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opinion

Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel apparently thought he would win votes in Quebec by naming the structure that will replace the aging Champlain Bridge after hockey legend Maurice (Rocket) Richard – too bad if it meant throwing away the memory of Samuel de Champlain, the founder of New France and Canada as we know it.

Hey, the crass reasoning might have been, Quebeckers are crazy about hockey and presumably don't care much about what happened 400 years ago! But if it goes ahead, the decision will be one of the biggest fiascos yet for the Conservatives in Quebec, where they are already abysmally unpopular. Quebeckers are not as dumb as Mr. Lebel seems to think.

The plan – including a formal announcement to be made on Dec. 9, a corny wink to the Rocket's jersey number – raised a furious torrent of protest from the moment it was leaked to La Presse. Nearly every commentator in the mainstream Quebec media, including the populist tabloids, rose to Champlain's defence.

News outlets have been flooded with angry letters from readers, insulted by what they see as a crude grasp for votes and an unbearable sign of contempt from the Conservatives. Meanwhile, the province's politicians were walking on egg shells. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, an enthusiastic hockey fan, said he preferred the old name but would defer to Ottawa. Premier Philippe Couillard, who had earlier expressed lukewarm support for the change, said Tuesday that the Champlain name should stay. Mr. Lebel's office issued a press release saying that "reflection continues" about the name.

Even the Richard family appeared embarrassed by the controversy. The Rocket's children said they were pleased with the honour bestowed on their father but were reluctant to be in the centre of the storm. Mr. Richard himself would have hated this; he was a modest man who always refused to be seen as a symbol and ferociously stayed away from politics.

Like the original structure that links Montreal to the South Shore of the St. Lawrence River, the future bridge will be the most heavily used in Canada, and a major throughway between Eastern Canada and the United States. It certainly deserves a name reflective of the river's majesty.

Mr. Richard remains a beloved icon in his own right, but there is simply no comparison between the legacy of a combative hockey great and that of a heroic explorer who established one of the first permanent European settlements in North America (Quebec City) and travelled up the St. Lawrence into the Great Lakes and into large swaths of the territory that later became the United States. In terribly difficult conditions, he made numerous return trips across the Atlantic in order to consolidate the French presence in North America. And unlike so many colonizers, he was astute enough to make friends with several First Nations.

Champlain remains an iconic figure to more than French Canadians, as illustrated by the fact that his definitive biography, Champlain's Dream, was published in 2008 by American historian and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Hackett Fischer.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper knows all this. He's a hockey buff, but he's also a lover of history. He's always made a point of beginning his public speeches in French because, as he says, Canada was born in French. I wouldn't be surprised if he overturns this absurd decision, if only to put an end to a controversy that's already severely hurt his Conservative Party in Quebec.