It’s been nearly 30 years since a Canadiens captain retired in Montreal and more than five decades since a Maple Leafs captain retired in Toronto. And it’s becoming clear the weight of the ‘C’ is more significant in some markets.
There has been a fair bit of white noise surrounding the question of whether Auston Matthews or John Tavares, or even Morgan Rielly for that matter, should be the next captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. What I would advise each of those players on that front is to be careful for what you wish.
In case you all haven’t noticed, being named captain of the Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens has actually become more of a curse than a blessing. One needn’t look any further than the Canadiens current captain, Max Pacioretty, who has done nothing for the Canadiens but give his complete and total effort to leading his team. Until his miserable 2017-18 season, Pacioretty was a consistent 30-goal scorer. Not only that, he’s a drafted and homegrown player who has come to love Montreal and make it his year-round home. He has gone above and beyond when it comes to off-ice endeavors representing the Canadiens and he sincerely wants to stay and play and be captain in a market that is one of the most difficult to endure when things aren’t going well.
And if reports are to be believed, the Canadiens not only have no interest in extending Pacioretty’s ridiculous team-friendly contract beyond next season, they seem eager to trade him as soon as possible. Through all of the trials and tribulations, you’d think at least the Canadiens would cling to their tradition of not treating their players shabbily.
What does this have to do with the Leafs, you ask? Well, has anyone noticed that no player has retired as captain of the Leafs since Ted Kennedy did in 1957? Seriously. George Armstrong, who captained the Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, did retire as a Leaf, but gave way to Dave Keon as captain two years before he retired. The Canadiens have fared a little better. The last person they had retire with the ‘C’ on his sweater was Bob Gainey almost 30 years ago.
Yes, things have changed in Toronto and there is a different regime that has never been more in tune with both current and former players. That much is clear. But there was a time when being captain of the Maple Leafs or Canadiens was akin to hockey royalty. Luminaries who held the distinction in Toronto include the likes of Syl Apps, Kennedy and Armstrong. In Montreal, it has been bestowed upon players such as Toe Blake, Butch Bouchard, Maurice and Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau and Yvan Cournoyer. More often than not now, a captain in these two cities is more likely to get run out of town than retain his captaincy.
And lest you think that is the case all over the league and that player movement dictates that captains get moved frequently, consider Shane Doan retired as captain of the Arizona Coyotes. Scott Niedermayer in Anaheim, Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk in Colorado, Steve Yzerman and Nick Lidstrom in Detroit, Chris Pronger in Philadelphia, Dave Andreychuk in Tampa, Henrik Sedin in Vancouver…all have retired in recent years as captains of their teams. Derek McKenzie has announced this will be his last season in the NHL, which means he’ll likely retire as the Florida Panthers captain. And it’s hard to fathom that Henrik Zetterberg, Sidney Crosby, Joe Pavelski or Steven Stamkos would not still have the ‘C’ on their chests for their current teams when they decide to hang up their skates.
Who knows when the Canadiens or Leafs will have a captain play out his career with them? To be sure, Tavares or Matthews definitely have the potential to end that streak. With the Canadiens, perhaps in their wildest dreams it will be Jack Hughes. Oh yes, and the past three captains of the Ottawa Senators have been Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, and we’re getting a pretty good idea of how all that is going to turn out.
So before either Tavares or Matthews accepts the captaincy of the Leafs, perhaps he will talk to Darryl Sittler, who once cut the ‘C’ off his sweater with tears running down his face. It’s pretty clear that for some teams in the NHL, the ‘C’ weighs a lot heavily than it does in others.
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