There was a trickle down that Easter Island statue of a face,
tears that illuminated Mark Messier more than any smile could.
The block letters RANGERS ran diagonally across the sweater that
Brian Leetch handed to him, but it was the red C in the top left
corner that made one of the fiercest hockey players of his
generation weep. "Maybe it was great theater," New York Rangers
president Glen Sather said of Messier's tears, "but it was no
The day before the July 13 press conference to announce the
39-year-old Messier's return to New York, Leetch volunteered to
turn over the Rangers' captaincy and not, as he would joke
during the press conference, because he was concerned Messier
would be a problem in the dressing room if he didn't. Leetch, a
Norris Trophy-winning defenseman and Messier's teammate on the
1994 Stanley Cup champion Rangers, New York's first such
championship in 54 years, would not presume to deny a title to a
man for whom it's not an honorific as much as a birthright.
The Rangers didn't sign the Messier whose Vancouver Canucks
missed the playoffs each of the past three years, the Messier who
averaged only .78 points per game in his three seasons away from
New York, the Messier who had a team-worst -15 rating last year.
They signed the Messier who rearranged some furniture in the New
York dressing room when he arrived in a trade in '91 so that
nothing would obscure his teammates' view of his eyes, the
Messier who guaranteed a win against the New Jersey Devils in
Game 6 of the '94 Eastern Conference finals and delivered a hat
trick in the 4-2 victory. The Rangers coveted Messier, a six-time
Stanley Cup winner, because he might be the only player strong
enough to blend the disparate elements of a slovenly team and
restore its pride. NHL leadership, symbolized by the C, is
supposed to be an intangible, a commodity with no price tag. The
Rangers paid retail--$11 million for two years.
"The captaincy in hockey is so important because of the history
of it," Sather says. "It's like knighting someone. The captain is
the one who carries the team crest, the leader on and off the
ice, the one who has the respect of the players, the one on whom
the performance of a team might rest, the one who has as much, or
more influence, than the coach."
Every team has one captain and two alternates, each of whom wears
an A. If no other sport requires such a well-defined leadership
structure, maybe it's because no other sport is so dependent on
individual displays of physical courage and channeled emotion,
the pillars of leadership since the last ice age. The most
talented team in hockey wins championships only some of the time:
The best regular-season team in the NHL has won the Stanley Cup
twice in the last 11 years, compared with six in the NBA and five
in the NFL in that same span. Unless a team can rally around a
totem the way the 2000 champion Devils did captain Scott Stevens,
a granite block of a defenseman who physically dominated the
playoffs, it's likely to falter. "It's the collective nature of
hockey," says Dallas Stars general manager Bob Gainey, a former
Cup-winning captain with the Montreal Canadiens. "You have to
create a certain mentality to be successful, and you need a
leader to do that. There's no stop to hockey--you can't pause and
recharge your courage."
In an era when teams are a Babel of nationalities and the vast
disparity in salaries has created a class structure in the
dressing room, an NHL captain must be blessed with a keen sense
of inclusiveness. He must also be a social director, a liaison
between coach and players, a link between rookies and veterans, a
prod, a problem solver, a fulcrum, the public face of the team
and an effective communicator with referees, the only formal
on-ice function he has. He must do all this while being his
team's best (or second-, third- or fourth-best) player and almost
certainly its most dedicated. As Philadelphia Flyers right wing
Keith Jones says, "It's not easy to get in someone's face,
challenge him to bring his game to a new level, while keeping
your game on a level where he can't say, 'What about you?'"
Though different captains have different styles--from the
paint-blistering of a Messier to the muffled approach of the
Colorado Avalanche's Joe Sakic, a man so quiet he might have been
raised by deer--they possess one nonnegotiable quality: integrity.
"Be honest, be yourself," says Guy Carbonneau, another former
Canadiens captain who is Montreal's supervisor of prospect
development. "Not many people will be like Messier and guarantee
a win. You hear a captain say that and you know he's putting his
neck on the line. Yet the test is not a captain saying it, but
how his teammates respond to it. That will tell you if he's a
real captain or a phony captain."
