MONTREAL – When the Montreal Canadiens announced they would name a new captain this season, there was little doubt who would eventually be handed the C.
He’s the smallest player on the team, but steady winger Brian Gionta was the standout leader last season when the team made a surprise run to the Eastern Conference final with no official captain.
”The way he led our group, to me, it became obvious that he was the captain,” said Canadiens coach Jacques Martin.
The Habs made it official Wednesday, naming the five-foot-seven Gionta their 28th captain in the team’s 101-year history.
”He’s a small guy but he has the biggest heart on the team,” said rearguard Roman Hamrlik.
The Rochester, N.Y. native, who stood on a wooden riser to address the media at his dressing room stall Wednesday, is the second American to have the C that has been worn by greats like Jean Beliveau, Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Doug Harvey, Toe Blake and Emile (Butch) Bouchard. American Chris Chelios shared the captaincy with Guy Carbonneau in 1989-90.
After 10-year captain Saku Koivu left as a free agent in a team makeover after the 2008-09 season, the Canadiens had nobody wear the C all of last season.
”I was an assistant captain and part of that (leadership) group last year, but it’s still a surprise to be named captain,” 31-year-old Gionta said. ”It’s the Montreal Canadiens, it’s pretty special.”
This year, Martin, general manager Pierre Gauthier and the rest of the staff opted to name him captain and also tabbed defencemen Andrei Markov and Hal Gill as alternate captains.
”The relationships don’t change,” said Martin. ”We have a captain and two alternates, but we also have four other individuals who are part of the leadership group—Scott Gomez, Michael Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec and Josh Gorges.
”That gives us a group of seven.”
Gionta, who served as captain at Boston College before joining the New Jersey Devils for the 2001-02 season, is described by teammates as a veteran who doesn’t make speeches, but leads by example with a consistently tenacious effort on the ice and strong work habits and a calm demeanour off the ice.
”He’s even keel,” said Gill. ”He goes through highs and lows and rides it out.
”He sticks to what he knows well and everyone follows that. He doesn’t have to say much.”
Martin said that with so many new players on the team last season, it was better to let leaders emerge naturally from the group rather than impose one on a team that needed a full campaign together to form a tight unit.
The decision came from management.
”I think they got it right,” said Gill. ”If we had a vote, you’d probably get Gio as your captain.”
Koivu’s captaincy, like the brief reign of Mike Keane in 1995, brought debate among fans and the local media on whether the captain of the Canadiens should be able to address the public in French, as a long line of previous captains had done.
Gionta said he will do his best, and it will help that his wife and children are also learning the language.
”We’re embracing the culture,” he said. ”We live here in Montreal.
”It’s a great place to be. We’re going to do our best to learn it. I can’t 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. We’re in the process of that now and we’ll see where it goes.”
Winger Mathieu Darche, one of only three French Canadian players left on the team, joked that he and the others will now have to teach Gionta some ”nice” French words, as opposed to what they’ve passed on so far.
”It’s great for him,” said Darche. ”It’s a tough language to learn.
”I see it from my kids that grew up in the U.S. They speak French, but with an English accept—and we only speak French at home. It’s great if he can get a base, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing to do.”
Gionta spent seven seasons with the Devils, winning a Stanley Cup in 2003, before signing a US$25-million, five-year contract as a free agent with Montreal in 2009.
Despite missing 19 games with an injury, he led the Canadiens with 28 goals last season, his second-highest total after the 48 he scored for New Jersey in 2005-06.
In Montreal, the right-winger was reunited with New Jersey linemate Gomez on the Canadiens top unit.
Meanwhile, injured defencemen Markov and Hamrlik skated apart from the main group Wednesday and both reported improvement in their condition.
Markov will miss the start of the season while recovering from a knee injury suffered during the playoffs and is on schedule to return in mid-to-late October.
Hamrlik twisted a knee just before the start of camp and still holds out hope of being ready for the regular season opener.
”I’ve been skating four or five days,” said Hamrlik. ”It’s frustrating but I want to skate with the team and see how it goes _ Friday or Saturday, I hope.
”I need a few more practices by myself.”