This was how it was in the days of Jean Béliveau, arguably the greatest captain to put on a pair of hockey pants: He hobbled into the Montreal Canadiens dressing room wearing a cast over an injured knee. It was the last practice before the start of the 1961-62 NHL season, and head coach Toe Blake announced to the assembled players, “Boys, here’s your new captain.”
There had been a player vote and Béliveau, 30, about to begin his ninth full season in the NHL, was “shocked” to learn he had been chosen by his fellow Habs. Had Béliveau been playing now, his teammates would have had precious little say. The general manager, coach and sundry other front-office types would have met and discussed everything from Béliveau’s contract status and salary cap hit to his willingness to work with a head coach, his ability to function under the media spotlight, his status within the marketplace and, ultimately, his appeal as the Face of the Franchise. That’s how captains are chosen in today’s NHL. They’re appointed, not elected, which means the ‘C’ given to a player stands for more than just character, chutzpah or class. It stands for corporate – who can support the brand? Who’s best for business, on and off the ice?
“I would say no teams allow players to pick the captain,” Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said.
Not a one?
“I don’t know of any that has a player vote,” Tampa Bay Lightning counterpart Steve Yzerman said. “The organization does it.”
The C is hockey’s classic letter. In no other sport does being a captain seem to matter as much, certainly not in baseball, basketball or football. The NFL has what it calls its team captain initiative “for supporting and recognizing team leadership.” The program is endorsed by the head coaches and the league’s player advisory council. Officially, it was established six years ago.
In hockey, captains are legendary, larger-than-life figures whose exploits have dotted the game for generations. Think of the fiery combativeness of Maurice (Rocket) Richard, the “I guarantee it” confidence of Mark Messier, the jarring hits of Scott Stevens.
Hockey fans love to reflect on a captain’s personality and influence. They even look ahead and debate which player has the right stuff to eventually become a captain. That deliberation was settled recently by four teams: the Ottawa Senators selected 30-year-old Jason Spezza; the New York Islanders picked 22-year-old John Tavares; Dallas went with 24-year-old Jamie Benn; and, Friday, the Calgary Flames announced 29-year-old Mark Giordano as their 19th captain.
Still to be confirmed are the C-bearers for four teams, including the Edmonton Oilers.
“Some teams are built for right now,” Nill offered as insight. “For those teams, there’s a good chance it’s going to be an older guy because of his experience. Or, if it’s a team that’s building and has a core group of young guys, you give it to a player who can grow into the role. I think it depends on where your team is.”
Statistics show the average age of NHL captains has dropped significantly over the last four decades. In the 1966-67 season, the last of the Original Six era, the men who guided the league’s fabled franchises averaged 33.3 years. A season later, through a six-team expansion, the average age dipped to 31.9.
In 1974, Jim Schoenfeld hip-checked tradition by being named captain of the Buffalo Sabres; he was three days shy of his 22nd birthday.
Since then the NHL has christened a number of 21-, 20-, even 19-year-old leaders (Vincent Lecavalier, Sidney Crosby, Gabriel Landeskog) and that has taken the captain’s average age down to 28.36. (It could drop further should Steven Stamkos in Tampa and Edmonton’s Sam Gagner earn the mark. Both are under 25.)
“I think a guy that comes in like Tavares, like Crosby, Landeskog, [Alexander] Ovechkin, all these guys that got [the C] when they were 22 and under, they were the best players on their team,” said Scott Hartnell of the Philadelphia Flyers, a group that has 25-year-old Claude Giroux as its captain, along with leadership support from Lecavalier and Mark Streit, who were captains elsewhere in the NHL. “It seems the most marketable guys, the best players on the team usually get it and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.”
The best players weren’t always captains. Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Guy Lafleur never were. Now, though, it’s harder to find a star player who isn’t lettered up.
Organizations have so much money invested in their leading men that to say: “You’re the guy we want to build around but we don’t think you can handle the pressure of being captain” is virtually counterproductive. It’s not how things work, and the players maintain age is not a concern for them. They’re eyeing success, not birth certificates.
“Age is a number. It’s how you conduct yourself in the room,” Canadiens assistant captain Josh Gorges said. “Leaders are looked upon – especially come game time – as a difference maker. Whether it’s making a play that’s going to change the outcome of the game or in the room or on the bench, change the way it’s being played. Even if they’re 20 years old, they’re counted upon in their room. That’s what makes them leaders.”
Counted on in the room yet chosen by management.
This was how it was in the days of Brad McCrimmon, the last captain voted on by the Flames players: he took the letter in the fall of 1989, and wore it as only a man nicknamed The Beast could. He battled with the coaches over strategies and what was best for the players until finally his bosses had enough. A year later, McCrimmon was traded to the Detroit Red Wings. Unsure of his replacement, the Flames brain trust rotated captains for a season until selecting the less-edgy Joe Nieuwendyk.
In September of 1999, the Canadiens players voted on their captain and picked Saku Koivu, to much external chagrin. (Some believed Shayne Corson should have got it.)
After Koivu’s free-agent departure, GM Pierre Gauthier, head coach Jacques Martin and his staff elevated then-31-year-old Brian Gionta to the role sans le vote des joueurs.
“It probably started with one coach or one GM and it became a league trend,” said Craig Conroy, special assistant to Calgary GM Jay Feaster. Conroy wore the C for the Flames before passing it on to Jarome Iginla, whose status drove jersey sales and helped make him a powerful voice within the organization, even when it came to the coach’s decision making.
“With any captain, you’re kind of the conduit between the coach and the players,” Conroy said, “so I really think that’s why a lot times the coach and GM pick the captain – because they have to all be on the same page.”
The one thing that has stayed constant over the years is how a captain should remain true to his nature. Former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Doug Gilmour followed Wendel Clark, only to share has experience with Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Toews called looking for advice after drawing the C for his second season in the NHL. Gilmour’s instructions were simple: “You are going to be with players who have played longer than you have. Watch everyone, absorb. Don’t change who you are.”
Henrik Sedin, who replaced goaltender Roberto Luongo as the Vancouver Canucks captain in 2010 (both were management calls), added another requirement: a captain has to always do his best, no excuses. “You work in the gym. You show up in practice. You never take a day off.”
The reason for that cuts two ways since captains are an example for their teammates and an extension of management. They are still men of character, much like the shocked Béliveau, now 82, who said he “thanked my teammates for putting their faith in me.” But in 2013, captains operate with a skate in the dressing room, an ear to the front office and all things measured against what’s best for franchise business.
“Having a relationship with the team and the coaching staff makes sense,” said Yzerman, who guided Detroit for 19 seasons as one of the game’s most-revered leaders. “As a captain, you’re supporting the message.”
In today’s NHL, that’s C for crucial, also consensus.