"To me a captain is like a father figure," says the Washington
Capitals' 38-year-old captain, Adam Oates. "You don't do the
Knute Rockne speech. It's like being a good parent, and you do
that by giving examples every day, by showing yourself as a solid
citizen. Anyway, what do you say to a guy making $5 million a
Oates's softly-in-your-ear approach is a nice fit for the
Capitals, a usually reserved team that often leaves the oral
pyrotechnics to coach Ron Wilson. In another telling way,
however, Oates is a hopelessly old-time, and old, captain. He
didn't become a captain until he was in his 30s, just as Maurice
Richard and Gordie Howe did in the 1950s, when the C was passed
on not to the callow but to the mature and committed. Oates is
beginning his second season as captain, having studied for a
little more than two years in Washington under Dale Hunter.
Before that he had apprenticed under the venerable Raymond
Bourque with the Boston Bruins.
Oates's first captain might have been the most historically
significant. Oates began his NHL career in Detroit with Steve
Yzerman, who was barely of drinking age in 1986 when the Red
Wings named him captain. Not that Yzerman's newly acquired right
to legally guzzle champagne from the Stanley Cup was a
factor--Detroit was mired in its Dead Things era and Yzerman
wasn't given the captaincy as much as he had it foisted upon him.
General manager Jim Devellano realized Yzerman was a player
capable of regenerating the Wings. The job might not have fit him
at first, but like a sport coat for a 12-year-old, you buy it a
size too large and let him grow into it.
At that time Yzerman was the youngest captain in league history,
at 21 years and five months, supplanting Dale Hawerchuk, who was
a month older when he became the Winnipeg Jets' captain in 1984.
(Brian Bellows was 19 when he served as temporary captain of the
Minnesota North Stars in '83-84 while teammate Craig Hartsburg
was sidelined with an injury. Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay
Lightning, who became captain at 19, is the NHL's youngest to be
given that honor [page 90].) Fourteen seasons later, with two
Cups and the team with the best cumulative regular-season record
over the past nine seasons, Yzerman is recognized as one of the
NHL's best leaders. His captaincy began the evolution of the C
from a reward for sage leadership into a tool for establishing a
new dressing-room order.
Of the 10 youngest NHL captains in history, six are active
players and only two, Wilf Paiement of the egregiously awful
Colorado Rockies of 1977-78 and Ryan Walter of the equally
execrable Capitals from '79 to '82, were appointed before '80.
Trevor Linden became the Vancouver captain as a 20-year-old
before ceding the post to Messier seven seasons later. In '96 the
Mighty Ducks of Anaheim turned to hyper-conscientious Paul
Kariya, no coward on the ice and unfortunately, given his lack of
dressing-room social graces as a 21-year-old, hardly Noel Coward
More prominent Cup aspirants were naming young captains, too. St.
Louis, which had rotating captains in 1996-97, passed over
veteran Al MacInnis the next season and appointed 23-year-old
defenseman Chris Pronger. At that time Pronger was only three
years removed from his drinking days as a Hartford Whaler (he had
been arrested during a barroom brawl in Buffalo) but, as it
turned out, only three years from the Hart and Norris Trophies.
Derian Hatcher was 22 when he became the Stars' captain, picked
over other notable--and older--players like Mike Modano. "The first
two years Hatcher wasn't the guy I would have put in there," says
Carbonneau, who retired in July after playing his final five
seasons in Dallas. "He was a great team guy, always looking to
organize things. But he didn't know what to do in the room. He
got better. Now he's the type of leader they were looking for."
