Hockey, Sports

Nick Suzuki’s captaincy transcends Quebec language politics

On Sept. 12, the Montreal Canadiens announced the appointment of 23-year-old Nick Suzuki as the 31st captain in franchise history. The standout centre from London, Ontario, joins a decorated list of Habs captains, including hockey legends Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau. Chosen over his more veteran teammates like Brendan Gallagher,  Suzuki’s age highlights the team’s commitment to a strong young core. The selection also makes Suzuki the youngest captain in franchise history and positions him at the forefront of the changing face of hockey.

As one of the NHL’s founding teams and a member of the Original Six, the Montreal Canadiens provide a beacon of unity for the francophone community within the hockey world. Les Canadiens de Montréal have long been tied to the province’s cultural identity as even the team’s nickname, the Habs or Les Habitants, refers to French settlers in the Quebec region. 

As seen with the recent passing of the controversial Bill 96, Quebec’s administration has further ingrained language laws as a political priority. Since the departure of the Nordiques in 1996, many fans see the Canadiens as the symbolic core of Quebec’s identity in the sports world. As a result, the election of Suzuki, a non-bilingual Ontarian, to Quebec’s highly prized NHL team has been highly controversial. It has been through both congratulations and thinly-veiled criticism of Suzuki’s lack of French-speaking ability that provincial politicians have extended the age-old debate about bilingualism to their hockey team.

With the 2022 Quebec general election coming up on Oct. 3 and candidates on the campaign trail, many leaders addressed the news during their press conferences. Incumbent premier François Legault from Coalition Avenir Québéc not-so-jokingly suggested that Suzuki work on his French. Leaders of the Parti Québécois, Quebec Liberal Party, and Québec solidaire all pressed Suzuki to up his French game, proving the issue to be a sentiment that cuts across party lines.

Regardless of linguistic outcry, a Suzuki captaincy represents a positive step forward for Japanese representation within hockey. With only seven active NHLers of Asian descent in the 2021-2022 season, Suzuki’s new position breaks barriers in the predominantly white sport. In 2020, a group of young Japanese hockey players on the Japan Selects came to Quebec to see Suzuki in action. Their coach, Taro Kurokawa, emphasized Suzuki’s impact on the youngsters, calling Suzuki a “big source of pride” for the Japanese community.

Suzuki understands the magnitude of his presence in hockey and has stressed his desire to be a role model and to help kids reach their NHL dreams in any way he can. While hockey is not yet considered a major sport in Japan, it’s made leaps and bounds over the past decade, with the women’s team qualifying for the past three Olympics and youth hockey programs growing across the country. Suzuki’s new role within the Canadiens organization is diversifying the league and creating a path for other kids of Asian heritage to play at the highest level. 

Hockey culture is characterized by a desire to remain insulated from broader social and political issues. Despite this, Suzuki’s lack of bilingualism has catapulted him into the centre of a highly polarized political debate that he is slowly but surely navigating. Although  Suzuki is still young, he seems poised to ascend to the next step in his career with his newly appointed captaincy. He simultaneously acknowledged the validity of both politicians and Quebeckers’ perspectives on the French language, respectfully addressing his lack of fluency and his desire to improve. Additionally, as the Canadiens’ Hockey Is For Everyone ambassador, Suzuki plays an important role in the drive to foster a more inclusive environment within the sport. 

Only time will tell whether Suzuki’s captaincy will be the change the Habs need to be successful in the 2022-23 season, but his ability to address contentious political issues like language head-on  leaves many looking forward to the young star’s future.

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