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What better time than now to give Sidney Crosby the C Add to ...

rmacgregor@globeandmail.com

This team is overrun with Captain Canadas.

There's Ryan Smyth, who has worn the moniker so long it is a wonder he never thought to register it, yet he will be hard pressed even to make the team that will chase the gold medal in Vancouver next February.

There is Shane Doan, who, thanks to the playoff shortcomings of his Phoenix Coyotes, has been called Captain Canada through a string of world championships. But you could not, at the moment, bet on Doan making the team either.

There is Jarome Iginla, the local favourite, who wears the "C" for the Flames. There is Scott Niedermayer, the sentimental favourite who still commands the sort of respect that comes only to those who can still do on the ice what they demand of others in the dressing room.

There are 10 team captains in Calgary this week, 11 if you include Patrick Marleau, who was captain of the San Jose Sharks last year but will not be this year.

Then there is Sidney Crosby, the just turned 22-year-old they all presume to be the future Captain Canada.

What, however, if the future need is now? Or, more specifically, February of 2010?

Privately, officials with Hockey Canada have made it clear that Crosby's turn will not come in Vancouver. As one decision maker put it: "We know the spotlight will be on him anyway, but maybe this will protect him a bit."

Instead, the strong sense is that Niedermayer, the 36-year-old who still skates on air, will be named captain. Head coach Mike Babcock hinted strongly at this when he asked whether Iginla or Crosby would wear the "C" and the coach asked why Niedermayer's name was not in the mix. Crosby and the affable Iginla would likely be two of three assistants.

Niedermayer and Iginla are both worthy leaders, undeniably, but perhaps now is Crosby's time, not next time.

After a lifetime in the spotlight and two consecutive Stanley Cup finals as captain of the reigning NHL champion Pittsburgh Penguins, he hardly needs protection.

What he may make better use of is added pressure.

Babcock knows better than anyone the drive that pounds inside this youngster from Cole Harbour, N.S. Babcock's superior Detroit team could not, however, defeat the pure will that Crosby showed last spring and passed on to his teammates as Pittsburgh surged from behind to take the Stanley Cup.

While Crosby - who could easily serve in Stephen Harper's cabinet, given that he says so little worth reporting - will not touch the issue of his potential captaincy, he is happy to speak on the pressures of playing at home to a home crowd that will accept nothing less than perfection.

"If anything," he said this week, "I think it should help. As a Canadian hockey player, I think you always realize there's pressure, no matter if that's with the Olympics in Canada or outside it. There's pressure that comes with that, and that's to be expected. If anything, it should be helping as far as motivation and making sure that guys are full of energy.

"I don't see that being anything but good."

Key Canadian victories in international play have usually come courtesy of a team leader who plays with a passion and determination that borders on tears. Phil Esposito had it in 1972, Bobby Clarke in the early international competitions, Wayne Gretzky in the later ones, particularly 1987.

Esposito was the most public with his passion, speaking out "to the people across Canada" following that 5-3 loss to the Soviets in Vancouver in 1972. He spoke with such raw emotion that some believe his impromptu speech to the cameras turned around both the disappointed country and the then stumbling team.

Gretzky, even when he was no longer wearing the "C," still fired the Canadian players in 2002 with his anguished "the whole world wants us to lose" rant. It was Gretzky's open passion - perhaps even more so than the calming presence of then captain Mario Lemieux - that drove the team on when driving was necessary.

Crosby burns with this same fire. There is always this sense that he would do whatever it takes to win, though, being a thoughtful person, he might draw the line at deliberately shattering an opponent's ankle, as Clarke once did.

Hockey Canada, however, is not likely to gamble on handing off the "C" to someone so young. They tried this once, in Nagano in 1998, and the decision is today considered a failure, young Eric Lindros serving as official captain while Gretzky increasingly became the team's de facto leader as the games went on to their unfortunate fourth-place conclusion.

While Lindros could hardly be blamed, the notion took hold, strongly, that the leader had to be a proven veteran, such as Niedermayer or Iginla on this current Team Canada.

Crosby spoke only vaguely of the honour this week, saying, "To be a captain of this team would be a huge responsibility." He was quick to add, however, that, "You don't have to look too far for leadership when you look in that dressing room." True enough, but the leadership that will ultimately matter must come on the ice rather than any dressing room.

And from what we saw last spring in Pittsburgh, a heart beats under the Penguins' "C" with a determination seen only rarely in the likes of an Esposito, a Clarke, a Gretzky...

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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