Canadiens forward Brian Gionta (centre) becomes the 28th player in franchise history to wear the "C" on his sweater. With him are defencemen Andrei Markov on the left and Hal Gill on the right, as his assistant captains for this season.
Photograph by: Peter McCabe, The Gazette
MONTREAL - Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin summoned Brian Gionta to his office Wednesday morning and let him in on the worst-kept secret in Montreal: Gionta will serve as the team’s 28th captain.
There has been speculation throughout training camp that Gionta would fill the position that has been vacant since last July when the Canadiens declined to offer Saku Koivu a new contract.
Martin said he normally would have let the suspense build for another week.
“In the past, I’ve named the captain the day before the season opens, but we’re going to open on the road and I thought we should do it with the media here,” Martin said.
The Canadiens have an exhibition game against Buffalo Thursday night at the Bell Centre and then head to Quebec City and the Charlevoix region for the final days of their training camp. They face the New York Islanders Saturday at Le Colisée and then spend four days in Malbaie before flying to Toronto. They open the regular season next Thursday against the Maple Leafs and play in Pittsburgh on Oct. 9. The first regular-season game at the Bell Centre will be Oct. 13 against Tampa Bay.
The 31-year-old Gionta emerged from what Martin has repeatedly described as “our leadership group.”
“I wasn’t prepared to name a captain last season because I didn’t know the players,” said Martin, who arrived in town to make sense of a major change in personnel. Martin said he identified a core group of leaders over the course of the season and he was impressed by the way they came together during last season’s run to the Eastern Conference final.
Two members of the group - Andrei Markov and Hal Gill - will retain the As they wore as alternate captains last season. Martin also identified the other players who will be expected to contribute to the group - Michael Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, Tomas Plekanec and Josh Gorges. One of those players will be wearing an A to start the season because Markov is still recovering from knee surgery.
Gionta, who is the shortest player on the team at 5-foot-7, received a boost when he addressed the larger-than-usual media scrum. He kept his skates on and was standing on a six-inch riser.
“I don’t think anything will change except I may get more kidding from Gomer,” Gionta said. “I expect to go out there every night and keep doing the things I’ve been doing all along.”
Gill, who is the most vocal of the letter-wearing trio, said he expected Gionta to lead by example.
“I’ve known Brian for a long time and he sets an example with his work ethic,” Gill said. “He’s the smallest guy out there, but he plays big and he commands respect by winning battles and scoring key goals.”
This is the first time the Canadiens’ captain has not been selected by the players, but Martin made it clear that he consulted with the members of his leadership group before making his final decision.
“We had a good idea who the leaders are after the playoffs and I talked with my coaches and with players, and with Brian to get their input,” Martin said.
Gionta was asked the inevitable question about his ability to communicate in French and he gave the right answer.
“Like I’ve said before, my family and I are embracing the culture,” said Gionta, who was born and raised in Rochester, N.Y. “We enjoy living in Montreal, a great place to be (and) we’re going to do our best to learn (French). I’m not going to make promises that I’ll be able to speak it fluently, but I’ll try. It’s part of being here, whether you’re captain or not. You want to accept the culture and learn it. We’re trying to do that. We’re in the process right now; we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Koivu took heat from some quarters over his reluctance to speak French and an earlier captain, Mike Keane, probably hastened his departure in 1995 after saying that he didn’t see the need to speak French.
The last Canadiens’ captain to speak French was Vincent Damphousse, who was traded in 1999,
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