NHL Captains: Leadership Isn’t Defined By Age

The highest honor a current NHL player can have is to wear the “C” on the front of his jersey. The role of an NHL captain entails being a leader, which is usually reserved for players with years of experience. However, many teams have captains who aren’t wily veterans.

When the Colorado Avalanche selected sophomore Gabriel Landeskog as their captain, the reigning Calder Trophy winner became the youngest captain in NHL history. Although Landeskog is only 19 years old, he is just the latest young star to be given a team’s highest honor early in his career.

Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby was named captain after his second season in the NHL, and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews was given the “C” after his rookie year in the Windy City.

Recent history shows that having a veteran captain isn’t a prerequisite now for having a championship-caliber team. In three of the last four years, the captains of the Stanley Cup Champions were all 27 years old or younger (Crosby, Toews, and Dustin Brown).

As the average age of an NHL captain gets younger by the year, the role that the captain plays on the team is different. After all, a player like Landeskog probably won’t be taking a rookie under his wing this season, as the Swedish sensation could actually be younger than a potential newcomer.

The majority of the NHL captains in today’s game aren’t as vocal as their predecessors. In an article for The Hockey News a few years ago, Ryan Kennedy wrote that when the Sabres signed Craig Rivet, the other players in the dressing room looked up to him because he was one of the few players willing to be vocal in the locker room.

Messier waves to the crowd after his final NHL game. (Image Credits: JR_in_NYC)

That isn’t to say that captains aren’t vocal. But you would be hard-pressed to find a captain who led in the same way that Mark Messier did. To compare any of today’s captains to Messier is difficult, considering NHL.com recently called him the greatest captain in the history of the sport.

However, comparing leadership styles is valid, and ‘Moose’ had the ability to inspire and motivate his teams through speeches behind closed doors.

Most of today’s captains resemble the leadership style of two of Messier’s contemporaries, Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic rather. Yzerman and Sakic weren’t the type of leaders to yell at teammates, but rather lead through their play on the ice, and their class away from the rink.

The “lead by example” approach has suited well for many young players in the game today. Instead of doing the talking, their play on the ice serves as the model for all of the other players to follow.

One example is Ryan Callahan, who was named the Rangers captain before the start of the 2011-12 season as a 26-year-old. Unlike other young captains who are some of the best players in the league (Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Shea Weber, etc.), Callahan probably isn’t considered the best player on the Blueshirts, or the biggest offensive threat. However, it is Callahan’s style of play that is emblematic of the way that John Tortorella want his Rangers to follow, and that’s why he is the perfect choice to wear the “C” in New York.

Even though the role that a captain has in hockey may have changed, the significance of the letter remains the same. “It’s something you dream about as a kid…getting the honor to put the “C” on,” Landeskog said.

And now he gets to fulfill that dream while he is still a kid.