If the Captain Fits – hockey team captains

John Kreiser

With hockey’s ultimate leader, Mark Messier, back in the Big Apple, we take a bite out of the most prestigious, player leadership honor in pro sports: the NHL captain

MARK MESSIER’S FIRST NAME isn’t “Captain.” It only seems that way.

As brilliant as Messier has been on the ice–he’ll likely finish his career in the top five in career goals and points–he’ll be remembered more for the leadership skills that have made him the prototype NHL captain.

Not everyone can wear the “C”–there have been only about 400 full-time NHL captains since the NHL’s inception in 1916-17. Bobby Orr never wore tree. Neither did Guy Lafleur or Bobby Hull, Mike Bossy or Marcel Dionne. But the “C” has followed Messier and a scant few others around like a puppy dog. Messier has been a captain in every sea son since 1988-89–despite changing teams three times. But superstardom isn’t a requirement for wearing the “C”. Terry Ruskowski, a journeyman forward, was also a captain for three different NHL teams–as well as the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets–not bad for a player who had only 113 goals in 10 NHL seasons.

The captaincy can be can be a family affair. It’s been worn by two Richard brothers in Montreal and four Sutter brothers in various outposts around the league. It’s even been a father-son thing: Both Gordie Howe (Detroit Red Wings) and son Mark (Hartford Whalers) were captains during their careers.

There are captains in the other major team sports, but in no other is the Captaincy as important as it is in hockey. An NHL captain is a team leader and a team spokesman, on and off the ice. He has to have heart–and the ability to be heartless. The job description can range from having to light a fire under a player whose work habits may not be up to snuff to helping a new teammate get settled. He’s a social director, a bridge between players and management, and, almost certainly, its most dedicated, if not best, player. A captain is a team’s communicator, a critic, a counselor, and a conscience all rolled into one. The “C” is a symbol of their teammates’ respect and their coaches’ trust.

Some things have changed over the years. A growing number of teams are naming young captains–Tampa Bay picked 20-year-old Vincent Lecavalier to succeed Chris Gratton late last season after the Lightning traded their former captain. Nor is there no longer a taboo against naming a newly acquired player as captain–Messier shattered that in October 1991 when he got the “C” almost as soon as he stepped off the plane in New York.

Captains wield their influence in a variety of ways. Messier is renowned for a glare that could melt a rink, and once had the Rangers’ locker room rearranged so that no one could hide from his glance. Other captains, such as Detroit’s Steve Yzerman and the Colorado Avalanche’s Joe Sakic, do their work more quietly. Whatever the approach, the requirements are largely the same.

“The one thing that jumps out about a captain is that you want guys who really care about your team, care about the players, and care about the organization,” says Columbus Blue Jackets president and general manager Doug MacLean.

For MacLean, that guy was veteran defenseman Lyle Odetein, who was named the team’s captain prior to the Blue Jackets’ first-ever game. “I know it’s a big responsibility, but it’s something I wanted,” says Odelein.

No player of his era has been more associated with the “C” than Messier, who became a captain for the first time in Edmonton when the Oilers dealt Wayne Gretzky after the 1987-88 season. Messier was named captain before his first home game after being dealt to the Rangers in October 1991, got the “C” in Vancouver when he joined the Canucks in 1997, and got his old job back in New York when he signed with the Rangers last summer. Messier was still an elite player when he made his first trip to Broadway, but this time the Rangers knew they weren’t signing the 100-point scorer they got nine years earlier. What they wanted was the player whose presence would help repair the fabric of a team that was torn apart by his departure three years earlier and never completely stitched back together.

“Mark’s role in life is to help others become better,” says Brian Leetch, who at Messier’s signing handed him the Rangers jersey with the No. 11 on the back and the “C” on the front, then joked that he “was concerned that Mark might become a problem in the dressing room if we didn’t make the move.”

One player who knows exactly what Leetch is talking about when he discusses Messier’s impact is Tony Amonte, who was named captain of the Chicago Blackhawks just before the start of the season. Amonte spent nearly three seasons with the Rangers during Messier’s first captaincy in the early 1990s and practically gushes about his abilities as a leader.

“Mark is the best captain ever to play the game,” says Amonte, who was dealt to the Blackhawks at the trading deadline in March 1994. “He has a great way of making everyone on the team feel important; to make them seem like a key part of the team puzzle. He has a presence. He walks, into the room and guys are ready to go to work. He had a great effect on me. He taught me how to play in the NHL.”

Amonte also had another well-known teacher: Doug Gilmour, his predecessor as captain in Chicago. “Doug didn’t say a lot,” says Amonte. “But when he spoke, people listened.”

New York Islanders captain Kenny Jonsson also cites Gilmour, a teammate when the two were with the Toronto Maple Leafs, as a role model. “Doug was always there for the team,” says Jonsson, now in his second season as captain on Long Island. “He always worked hard. He was a good leader”

Messier may be the best-known captain of his era, but Yzerman is the longest tenured. Yzerman was all of 21 years old when he was named captain of the Detroit Red Wings in 1986–at the time, the youngest ever full-time captain. Yzerman is now in his 15th season as the Wings’ leader, the longest stint by a captain in NHL history. Ray Bourque began as a co-captain with the Boston Bruins in 1985-86 and got the “C” to himself in 1988-89, a tenure that ended last March when he was dealt to Colorado, where Sakic has been captain since 1992.

Though there’s no sign that Yzerman is slowing down, he’s already serving as a role model. Lecavalier, who became the youngest captain in NHL history last season when he got the “C” in Tampa Bay, wants to be like Steve. “I’ve always liked what Steve Yzerman has done in Detroit,” says Lecavalier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft, who wears No. 4 partly in honor of another famous captain, former Montreal Canadiens star Jean Beliveau. “Steve’s always been great on and off the ice. Any player would be proud to be like Yzerman.”

