Finding common ground in hockey's language barrier

Originally Published: November 14, 2007
By Terry Frei | Special to

A decade ago, Canadiens captain Mike Keane caused a firestorm when he seemed disdainful of the notion that a Montreal captain should at least try to learn and speak some French. The irony was that one of his best friends was Quebecois Patrick Roy, and the two ended up being traded (exiled) together to Colorado.

Last month, Canadiens captain Saku Koivu and the team drew heat from lawyer Guy Bertrand during governmental hearings in Quebec City. Bertrand's stand: When Koivu introduced his teammates in English only to the Montreal crowd at the home opener, it violated the spirit and also the letter of the provincial Bill 101. The irony, of course, is that Koivu is a Finn who learned English as a second language. (His Finnish wife also speaks French.)

Despite the fact that I sometimes get to read my writing translated into French on RDS and take teasing from French-speaking players about it, I can't speak anything beyond menu French.

That said, I sympathize with Bertrand's position. I'm amused to read some of the reactions, portraying him as, well, an impractical radical -- in short, as loony as the one-dollar coin.

I've been pondering this more, not just because of the Koivu furor, but also because I watched a movie last week.

On the upcoming DVD of the 2005 film "The Rocket" (it was called "Maurice Richard" in its original release), we are taken back to the 1943-44 season. Canadiens coach Dick Irvin informs young Richard that he is going to join a line with Toe Blake and Elmer Lach.

After Lach, played by the now-retired NHL center Mike Ricci, dryly reminds Richard, "Pass the puck," Maurice haltingly asks Irvin in English: "Mr. Irvin, uh, I can, uh, change 15, for, for the number 9?"

"Yeah," responds Irvin.

"Merci," says Richard, played by Roy Dupuis.

I'm not sure why that scene stood out and stuck with me, more so than the many others in the terrific movie. Perhaps you need to have seen it to better understand why. (And if you haven't, you should see it, by the way.)

At that point in the movie, we've been indoctrinated that Richard's deep-rooted community, and indeed much of Montreal, is French-speaking, first, foremost and nearly exclusively.

These were not immigrants expecting to be accommodated, or political correctness run amok in 2007. They were natives, often facing maltreatment from English-speaking and intolerant powers-that-be who refused to respect at least Quebec's linguistic diversity.

And more than 60 years after Richard broke into the league, I can't say I blame Bertrand or other advocates of the Francophone position, especially in Quebec. Even when it strays into the arenas of fun and games, and into hockey. On the one hand, there's a difference between recognizing the practicality of making English the universal language of the dressing room and the ice; and, on the other, showing a lack of respect for the French-Canadian culture.

"The Rocket," including this scene of Richard haltingly trying to get his message across to a coach who (at least in the film) speaks only English, reminded me of that. The film's dialogue is in English, and in its original release, that portion was subtitled. In the screening DVD I received in advance of the Dec. 11 release, of course, that's reversed -- the French dialogue is subtitled.

Bottom line: Without the subtitles, I would have been lost. Not as lost as Maurice Richard, the young machinist rejected for World War II-era service because of earlier ankle and wrist fractures, apparently felt early in his career.

Many reporters in what had then been recently contracted to a six-team league, barraged him and other Francophone players with questions in English. Later, back in the press box, on the train, or at office, they likely belittled him and other French-Canadians for their lack of command of the King's tongue.

Oh, kind of like it works now.

In this era of increasingly internationalized talent pools in baseball, hockey and even basketball, one of the under-appreciated accomplishments of players is their linguistic adaptability. Hockey players are great at it.

That's represented by Nicklas Lidstrom, who hails from a nation where English as a second language is a virtual educational given. Miikka Kiprusoff, Marian Hossa, Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Fedorov, and, yes, Daniel Briere, plus all the others, are either halting or completely fluent in English at this point of their careers.

They try, and they understand why it's necessary.

If they come to North America, we absolutely have every right to expect them to learn English -- or be left in the dark.

However, and I concede this is an outsider speaking, the issue of accommodation in Quebec, especially, seems a separate one. I've come to understand more and more why the cavalier attitude of so many about acknowledging the French-Canadian tradition and the French language can be so galling to folks like Bertrand.

And, actually, to show I'm no P.C. watchdog, I'm an English-first militant in most U.S. matters, and I don't see this as contradictory at all.

But in hockey, at least, the plight of French-Canadians has been outside that pale for nearly a century. It shouldn't have taken "The Rocket" to remind me of that, but it did.

Absolutely, this is a bit tricky because, more so than ever, in a league with an internationalized talent pool and many native tongues, hockey needs a universal locker-room and on-ice language -- and something other than profanity.

The only practical choice, in the NHL at least, is English. Even in the early days of Rocket Richard's career it was. Today, if NHL players aren't among the many who have taken English classes in school, they learn in a variety of ways, from formal lessons to picking it up on the fly to watching hours of television, leading to the use of such indispensable hockey phrases as, "Big money! Big money!" and "Nip it! Nip it in the bud!"

There's no other way to do it, at least until some computer geek/linguist comes up with a program and hardware that instantly translates the spoken words of others into English, and sends the French, Czech or Russian translation through an iPod to a player's unobtrusive earpiece.

(I know someone's going to e-mail me and tell me the patent is pending.)

Yet I would like to believe that if I had ended up living and working in Montreal, I would have tried to learn at least some French; it's important to acknowledge the right of French-speaking residents to be served in their language.

Dating back 30 years, I've journeyed to Montreal and Quebec City many times. I have wandered through Quebec City's Old Town area, ended up in Café de la Paix, and heard the almost universal French-language conversations around me. It is, after all, part of the nation's tradition.

I can understand why that Anglophone position -- at least when it involves French-Canadians operating in what, in theory (and by law), is supposed to be a bilingual and native nation -- can be so aggravating.

Wait. Maybe that's not the right word. I can't "understand" it as if I have experienced it.

But I can sympathize. And salute all those players, especially the French-Canadians, whose English is a heck of a lot better than my French, or anything else, including my Norwegian.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "'77."

Terry Frei

Special to
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."