Dion Phaneuf: On Captaincy and Leadership

(Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

So it’s come to this: the Leafs have lost eight games in a row and all but giving up on the playoffs, the hockey-mad city of Toronto, one that thrives on negativity, has run out of things to talk about, rip apart and lament. Forget about trying to keep this streak and team in any sort of perspective. Remember, this is the city that once had a controversial firing of a goalie coach. So, with no meat left on the bone, the vultures are now claiming that Dion Phaneuf shouldn’t be the captain.

The argument seems to be that no true captain would let his team lose this many games in a row; that if he was a good leader, he would somehow hoist the team on his back and will them to victory. Unfortunately, hockey being a team game and a game where luck plays such a massive factor in determining outcomes, this is not an argument based in anything resembling reality.

Now, don’t take this as a defense of his captaincy. I don’t know if he’s a good captain or not – I  just don’t care. You could make Colton Orr the captain and I wouldn’t care. You shouldn’t either. Who the captain is, is important for the players, maybe, although I suspect that social dynamics sort themselves out and a “C” given by management probably doesn’t have the cache you think it does. Again, I wouldn’t know. I don’t know Dion. I don’t get to hang out with the team.

What Makes A Good Captain?

Fans love to argue about who is a good captain, who is a good leader, who is deserves the “C” etc. I get it – it’s something to talk about besides the weather. You might as well argue over which company makes the best shin pads. It is my opinion that if you aren’t on the team, if you aren’t in the dressing room, then you can’t possibly know what makes a good leader or captain.

How could you? Leadership is a pretty subtle thing. It comes in thousands of different varieties and styles; different guys take leadership in different situations. It is not something that can be measured. It is the very definition of intangible and is (in the context of hockey) 100% determined by confirmation bias. What that means, is that you think you see something that demonstrates leadership,(a come from behind victory, for  example) so you attribute a causal relationship between that event and your idea of who is a good leader. In another instance, maybe you see something that might cause you to question the previous determination (for example the team blows a big lead) but instead of challenging a previously established narrative, it’s easier to just disregard new information that may contradict your already held opinion.  This type of situation plays itself out over and over again as with any given player the leadership narrative is established at some point and then rarely ever reexamined in a critical fashion.  The point is that our ideas of who is a good leader are not determined in any kind of logical or empirical fashion.

In more practical terms, it means that every year there is a Stanley Cup winner and every year there is a team that comes from behind to win a playoff series or a key game. In every single one of these instances, someone will laud the leadership of whoever that team’s leader supposedly is. The opposite is true for any team that is favored and loses. Determinations of  leadership are derived from situations in which those making the determination do not have anywhere close to the amount of information needed to make a reasonable and/or reliable observation, and so instead, just make that determination based on what they think they see.

There are so many variables in a hockey game that, whether the determinations about leadership are true or not, they are irrelevant because they are awarded on faulty premises and because leadership is something that can’t be measured. It’s an abstract concept like love or patience.

So what you have is a narrative where leadership is attributed to players on teams that win and derided on teams that lose, despite the fact that someone always wins and someone always loses. This is because it’s easy to do, not because it’s accurate.

Bottom line is: the only people who know whether Dion Phaneuf is a good captain play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Anyone else with an opinion on the subject is not informed enough to make that opinion valid.