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The Magazine: Captains of the Universe

Most NHL teams head into battle with one man leading the way. He's brave, smart, skilled and, especially, authentic. But every successful captain knows this above all: a leader is only as good as his followers.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

To be named captain of an NHL team is the ultimate scout’s honor badge. Putting the ‘C’ on a NHLer’s jersey is an acknowledgement of his worthiness as a competitor as well as the crucial role he must play for his team to succeed. But it isn’t all kudos, major endorsement deals and dates with actresses for a captain at hockey’s highest level. It’s a real job, with actual responsibilities and expanded expectations.

The best captains in hockey history understand this and embrace the challenge. They realize their duties can fall under the categories of human resources (managing the often disparate mixture of players and personalities on the roster and acting as the liaison between players and management), social convener (building team cohesion through dinners and off-ice activities), and, most important, accounting – not in the sense of payables and receivables, but in terms of holding their teammates responsible for being at their best. For the most part, however, every captain approaches the job in his own unique way.

That said, there’s one must-abide piece of advice for any player who receives the captaincy (which can also serve as a guideline for all NHLers): don’t try and be someone you’re not. Professional players have heard all kinds of stump, rah-rah speeches and as such are able to tune them out at record speed if they perceive their captain to be less than genuine in words and deeds. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a lead-by-example captain such as Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux or an accomplished veteran such as Ottawa’s Jason Spezza (named Senators captain in September) you don’t change your approach simply because you’ve been designated your team’s main leader.

“You have to go out there and just play hockey, let your play do the talking,” says Giroux, named Flyers captain in January.

Adds Spezza: “It doesn’t change how I act in the dressing room or how I carry myself. Leadership is something you grow into.”

With that disclaimer out of the way, it’s safe to say that, like most things in sports, there’s no formula or character trait combination guaranteed to create a superior captain. Hockey’s greatest dressing room commanders have come in all shapes, sizes and temperaments, so what has worked in one situation could lead to failure in other predicaments. When all-time great captain Mark Messier came to Vancouver in 1997, he’d established his reputation after having worked magic with the Oilers and Rangers. But in the three years he was a Canuck, Messier and his teammates didn’t qualify for a single post-season.

That’s why, though it’s tempting to romanticize the captaincy as a triumph of the individual in a team sport – the imposition of one person’s will on a team, game or championship series – the reality is it takes more than any captain can bring to the table on his own to become a legendary leader. For example, have you ever heard the phrase “a coach is only as brilliant as his goalie”? The captain version goes like this: a leader is only as good as the people he leads.

No captain is an island unto himself and carries a team entirely on his back. He needs smart alternate captains, and veterans who might never have a letter above their team logo, to step up at times and he needs players throughout the lineup that will accept direction.

Take the glory-era Edmonton Oilers. They won the first four of their five Stanley Cups in the 1980s with Wayne Gretzky, a famously quiet leader who let his play speak volumes, as their captain. But after the Oilers had traded The Great One in 1988, they won their fifth Cup in 1990 with Messier, who had a drastically different (read: more vocal and demonstrative) leadership style. Why did two opposite methods have the same positive result? Because all of those championship teams had battle-tested players – including Jari Kurri, Kevin Lowe, Glenn Anderson and Charlie Huddy – who knew what was needed regardless of who wore the ‘C.’ Indeed, when you look at all the teams that have won multiple Cups in short periods of time over the past 20 years (like Detroit, New Jersey, Colorado) they all had great captains (Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Joe Sakic) surrounded by a core of smart, driven co-workers.

Eleven-year NHL veteran Mark Napier was exactly that type of colleague. He was a member of the Oilers’ second Cup-winning team in 1985 and had previously won a championship with the dynastic Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s. Napier understood that an elite team could have diverse leadership styles, so long as there was one constant between their ears.

“Gretzky, Messier, all the great captains, they all had the same character: they all were hard workers,” Napier says. “That’s why they were the ones who could tell you to move your butt if you weren’t working hard. They were always working hard.”

