x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Teams are at sea without 'C' men

An NHL captain is not always his team's best player, but he should be its hardest worker and most intense competitor.

O captain, my captain. You do not have to belong to a dead poet's society to recognise the responsibility and importance that comes with being a team captain in the NHL. First of all, ice hockey teams stitch the "C" right on the designated leader's jersey, unlike in football, American football, baseball or basketball. Teams in those other sports may name a captain or have a man who talks with the referees, but it rarely carries with it the expectation of selfless leadership, exemplary play, full-time mentoring and a host of other implicit intangibles. (And it almost never comes with a "C" sewn on the sweater.) If you are the captain of an NHL club, your teammates know they can believe in you because they have seen you prove yourself, time after time, in a variety of character-testing situations.

An NHL captain is not always his team's best player, but he should be its hardest worker and most intense competitor. He makes sure his team battles on the ice and gets along off of it. He plays clutch minutes and he stands up for teammates. It is a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year job; you are the face of the team as well as its heart and soul. And because the job of captain is so vital in the NHL, there is a long line of legends who have served in the role. Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Jean Beliveau, for starters. Mark Messier was nicknamed "The Captain" for his relentless leadership. Steve Yzerman was Detroit's captain for 20 years, longer than anyone else has worn the "C". Sidney Crosby is the perfect prototype for today's captain - a great player whose greatest attribute is his desire to win and never-give-up-on-the-puck style of play.

However, despite the obvious importance of having a captain, two of the NHL's most storied franchises, the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, seem set to enter the 2009-10 campaign without an official leader. It is strange, seeing the teams that were once led by the likes of Newsy Lalonde, Toe Blake and Maurice Richard (Montreal) and Ted Kennedy, Dave Keon and Darryl Sittler (Toronto), be reduced to a rudderless crew.

To be fair, both teams are just getting out of long-term relationships: Saku Koivu was Montreal's longest-serving captain (10 years) before leaving the Habs in the summer to sign with Anaheim, while Mats Sundin was the Leafs' letterman for 11 years before playing an abbreviated 2008-09 with Vancouver. In Montreal, matters have been complicated by the fact the Canadiens have revamped their entire roster. The whole team is in a state of flux, as players try to figure out what on and off-ice roles they will be filling. The defenceman Andrei Markov was reportedly offered the "C", but supposedly rejected it. No wonder. You are already under the microscope to begin with in Montreal; if things do not go well and you are the captain, well, you go down with the ship.

In Toronto, the Leafs played all of 2008-09 without a captain. And they do not appear in any kind of hurry to name one this season, either. They may be waiting for Luke Schenn to get a little older, or they may be waiting until they are a more competitive club. But since both of the aforementioned scenarios are at least a couple of years away, the Leafs may opt for a fill-in leader, someone who can bridge the gap between the Sundin and Schenn captaincies.

Florida, the New York Islanders and the San Jose Sharks also are without captains, but the NHL's other 25 teams all have a "C" man. In Minnesota, they have five or six. Since the Wild's inception in 2000, the franchise has rotated the captaincy every month rather than go with the same player. smccaig@thenational.ae