This is the first in a four-part series as Blackhawks Insider Tracey Myers explores what it means to wear the 'C' in the NHL. Take a look behind the scenes with unique perspective from players, coaches, historians and much more.
Captain (noun): One who commands, leads or guides others, a figure in the forefront, a leader.
The NHL captaincy: ask those players currently wearing the “C” and they’ll tell you what an honor it is to have that sewn into their jerseys. It’s a letter that stands for plenty: it’s about being the leader, about being the one who pulls a team up when it’s needed, about getting most of the credit when things are good and facing a good amount of blame when things are bad.
Regardless, be it the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews or any of the other captains around the league, there’s much appreciation for having the job.
“It’s an honor to be included in a group of 30 guys and I’m humbled by the fact of what you want to do and have to do to be a good captain: to serve and to be there for everybody,” said Shane Doan, who’s been the Phoenix Coyotes captain since the 2003-04 season. “It’s something I enjoy doing.”
The same goes for Martin St. Louis, who assumed the Tampa Bay Lightning’s captaincy after Vinny Lecavalier was bought out after last season.
“It’s an honor to be captain,” he said. “With that comes responsibility, but it’s something that hasn’t changed me in any way. I try to go out and help the team at key moments.”
Every captain has his own path in getting the honor. So as we open our series of stories on the NHL captaincy, we explore some of those avenues.
TOUGH ACTS TO FOLLOW
Imagine being Mark Giordano. Yes, the Calgary Flames defenseman was already a good player in his own right entering the 2013-14 season. But imagine taking over as captain after Jarome Iginla, the face of the Flames’ franchise for so long. No pressure, right? For Giordano, apparently there wasn’t – much.
“I think there was less pressure because of it,” said Giordano. “No one’s going to compare me to Jarome Iginla; he’s a Hall-of-Fame player. Where the pressure lied was following in his footsteps the way he treated people in the room, trainers, media and other players. He was just a great guy and treated everyone with a lot of respect. That’s where the pressure is felt, for sure.”
Giordano has relished the role in what’s been a trying season in Calgary, personally (he missed two months with a broken ankle) and team-wise.
“We’re in a different situation; we’re going through a little bit of a rebuild here,” he said. “So for them to make me the leader of this group, it’s a pretty humbling experience for sure.”
Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn earned the captaincy after former captain Brenden Morrow was traded last season. Benn is a quiet leader, much like Morrow was before him; both let their games talk for them. For Benn, who said he was hoping to get the captaincy coming out of this summer, it was about applying some of the things he learned from his former teammate.
“No one’s going to replace a Brenden Morrow. He was the only captain I had here, and I got to build a pretty good relationship with him and learn from him. He took me under his wing,” Benn said. “He wasn’t much of a big talker but he led by example in all areas of the game and he brought it when the time came.”
WISDOM FROM EXPERIENCE
Andrew Ladd, who now has that title with the Winnipeg Jets, kind of sensed it was coming when he was traded from the Blackhawks to the (then) Atlanta Thrashers.
“Maybe (it means) I’m getting a little older and experienced?” Ladd said with a grin. Those two aspects didn’t hurt the captaincy chances for Ladd, a two-time Cup winner (with Carolina in 2006 and the Blackhawks in 2010).
“I guess I knew going into that team that I had an opportunity to be a leader and use some of that experience I gained in Carolina and Chicago, and going on those deep playoff runs,” Ladd said. “For me I’m not a big talker. I just show up and try to play the right way. Hopefully it rubs off on my teammates.”
Who says experience is necessary? The NHL captaincy is about how you carry yourself, how you can lead others, and there have been several young guys who have encapsulated those traits. Toews was 20 when he was named the Blackhawks’ captain. Lecavalier was 19 when he became Tampa Bay’s captain in 2000; same with Sidney Crosby for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The youngest active captain is Gabriel Landeskog, who was named the Colorado Avalanche’s captain at 19 years, 286 days.
Landeskog assumed the captaincy from Milan Hejduk, who was 36 at the time. To be that young and leading an Avalanche group trying to find its way again did make Landeskog nervous.
“Definitely nervous, and sometimes I still am,” Landeskog said. “There are a lot of situations where I get thrown in and I’m not comfortable but that’s what it’s all about: getting out of your comfort zone. The captaincy has forced me to get out of my comfort zone a lot more than I would have if I (hadn’t been) captain. Whether it’s a good or bad thing, I think it’s something you grow into.”
[SOCHI 2014: Will Blackhawks experience pay off following Olympics?]
In adapting to the role, Landeskog said what other captains have: it’s all about being you.
“For me, I said from Day 1 I’m not going to be the perfect captain right away. It’s something you grow into,” he said. “People say, ‘You’re born a leader, you don’t become one.’ I think to some extent that’s true. But to another extent, you have to learn certain things and certain ways. So I think for me, I’m just learning every day and soaking it all in.”
With great power comes great responsibility; we couldn’t tell you the author, but if there was an NHL captain’s handbook, that phrase would be on the front page.
“You get a lot of credit when the team’s doing well,” Toews said. “When the team’s not doing so well, you have to be willing to accept that responsibility, your fair share of the game when you don’t win games.”
Captain a team that’s gotten used to winning, and the pressure can be even greater.
“Each situation is different,” said Morrow, who was the Stars’ captain from 2006 until he was traded to Pittsburgh in 2013. “Dallas wasn’t exactly a huge hockey market, compared to Toronto or Montreal or a place like that. But coming from teams that won a Stanley Cup (in 1999, and returned to the Stanley Cup Final in 2000), there are expectations of being there again. And you have those expectations, too, so you demand a lot from yourself and your teammates. The captain, just like quarterbacks or goalies sometimes, takes a lot of the blame but also gets a lot of the credit.”
It’s all in a day’s, season’s and sometimes career’s work. The captaincy can be rewarding. It can be stressful. It comes with a glare that not every player can take. But for those who are fortunate enough to be named captain, it’s always an honor.
“Any time you can get chosen to be a captain it’s obviously really special,” Benn said. “I take a lot of pride in it.”
Coming Monday: Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews -- A veteran with experience and youth on his side