How non-francophone Canadiens captains have fared through recent history

It's no easy task to be the captain of the Montreal Canadiens without speaking French. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
It's no easy task to be the captain of the Montreal Canadiens without speaking French. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Becoming captain of the Montreal Canadiens is an inherently political position, as Nick Suzuki is quickly finding out. Suzuki was named the 31st captain in franchise history on Sept. 12, becoming the youngest player to earn the role.

Immediately after Suzuki’s appointment, several francophone political leaders across party lines demanded the 23-year-old learn how to speak French expeditiously.

“To be the captain of the Canadiens is to create a link with the whole population that has been supporting this club unconditionally for generations," Parti Quebecois leader Paul Plemondon said Monday. "What does it cost to take French classes?"

This seems like an outdated tradition, but the role of Canadiens captain has been co-opted as a symbol of Quebec’s identity. Maurice Richard, Guy Carbonneau, Jean Beliveau and Serge Savard among other Canadiens greats often galvanized the hockey-mad fan base as effective, native French speakers, but ever since Bob Gainey (who endeared himself to the fans by learning French) was appointed captain in 1981, it has been a point of contention among the fan base.

Suzuki isn’t the first Canadiens player to don the ‘C’ that has been put in this position, so we’ll see how his past comrades fared.

Shea Weber

Weber’s reign will be best remembered for the team’s improbable run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final, where the Canadiens were finally ousted by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Montreal narrowly missed the playoffs during the 2018-19 campaign, Weber’s first at the helm, then followed it up with a first-round exit the following year. After Montreal stumbled out of the gate during the 2020-21 season, Claude Julien was fired, and the team responded to Dominique Ducharme initially, going on a Cinderella run to the Final.

“It’s part of it, for sure. That’s something that we need to deal with on a day-to-day basis and we’re used to it as pros and make the best of it and enjoy it if you can and do it the best we can,” Weber said, when asked about the responsibilities of speaking French as Montreal’s captain after receiving the honour in 2018.

Because of Weber’s willingness to learn French, along with his steady play throughout the 2020 campaign, this issue subsided almost immediately. Weber was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights in June, creating a void for Suzuki to fill.

The Canadiens made a shock run to the Stanley Cup Final under Shea Weber's leadership. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)The Canadiens made a shock run to the Stanley Cup Final under Shea Weber's leadership. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
The Canadiens made a shock run to the Stanley Cup Final under Shea Weber's leadership. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Max Pacioretty

Pacioretty was named captain ahead of the 2015-16 season, a decision that surprised some fans and insiders, who were expecting P.K. Subban to take the mantle. Subban famously donated $10 million to Montreal's Children’s Hospital in September 2015 and some expected this announcement to be a precursor to what appeared to be an inevitable promotion to the captaincy. This decision was decided on a vote by the players, and the American winger gladly accepted the new role.

Although he’s not overly charismatic by nature, Pacioretty charmed the Canadiens’ press corps by attempting to speak French during the revelatory press conference, telling reporters he’d be working with a tutor to work on his grammar. It was a clever move, as it was an issue that rarely came up again.

As for the Canadiens under Pacioretty’s leadership, you’d probably like to forget the rest of this dreary period. Montreal made the playoffs just once during his captaincy — a first-round exit at the hands of the New York Rangers during the 2016-17 campaign. Ahead of the 2018-19 season, Pacioretty was traded to the Golden Knights in a deal that netted Suzuki in return, along with Tomas Tatar and a second-round pick.

Pacioretty received a standing ovation from the fans in his first game against the Canadiens as a member of the Golden Knights. Not too shabby for a mediocre run.

Brian Gionta

Gionta’s run as Canadiens captain was always bound to be uneasy. After Montreal’s fan base and press corps alike attacked Saku Koivu several times over his inability to speak French, the climate was treacherous for the American winger.

A few weeks before Gionta was named captain in September 2010, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois argued that Quebecers would like to have more francophones on the team. This wasn’t the first time Marois made this suggestion, bracing against Koivu numerous times.

“We’re embracing the culture," Gionta said of learning French upon being named captain. "We live here in Montreal.

"It’s a great place to be. We’re going to do our best to learn it. I can’t make promises that I’ll be able to speak it fluently, but I’ll try. It’s part of being here, whether you’re captain or not. You want to accept the culture and learn. We’re in the process of that now and we’ll see where it goes."

Gionta held the captaincy for four seasons and it was a decent run, amounting to two first-round losses and a conference finals appearance during the 2013-14 season before bowing out to the Rangers in six games. Although there was reason to believe Gionta would be willing to run it back, having reached the final four with the Canadiens, he ultimately signed a three-year contract with the Sabres and was named Buffalo’s captain for the 2014-15 season.

Gionta was the Canadiens' captain for four years. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)
Gionta was the Canadiens' captain for four years. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Saku Koivu

Pierre Turgeon and Vincent Damphousse are native French speakers, and when the latter was traded in March 1999 to the San Jose Sharks, the throne emerged for Koivu. Koivu was one of the most beloved Canadiens players of his generation, but his inability to speak French was dubbed “L’Affair Koivu” by the French-language press. He also became the first European-born player to become Montreal’s captain.

One of the longest-tenured captains in franchise history (1999-2009), Koivu was a quiet but steady leader during some uneven years for the Canadiens, culminating in five playoff appearances but no deep runs. Koivu was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma but suited up for the 80th game of the 2001-02 season and received a rousing, eight-minute standing ovation upon his return to the ice. He earned the Bill Masterton Trophy for the 2001-02 season for his fight against cancer.

Koivu’s inability to speak French was constantly brought up by reporters, much to his disdain. He often tried to deflect from the topic with humour and short phrases in French, but ultimately it weighed on his relationship with the media, and perhaps to a lesser extent, the fan base. A lawyer named Guy Bertrand argued in 2007 that Koivu’s inability to speak French was a larger referendum on English linguistic accommodations that limit the ability to speak French in society. Canadiens head coach and franchise legend Guy Carbonneau intervened on Koivu’s behalf, temporarily putting the issue to rest.

"Bob Gainey was a model during the time he was captain," Koivu told The Canadian Press in 2009. "He made the effort to learn French. When I arrived here, I had to learn English and it took me some time before mastering it. In an ideal world, I should also speak French. But I’m not perfect in that sense.”

Mike Keane

A defensive-oriented pest who helped the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup in 1993, Keane quickly appeared to squander any good will he had accrued with the fan base following his appointment to the captaincy during the 1994-95 season, after Kirk Muller was traded.

Keane told reporters he had no intention of learning French, a frank admission that turned him into the enemy of the press.

"Keane's remarks reveal a crushing ignorance of all that is happening in Quebec," La Presse columnist Michel Blanchard wrote. "The only thing to do is to demote him back to where he's useful, on the ice. Or better yet, trade him to somewhere out west."

Apparently Blanchard’s disgust registered, perhaps representative of the francophone fan base writ large. Keane attempted to retract his comments, but the damage was already done.

"What people said about me not wanting to speak French is not true," Keane said. "I just don't speak French. If I said anything to offend anyone, I'm sorry. I'm going to try to learn French — obviously now."

The rest of the 1994-95 season played out unceremoniously for the Canadiens, who missed the playoffs. Patrick Roy was also disgruntled with management, as he and Keane were traded to the Colorado Avalanche midway through the 1995-96 season, where they won the Stanley Cup later that year. Keane would later go on to win his third Cup with as many teams as a member of the 1999 Dallas Stars.

As for the Canadiens? Pierre Turgeon replaced Keane, putting an end to a brief but inflammatory reign.

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