everything they can to give themselves the best chance in the 2023 draft at landing star center Connor Bedard – who is being viewed as the game’s next-gen talent – Suzuki believes Montreal to can fight a fierce battle. Ticket space this season.
“It’s all about winning games for the players,” he said. “We’re not going into the season and we want to win the lottery.”
Originally acquired by Vegas as part of the deal for former Canadians captain Max Pacioretty, Suzuki understands the level of trust the organization has placed in him.
It began with an eight-year, $63 million contract extension beginning this season before the “C” is embroidered on his jersey.
Now is the time to repay that belief.
“It feels great,” he said. “Definitely a historic captain line in Montreal.
“Proud to be in this group.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 17, 2022.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press