Every captain faces different challenges. Messier’s will be trying to live up to his own legend in a city where many fans want him to be the player he was five or 10 years ago. Lecavalier’s challenge is to try to spark a rebuilding team while he’s still cutting his teeth in the NHL.

Because of his age, “my situation is kind of unique,” says Lecavalier. “The age thing hasn’t been a problem. I’m not the type to break my stick in the locker room when things aren’t going well. I try to lead by hard work and my example. Chemistry is also very important. One of the main things I have to do is work to bring the team together–not only on the ice but also outside the rink. We have team dinners so everyone gets to know everyone else. That’s important, too.”

Jonsson agrees that a captain’s job doesn’t end when he steps off the ice–especially on a young team. “The captain tries to make sure everything’s all right outside the rink, too,” he says. “You try to lead by example, always be on time, things such as that You try to show the younger players how to do things the right way.”

Adds Amonte: “You have to be aware of how guys feel on and off the ice.”

Being a captain has changed over the years. Until the mid-1980s, a team’s best player wasn’t necessarily named captain–even Wayne Gretzky served as an alternate behind Lee Fogolin until 1983 and Mario Lemieux didn’t become Pittsburgh’s captain until 1987-88, when he succeeded Dan Frawley. But over the past decade and a half, a team’s best young player–Lecavalier and Paul Kariya are two current examples–often gets the “C” at an early age, usually because team management wants to establish a new order in the locker room. Of the NHL’s 10 youngest-ever captains, six are currently active; none of the 10 was appointed before the late 1970s.

Gretzky also wore the “A” under Dave Taylor for a season in Los Angeles after joining the Kings in 1988 because players weren’t given the captaincy immediately upon their arrival in a new city–not until the Rangers dealt for Messier in the fall of 1991 and raced to hand him the “C.” Since then, a few newcomers, including Scott Stevens (New Jersey Devils, 1992), Messier again (Vancouver, 1998 and again in New York this summer) and Trevor Linden (Islanders, 1998) have been named captain on their arrival or shortly thereafter. Wearing the “C” isn’t for everyone. Captains are expected to be in the forefront with the media, something not every player is comfortable doing. They also serve as a liaison between the players and coaches.

The captaincy is a burden that weighs heavier on some players than others. Leetch was not the same player as the Rangers’ captain that he was when Messier wore the “C,” and Eric Lindros often looked overdressed when he first put the “C” on his Philadelphia Flyers uniform. “You have to take care of a wider range of duties,” says Amonte. “You have to try to eliminate distractions. You want to help everyone go into the game with a clear mind.”

The test of a captain is how his team responds. Messier was a captain in Edmonton but became The Captain in New York because he delivered on a pledge to bring the Stanley Cup to Broadway and end a half-century drought-and he delivered because his teammates believed in him. However good a leader a captain may be, the key is finding what makes his teammates willing to follow.

Tales of the “C”

FROM THE BEST PLAYERS NEVER TO WEAR THE “C” TO A TEAM THAT PLAYED WITHOUT A captain, here is our look at some of the NHL’s captain-related oddities and odysseys:

Deja vu all over again, Part I: Brian Leetch isn’t the only star defenseman in New York Rangers history to surrender the “c.” After the 1956-57 season, Harry Howell voluntarily gave up the captaincy to Red Sullivan. Surrendering the “C” didn’t hurt Howell’s play–he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.

Deja vu all over again, Part II: Maurice Richard was captain of the Montreal Canadiens from 1955-57 to 1959-60. The Canadiens won the Cup in all four seasons. Richard then retired–and the Canadiens were beaten the next spring. A generation later, Yvan Cournoyer served as captain for four seasons (1975-76 to 1978-79), the Canadiens won four consecutive Cups, Cournoyer retired–and again the Canadiens’ Cup streak ended the following spring,

Our All-Never-Wore-The-“C” Team: Defense: Bobby Orr, Larry Robinson, Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy; Forwards: Bobby Hull, Guy Lafleurr Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Frank Mahovlich, Jean Ratelle, Marcel Dionne.

We are family: Brothers (Maurice and Henri Richard; Brian, Darryl, Brent, and Ron Sutter); Fatherson (Gordie and Mark Howe). The Richards are the only brothers to captain Stanley Cup winners.

Staying power: Steve Yzerman is in his 15th season as captain of the Red Wings, an NHL record. Other double-digit captains: Ray Bourque (Boston, co-captain 1985-86 to 1987-88, solo from October 1988 to March 2000); George Armstrong (Toronto, 1957-58 to 1968-69); Bill Cook (Rangers, 1926-27 to 1936-37); Alex Delvecchio (Detroit, 1962-63 to 1972-73); Rod Langway (Washington, 1982-83 to 1992-93); Hap Day (Toronto, 1927-28 to 1936-37)

Warm-up acts: Lee Fogolin turned over the captaincy of the Edmonton Oilers to Wayne Gretzky in 1983. Dan Frawley was Pittsburgh’s captain before handing over the “C” to Marlo Lemieux in 1987-88.

Whose “C” Is It, anyway?: Paul Ysebaert became the first permanent captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1994-95, the Bolts’ third season. Tampa Bay played without a full-time captain for its first two seasons.

HELLO, AGAIN: Mark Messier isn’t the only player to come back to his old team and get his “C” back. Ron Francis actually went him one better: Francis was captain of the Hartford Whalers from 1985-91 before being traded. After a stint in Pittsburgh, where he also wore the “C,” he’s now captain of the Carolina Hurricanes, the transplanted Whalers.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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