Inside Montreal Captain Nick Suzuki’s crash course in French

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Montreal Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki learned French little by little over time. He knows enough to show his gratitude when he’s at the grocery store or getting coffee at a drive-thru. He saw how popular it can be for fans to say “Merci” after interviews.

There are the one-liners he and his teammates used in daily interactions with athletic coaches and equipment staff. He also had the opportunity to ask his friends a few questions and pick up a few phrases that help him in everyday life.

Now there is a plan to ensure that Suzuki and all Canadian players who wish to learn French have that opportunity. The Canadians are reintroducing a voluntary French language program for their players, taught by former Canadian Olympic high jumper Alain Metellus, who had his first meeting with the players on January 10.

“It was great,” Suzuki said of the French volunteer program. “[Canadiens vice president of hockey communications Chantal Machabée] he did a good job and really encourages the guys to use French. This motivates us and makes us feel good to be able to do this.”

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Machabée was hired by the Canadians after spending 32 years working for French broadcaster RDS as a sports reporter covering the team. She said the decision to restart the program came from Canadiens owner Geoff Molson, who, along with Machabée, believes that having more players speak French will allow them to form 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. The people of Montreal really appreciate that.”

When Suzuki was named captain before the season, Quebec politicians urged the 23-year-old to learn French. Suzuki said he took French lessons growing up, which was part of the curriculum back home in London, Ontario.

Suzuki said he started learning French again after his rights were sold to the Canadians as part of Max Pacioretty’s deal with the Vegas Golden Knights. He was a member of Babbel, an online language program. He used it initially but stopped for a few years before using Babbel again during the summer.

“You can type your answers and speak your answers into your phone and it will tell you if you’re saying it correctly,” Suzuki said. “It was not an everyday thing. We’ve been pretty busy (with the season) and I like to do it to relax when I have free time.”

“He brings a lot with people,” said Montreal manager Chantal Machabée. “It shows them that you really care about the team, the city and the fans. The people of Montreal really appreciate that.” Vitor Munhoz/NHLI via Getty Images

Machabée started looking for a tutor before the start of the season. She was putting together a resume when a mutual acquaintance told her about Metellus. What struck Metellus, who grew up in Montreal, was the idea that the team could have a tutor who could teach them French in a way that was more relatable than the traditional way.

Another detail that Machabée appreciated about Metellus was that he was able to connect with the players about what it means to be an athlete with media responsibilities trying to learn a new language.

Metellus, who speaks English and French, also lived in Germany. He learned German and was able to use his foreign language skills to teach English and French in a corporate environment.

“I know what it feels like to learn a new language from scratch,” Metellus said. “It feels like saying something is insurmountable. It’s like being right-handed and being asked to write with your left hand. You think it’s impossible.”

Metellus said that the key to learning a new language is to recognize that a person’s first language is not the standard.

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“I often tell people, ‘This new language is just different,'” Metellus said. “Perspective changes and you have to have the right perspective. If you have the wrong, you will always go crazy.”

So what’s it like to captain the Canadiens while trying to learn French?

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 captained four of them.

Gionta and his wife sent their children to a French immersion school. They became friends with one of the mothers at the school, who also turned out to be a foreign language teacher, and she tutored Gionta and his wife.

Gionta said that learning French came with its challenges. He admitted that there were times when his French was probably not the best. But he still wanted to show he cared, whether it was greeting the media in French before giving an interview in English, or dropping a few lines on opening night to announce the team.

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“The fans were great. My five years in Montreal were probably the best of my career,” said Gionta. “We had a great experience with it. The fans, the media, the organization. Everything was great for me and my family. … I wasn’t necessarily worried about trying to win people over, or worried about losing a few people if I wasn’t good. But it was about trying to do my best in Montreal culture.

Machabée shared the anecdote of how Suzuzki met Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby when they were in Las Vegas before the start of the season on the NHL Player Tour. She said Crosby told Suzuki that he didn’t speak French when he was playing for Rimouski Oceanic in the juniors but he could learn.

She recalled Crosby telling Suzuki that everyone in Rimouski was patient with him and appreciated his efforts in learning French. Machabée then pointed out that Crosby can continue to use this skill as he has developed strong relationships with current and former teammates such as Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang and Max Talbot, all of whom are native French speakers and they grew up in Quebec.

Suzuki, who spoke to ESPN earlier in the season, said he had never done a full interview in French. He opened and closed interviews in French. But he must eventually reach a stage where he can do a full interview in French.

“I spoke French when I was appointed captain, but that was only one sentence at the beginning and end of the interviews,” Suzuki said. “I’m not there yet, but I’d like to get to that point at some point.”

Metellus wants the same for Suzuki and any Canadian player interested in learning the language. Metellus said that he wants to feel the performance level of each individual and also find out what he needs to work on.

From there, he will work with the Canadian communications staff to create a schedule that works for the players. They are still working on certain details, e.g. B. whether they will conduct individual or group sessions. Still, Metellus said the plan is to hold in-person sessions when the team is in Montreal, while remote sessions will be held via video conference when they are away.

“When the general public sees a Montreal Canadiens player improve his French or make the effort to learn it, that’s respect to the moon,” said Metellus. “The general public will really appreciate this. They say, ‘At least he’s trying,’ and that’s what people want to see. If I am able to play a role, then all is well with you.”


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