koivu-saku-cp-070403

Saku Koivu is feeling some heat for speaking marginal French. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press) )

The Montreal Canadiens are defending team captain Saku Koivu after his poor Frenchwas criticized ata "reasonable accommodation" commission hearing.

In his testimony at the Bouchard-Taylor commission hearings in Quebec City Tuesday, lawyer Guy Bertrand used Koivu as an example of how Quebec is forced to make "unacceptable" linguistic accommodations that threaten French.

When called to speak in front of fans at the Bell Centre, Koivu speaks English, even though Quebec's Bill 101 enshrines the right of Quebecers to be spoken to in French, Bertrand said.

The comments appeared to irritate many Canadiens who said they play hockey, not politics, adding that the game is not about language.

"That's their business," said coach Guy Carbonneau.

"As long as they speak English and understand me, that's all I'm asking."

The players are role models, but they aren't expected to be ambassadors of the French language, Carbonneau said.

After team practice Wednesday, Koivu tried out his modest French on reporters and said he wishes it was better.

"We can say bonjour, comment ça va," he said.

"I'm not saying that I'm perfect, and I wish that I did speak French."

Koivu dismissed suggestions that his poor French reflects on his commitment to Montreal.

"I've helped, in a lot of ways, the community and I've done a lot of things on the ice, and I guess that's more my way of helping the community and showing how much I love Montreal."

Not speaking French isn't a problem within the team, said francophone player Mathieu Dandenault.

"It's more political, because they're trying to make a big deal out of nothing. Bottom line, you step into this dressing room, it's English. It's not a big deal, and besides, everyone in this dressing room speaks three languages," he said.

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois suggested Tuesday that Canadiens players who don't speak French should perhaps take lessons to learn.