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opinion

Montreal Canadiens' Nick Suzuki skates with the puck against the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., on March 31.Karl B DeBlaker/The Associated Press

Shortly after the Toronto Maple Leafs won the biggest game in their (now not-at-all) recent history, the CBC’s Ron MacLean stuck a microphone in Nikolai Borschevsky’s face.

Borschevsky had scored the overtime winner in that 1993 Game 7 division semi-final against the Detroit Red Wings. MacLean asked him how that felt. After a couple of beats, it became clear that Borschevsky did not understand what MacLean was saying.

MacLean tried pantomiming ‘feelings’ (a spreading hand indicating something bursting from one’s chest).

“Ah,” Borschevsky said, though he still had no idea what MacLean was on about. So he began roughly connecting the few words he knew.

“I very want play because five games I don’t play. Today for me is to play. That our team win unbelievable.”

The only word Borschevsky said with any conviction was the last one. Because when you think about it, “unbelievable” is a great word to learn. Said with the right amount of gusto, it can be the answer to any question.

What struck you was the CBC’s apparent belief that though this poor sap did not speak the language, hockey tawk could fix that problem. Just do the usual – ask an insipid question and wait for a nonsensical answer.

Borschevsky sprang to mind as one watched a special message this week to Montreal Canadiens fans from their new team captain, Nick Suzuki.

“Bon jure toot lemon, set in honay … ,” Suzuki began, in what I’m assuming was French. Or Portuguese. Or maybe Romanian. It was hard to tell.

You feel a lot of empathy here. Like Suzuki, I am a product of the Canadian public-school system. Like Suzuki, I took and passed French classes. And, like Suzuki, I speak French like I’m reading cue cards in a hostage video.

So plenty of empathy. But sympathy? Not so much.

I don’t speak good conversational French. I also don’t presume to be the front man for the only important French hockey team in the world. That takes some gall. Who does this guy think he is? The CEO of Air Canada?

Sensing a red-meat issue for giblet prices, every politician in Quebec jumped two-footed into this one.

“I think [Suzuki] is an excellent choice,” said Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault, currently running for re-election as Premier. “However, he will have to learn French.”

Not ‘should learn’ or ‘it would be great if he tried’ – reminders that, gentle though they may be, no English-speaking Canadian politician would dream of issuing to a local athlete. But ‘will have to learn.’

That’s an instruction from the man in charge. Unless they want to be regular chum on Tout le monde en parle, the Canadiens will have to reckon with that direct challenge.

Suzuki told the Montreal Gazette that he’s trying. He took online courses this summer, plus there’s all those years spent reciting ‘je suis, tu es, il est, elle est …’. He says he reads better than he speaks (I tell myself the same lie).

Whatever Suzuki’s doing, the results are not yet apparent.

Of course, Suzuki doesn’t have to do anything. There are no rules here. Plenty of other athletes in other North American leagues choose not to speak English in front of the cameras, or do so through interpreters. Most of them speak it just fine. They just prefer to avoid the media. Who can blame them? We’re awful.

It’s also true that everywhere outside North America, it’s a given that pro athletes will learn the language basics of whatever country they work in.

That’s not because the sports are different, but because the people are. Canada and the United States are among the few countries on Earth where a unilingual person can be considered well educated.

Nobody wants to look stupid. In most places on the planet, the way you do that is by speaking more than one language. Here, we solve that problem by pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist, until we discover it on vacation.

You get Suzuki’s position and you get Legault’s. What you don’t get is the Montreal Canadiens’ take here.

Quebeckers have accepted that all the Canadiens’ players can’t be French. They may even have accepted that very few of them need be. All Quebeckers ask is that the people in charge – the GM, coach and captain – demonstrate an understanding of local customs.

Anybody can be the captain of the hockey team. Other teams give it away for all sorts of random reasons – because someone makes the most money, or sells the most jerseys, or scares everyone else into line. There is no wrong answer to ‘Who should be the captain of Hockey Team X?’

Why didn’t the Canadiens give it to someone who speaks French? Or someone who really wants to learn French? Or someone who can at least pronounce French if they have an unlimited number of takes in which to get it right?

If Suzuki is that guy, it would’ve been easy enough to meet with a friendly French journalist and do your best. People are forgiving in general, but they are incredibly forgiving of celebrities who show vulnerability. That’s all that’s required here. Thus far, none has been forthcoming.

What matters is how Suzuki and the Canadiens handle this. Do they get their backs up about it? Or are they setting expectations so low that any improvement will be newsworthy? Handled right, this could still be a brilliant PR stroke.

All the Quebec politicians waving a finger at Suzuki agreed that he should be given a year or two to become conversant. Like Borschevsky, it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out how to say ‘pucks in deep’ en Français. It’s hockey, not particle physics. A few of the native English speakers barely speak English, and no one’s bugging them. They just string the same six sentences together in a different order night after night.

I suppose it comes down to aspiration. Do you want to play hockey, make a bunch of money and go home? Then do whatever you’d like.

Or do you want to really be part of something that is bigger than what you do for a living? Do you want to feel connected to a foreign place, not just now, but forever? Then lose the online courses and get a tutor.