LAS VEGAS — Nick Suzuki learned some French growing up in southwestern Ontario.
Knowing a big responsibility was right around the corner, he went to work both dusting off and trying to improve those skills this summer.
The 23-year-old is keenly aware there’s a long road ahead. Suzuki also takes no issue with Quebec politicians weighing in on his proficiency in the province’s official language.
Named captain of the Montreal Canadiens on Monday, the centre’s ability to speak French immediately became a topic of discussion.
With a Quebec provincial election campaign in full swing, party leaders praised the decision to give Suzuki the pressure-packed job heading into his fourth season with the rebuilding club. They all added he must be able to communicate with the Original Six franchise’s fans in both French and English.
“A lot of the Quebec politicians want (players) to speak French and that’s fair,” the London, Ont., native said at this week’s NHL/NHLPA player media tour just outside Las Vegas.
“French is more spoken in Quebec than English.”
Suzuki said Canadiens 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 too much and don’t get to try it out that much,” he added. “(Politicians) have the right to think that players should speak French.
“I feel like I know what I’m talking about a little bit when I speak. I read better than I’m able to have a conversation. I’m in a pretty good place. I can get better, too.”
Former teammate Phillip Danault, meanwhile, has no doubt his old teammate – one he took under his wing early on in Montreal – will succeed in the new role.
“Very proud of him. He deserves it,” the Quebec-born Danault, who signed with the Los Angeles Kings last summer following six seasons in Montreal, said of the youngest captain in Canadiens history. “He’s very serious at what he does, and I don’t think it could be a better fit than Nick.
“You could tell he already had an edge to be a big leader. I like the move from Montreal, and I respect that. He’s gonna do an awesome job.”
Suzuki was encouraged by head coach Martin St. Louis to take some time to weigh the decision of taking on the role after originally broaching the subject a few months ago.
“Being a younger guy and being a big market like Montreal, I think he just wanted me to make sure that I was ready,” Suzuki said. “I would have accepted it right away, but I just listened to him and talked to a few other people.”
One was the only captain he’s played for in the NHL.
“Shea Weber was a guy that I leaned on,” Suzuki said of the veteran defenceman, who missed last season due to 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 in a salary cap move, which helped open the door for Montreal to name the 31st captain in franchise history.
“He said I was ready,” Suzuki shared of their conversations. “Gave me a lot of confidence.”
The Canadiens are poised to have another massive leadership void this season with goaltender Carey Price likely to land on long-term injured reserve with a knee issue that contributed to him making just five appearances in 2021-22.
“Tough to see and hear,” Suzuki said of the 35-year-old. “It’s just sad. He wants to be out there competing, and he can’t do that. I know it’s tough for him. We want him to recover fully and be healthy.
“You don’t want to be hurt for your whole life. You just want him to recover and see what happens after that.”
The Canadiens have undergone massive changes since making a surprise run to the 2021 Stanley Cup final.
St. Louis replaced the fired Dominique Ducharme in February, and while the results weren’t all that different on the ice, the mood around the team changed drastically with the Hall of Fame winger in charge.
“He put us in every position to succeed,” Suzuki said. “The whole team just started playing better.”
The Canadiens, however, still finished last in the overall standings before winning the NHL draft lottery and securing the No. 1 pick at their home rink.
Suzuki was on stage inside an electric Bell Centre when Montreal general manager Kent Hughes stunned the hockey world by passing over Shane Wright – a centre long-viewed as the consensus top selection – and taking Slovak winger Juraj Slafkovsky.
“When we won the lottery, everyone was (on the) Shane Wright train,” Suzuki said. “But as the process went on (Slafkovsky) was picking up a lot of steam. Can definitely see why they liked him so much. He’s an amazing guy, looks really strong.
“I didn’t know (the pick) when I was on stage, honestly. It was a surprise to me.”
Suzuki was also struck by the range of emotions inside the arena the moment Slafkovsky’s name was announced.
“It was unreal,” he said. “When we picked him it was shock, and then (fans) rallied around him.”
And while there’s a strong argument to be made the Canadiens should do everything possible to give themselves the best odds at landing star centre Connor Bedard – viewed as the game’s next generational talent – at the 2023 draft, Suzuki believes Montreal can challenge for a wild-card spot this season.
“For players, it’s all about winning games,” he said. “We’re not going into the season wanting a lottery pick.”
Originally acquired from Vegas as part of the deal for former Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty, Suzuki understands the level of faith the organization has shown him.
It started with an eight-year, US$63-million contract extension that kicks in this season before stitching the “C” on his jersey.
Now it’s time to start paying back that belief.
“It feels great,” he said. “Definitely an historic line of captaincy in Montreal.
“Proud to be in that group.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 17, 2022.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press