“O Captain! My Captain!” – Vacancy in Colorado and Leadership around the NHL

With Wednesday’s naming of Zach Parise as captain in New Jersey (an interesting choice considering his recently signed one-year deal lines him up for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer) only three teams look like they will enter the 2011-2012 season without a jersey stitched with the iconic “C”.

Buffalo has yet to name a replacement for Craig Rivet, who was traded away last season; Florida similarly traded their captain, Bryan McCabe, at last year’s deadline, and has left the position vacant.

The Colorado Avalanche, meanwhile, lost their most recent captain to retirement.  They appear in no hurry to replace the departed Adam Foote.

Teams who filled their captaincy role during this summer reflect a variety of rationale:  there is the obvious appointment of Chris Pronger, the clear vocal, locker-room, and on-ice leader in Philadelphia.  The Islanders also appointed a veteran defenseman, Mark Streit, to wear the “C” that left when Doug Weight retired—this decision in spite of the fact that Streit missed all of last year due to a shoulder injury.  The end to the off season also saw the somewhat surprising choice of 26-year-old Ryan Callahan in New York.  The young, promising, two-way forward with plenty of grit was chosen ahead of soon-to-be franchise defenseman Mark Staal.  David Backes in St. Louis also earned the honour.

Leadership is a strange intangible; there is no format to follow for choosing a team captain. Almost every team has a different type of player leading their ranks. And yet, more than any sport, captains matter in hockey.  You would be hard-pressed to name captains in Major League Baseball (remember the flack that Yankees’ fans threw at Jason Varitek for actually having the audacity to wear a “C” on his Red Sox duds?) I am a huge Cincinnati Reds fan and honestly could not tell you if the team even has an assigned captain (my vote would go to Brandon Phillips).

The Kid (Flickr/Dan4th)

In the NFL captains seem to be automatic choices:  slap a “C” on the quarterback, the middle line-backer or safety, the special-teams standout, and throw the three out there for the ceremony of the coin toss.  But even a semi-casual hockey fan knows that Crosby dons the “C” in Pittsburgh, Ovie leads in Washington, and “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews earns his nickname in Chicago.

Now, the duties involved (receiving explanations from referees regarding penalties and goal decisions, taking ceremonial face-offs) may not be much different or crucial than in the other sports.  And, of course, the idea of a true “leader” existing in the dressing room because he has been named team captain may be a fallacy–indeed leaders on the team emerge regardless of captaincy (see:  Gary Roberts in Toronto circa 2001).

Hockey captains are not only crucial to a team but also for the impact they have on the fans.  Captains offer franchises the chance to embody the identity of their team in one player.  It goes far beyond marketing: fans rally around their captain, take pride in the leader of their troops, see him as authenticating their teams value among the ranks of the league.  Just look at a team like Atlanta, who never had a captain that fans could embrace and celebrate (Steve Staios and an aging Bobby Holik, anybody?).  Kovalchuk was traded during his captaincy year, and was always more of a star than a leader.

The Monster (Icon SMI)

Fans love it when their team has a clear identity, and having a solid captain is a symbolic way of ensuring this. Boston’s toughness and defensive play are enshrined in the 6’7 frame of Zdeno Chara.  Captains also carry the weight of tradition, especially in places like Montreal,Toronto, and Detroit.  They maintain links to the elite players of the past.

Crosby has naturally taken over for Mario Lemieux. The Penguins even went a year without a captain in order to wait until Crosbywas ready, and in order to ensure this continuity.  The Red Wings seamless progression from Steve Yzerman to Niklas Lidstrom mirrors their years of consistent excellence.

So how to choose your captain? Again, theories are all over the place.  There are “best player” captains:  big skilled centres like Rick Nash, Eric Stall, Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thorton, and Mikko Koivu lead their teams by ripping up the score sheet.

There are emotional, effort-laced captains who lead by example, like Brendan Morrow, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Brown, and now Ryan Callahan.  These players play hard nosed, two-way hockey, and set the tone in hits and grit.

There are veteran captains, whose presence and experience can often speak for themselves, like Pronger (although he never lets his experience speak for himself,) Daniel Alfredsson, and Vincent Lecavalier.

Ideally, you find a generational talent who achieves all of these qualities:  Crosby, Ovechkin, Toews, Iginla, Lidstrom. There is never any question about the identity of these teams, and their leader is a big reason why. (Although Calgary is clearly an exception here, managing to consistently fail despite having such an iconic and consistent leader.)

Captain Material? (Bridget Samuels www.flickr.com/photos/bridgetds)

For the Avalanche, the choice really boils down to a youngster with the potential to be one of those generational talents or a newly acquired stud defenseman who fans hope will finally emerge as a dominant force from the back end in the mold of a Shea Weber.

There are safer options than Matt Duchene and Erik Johnson, of course, but none are overly appealing:  Hedjuk is on the latter half of his career.  He should again wear an “A” as alternate, but he is not the face-of-the-franchise player that a captain should be.  Paul Stastny might get some votes from faithful fans.  I am a huge Stastny backer and think he could succeed in the role, but I feel it is unlikely.  In any case, it would be an interesting appointment if this comes to pass:  naming Stats captain might finally put to rest the trade rumours that have started to circle since his slightly disappointing performance last season.  He will most likely just retain his “A.”

It is in fact probable that the Avalanche attempt to mirror the Penguins and wait till Duchene is ready.  Under this plan they will play the upcoming season without a captain, instead choosing three alternates (Hejduk, Johnson, and Stastny in all likelihood).

The year would then serve as a kind of placeholder, allowing Duchene to continue his rise to superstardom, begin to dominate on the ice, and take his place as captain in 2012-13.  He is a player who already can control the game, but may not be ready to carry the weight of the organizational expectations.

Matt Duchene Avalanche

Absolute Captain?(Icon SMI)

The idea of seeing number 9 with the “C’ on his jersey, with the memories of his childhood posters of number 19 Joe Sakic, would offer the franchise the type of historical links and traditional impact organizations thrive on. That is the type of captain-naming story and ceremony that I would be willing to wait a year for.


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