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The design for the proposed crossing to replace the Champlain Bridge is shown in an artist’s rendering.Alexis Fortin Robitaille/The Canadian Press

The new span to replace Montreal's Champlain Bridge will not be named for hockey legend Maurice Richard, but that doesn't mean the controversy is over.

Federal Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel attempted to squelch a furor he sparked when the government floated a plan to replace the name of one of Canada's founders, Samuel de Champlain, with that of the hockey great and Quebec folk hero on a multi-billion dollar bridge project.

Mr. Lebel insisted it was never his intention to create a contest between two greats of Canadian history. But he stopped short of confirming the name Champlain will remain on the bridge, ensuring the tempest will continue.

"After discussion with the family of Maurice Richard, and to respect their wishes, we've agreed the name of Maurice Richard will be withdrawn from consideration for the name of the new bridge over the St. Lawrence," Mr. Lebel said during a news conference.

"I find it sad that two giants of our history have been pitted against one another. Some will say it's us, but it was not at all our objective."

Few of the critics of the name change had anything against Mr. Richard. In addition to being one of the greatest hockey players of all time, Mr. Richard's determination, pride and hot temper helped make him an unwitting spark in the 1950s for an awakening among French-Canadians who were then dominated by a church and Anglophone elite.

The main objection was the potential deletion of Champlain, a man who mapped much of the eastern part of North America and helped found the first European settlements in what would become Canada in the early 1600s.

"Either Lebel is a historical ignoramus, or a Machiavellian strategic genius who just wants to divert the real debate about tolls," said Pierre Martin, a political scientist at the Université de Montréal.

"It just baffles me that the minister didn't seem to notice the controversy is not about giving a new name but about taking away the old name."

The project to replace the crumbling Champlain bridge is controversial on several fronts. The bridge is owned by the federal government which has decided to replace it with a public-private partnership that will include tolls, triggering opposition from the city and province as well as among commuters.

The 3.4-kilometre bridge is expected to cost between $3-billion and $5-billion and be completed in 2018. Construction is supposed to start next summer.