There’s no doubt captains are charged with keeping the troops in order and helping the coach to motivate underachieving players, but often the troops police themselves. That was the case for Dave Reid, a longtime NHL left winger and two-time Cup winner, who played on some experienced teams with captains who always expected big things. When Reid was in Boston, the Bruins’ captain was Ray Bourque, who never needed to loudly lay down the law with some prolonged dressing room tirade because the players kept each other in line. Reid also played under captains who employed a more boisterous style. Former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Rob Ramage was, according to Reid, a well-spoken individual who could be “fiery.” In his 17 NHL seasons, Reid came to see teams take on the persona of their captain.

Yes, he says, it was the job of the captains he played for to inspire teammates to excel, but helping out was a two-way street. His most famous example of that came when he was a member of the Dallas Stars, with whom he won a Cup in 1999.

“In Dallas, Derian Hatcher was our captain, but we had guys like Guy Carbonneau and Mike Keane, who had been captains on other teams,” Reid says. “We had Craig Ludwig, Joe Nieuwendyk, Mike Modano. We had such great leadership on that team and at times they helped Derian get through things. Usually on veteran teams, you could have had three or four captains on the team.”

The most successful captains receive support from their team and teammates, but their individual leadership style is up to them. And if you play as long and on as many teams as did Brad May (seven in 18 seasons), you see that no two captains are the same. When he began his career in Buffalo, May’s captain was Sabres icon Pat LaFontaine. In Vancouver, he learned from Messier and in Colorado he saw how Sakic operated. In Anaheim, he benefitted both from the mime-quiet Niedermayer and the often prickly Chris Pronger, then in his final NHL stop with the Red Wings, he played with the near-perfect Lidstrom. In short, May experienced every end of the leadership-style spectrum. He appreciates how much effort goes into building a player worthy of being a captain and how quickly it can fall apart if a captain isn’t careful.

“You can’t demand respect as a captain, you have to earn it,” May says. “It’s all about people skills. You have to inspire the players around you. And you also have to do the right things and lead by example. You have to know the timing of stepping up and saying things. If you talk too much, it becomes mute on certain teammates. And you spend so much time building your reputation and integrity, but it takes one weak moment to lose it or lose part of the group. The best captains, they’re mindful and aware of that.”

Even a new captain such as Dallas’ Jamie Benn, who was given the honor in September, knows he has to tread lightly, be cognizant of veterans and newcomers and, as mentioned, stay true to himself.

“I’m a captain for what I’ve been doing and I’m not going to change much,” Benn says. “I’ve only had one captain and that was Brenden Morrow. He did a lot for me and paved the way for the young guys. I grew a pretty good relationship with him and hope to do the same for young guys coming up now.”

Ultimately, a captain doesn’t have to stand on a soapbox and blow his teammates away with a passionate speech for the ages. Just as a championship team wins on the ice by doing the cliched “little things” properly, so too does a captain set a proper tone by tending to the small details away from the ice.

To illustrate that point, May gives a nod to the example Jonathan Toews sets as leader of the Chicago Blackhawks. In the Hawks’ most recent Cup celebration, Toews showed the subtle differences a great captain makes. Chicago’s 2013 victory over Boston was the second Cup of his already incredible career. After he was handed the silver chalice from commissioner Gary Bettman, Toews made sure the first player he handed it to was Michal Handzus, who was 36 at the time, 11 years his senior. Not Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa or Duncan Keith, but to a journeyman center acquired at the trade deadline. And after Handzus received it, the Cup went to fellow footsoldiers Jamal Mayers and Michal Roszival.

What did those three players have in common that bumped them up the pecking order? It was their first Cup. That might not matter to the average fan, but players know what a wonderful gesture it was. If Chicago is to continue as a top-level Cup contender, it’s that type of act that is necessary.

Denis Potvin, one of the NHL’s all-time accomplished captains during his era with the New York Islanders in the early 1980s, encountered a similar situation during his first year as Islanders captain.

“When we won the Cup, I handed it to Clark Gilles right away,” Potvin says. “Clark had been captain for a year and he just didn’t want it, didn’t want the responsibility that came with it. Management appointed me captain, but it was important to all of us that ‘Clarkie’ had it next. That usually comes from a group discussion and management may be involved. It’s an important part of sharing a championship. When a guy becomes captain, part of it is that maturity that helps you move from a selfishness toward a group approach.”

This story was from a recent issue of The Hockey News Magazine. Click to Subscribe.


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