Gainey appointed Hatcher, coming down firmly on the side of
autocracy in the debate over the most suitable method for naming
a captain: election or selection. "The captain is the player who
creates the culture of your club," Gainey says. "You don't want a
player who's going to be with you for only three or four months
having a say in determining your next 10 years." Wilson, the
Capitals coach and also a devotee of the chain-of-command theory,
concurs. "In the military," Wilson says, "privates don't elect
The admonition should be heeded in Montreal, the erstwhile model
franchise that has had nearly as many captains (seven) in the
last 11 years as Italy has had governments. Not surprisingly the
Canadiens, winners of a record 24 Stanley Cups, won only one
during the captaincy's Gilbert and Sullivan years, which didn't
end last season with the election of the NHL's first Finnish
captain, Saku Koivu. Last season Shayne Corson, who briefly had
worn the C in St. Louis and Edmonton, campaigned for the job and
was devastated when he lost what Montreal coach Alain Vigneault
says was a close vote. Corson, who bolted for the Toronto Maple
Leafs as a free agent over the summer, told a friend the ballots
might have been tampered with, a charge Vigneault denies.
That's not to say it couldn't have happened. Not only has the NHL
imported Russians, but, in at least one case, it also imported
Soviet-style election techniques. In 1990, the last time,
incidentally, that St. Louis players voted for the captaincy,
coach Brian Sutter supervised an election to replace Rick
Meagher, who was recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. The
winner, Sutter announced, was Scott Stevens, who had signed as a
free agent in the off-season, a superb choice even if the players
never made it. Turns out only one player voted for Stevens. "The
vote does have to go a certain way," says Sather, a proponent of
democracy to a point. "The ballots have to go to the general
manager, and although I've never done it, I can see the manager
overruling the choice. You have to end up with the right guy."
If a team doesn't, it's an embossed invitation to chaos. Few
incidents are more traumatic to a team and none is more
humiliating to a player than when he's stripped of his captaincy.
When coach Mike Keenan yanked the C from Brett Hull in St. Louis
in 1995-96--Hull had criticized Keenan's decision to scratch
Hawerchuk for a game in Buffalo after Hawerchuk's grandmother had
made the trip from a Toronto nursing home to see him play--it was
the biggest scandal over a letter since Salem gave an a to Hester
Prynne. Hull called it "a complete slap in the face."
In other words, it was comparable to the knee in the groin Eric
Lindros took from Philadelphia last March. The humiliation of
Lindros came with television pictures. Comcast, the cable TV
company that owns 66% of the Flyers, got a nifty shot of
equipment man Turk Evers stitching the C on Eric Desjardins's
sweater after Lindros, who had questioned the diagnosis and
treatment of his concussion by Philly medical personnel, was
removed in a putsch organized by president Bob Clarke. Lindros
had been many things to the Flyers--in particular, their best
player and marketing tool--but he'd not been an effective captain
since his appointment in 1994 as a 21-year-old by Terry Murray,
Philly's coach at the time. Lindros lacked the common touch. His
affliction was being bigger, stronger, richer, more handsome and
more famous than his teammates. They knew it, and he knew it.
Nor did Lindros shine in moments of crisis. When Murray said the
Flyers might be in "a choking situation" after they lost the
first three games of the 1997 Stanley Cup finals to the Red
Wings, Lindros bolted from the arena without speaking publicly.
Captains also are supposed to be a buffer between players and
management, an impossibility for Lindros given his well
chronicled feud with Clarke. After the Flyers started a
franchise-worst 0-5-1 last season, Lindros apologized to
teammates for having dragged his spat with Clarke into the
dressing room. The gesture was a grand one, albeit belated, but
a captain's small gestures often matter most.
Perhaps the NHL's greatest act of leadership in the past 20 years
occurred without a word being said. After Edmonton defeated
Philadelphia in Game 7 of the 1987 finals, Wayne Gretzky took the
captain's perfunctory spin with the Stanley Cup and then bypassed
stars Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr and others to
hand the trophy to a 24-year-old defenseman named Steve Smith.
The previous year Smith, then a rookie, had inadvertently
deflected the puck off Fuhr's pad and into the Oilers' net in
Game 7 of the quarterfinals against the Calgary Flames, an
own-goal that had eliminated Edmonton and kept it from a chance
at winning a third consecutive Cup. Gretzky's message was
brilliant in its clarity: No matter how many future Hall of
Famers we have, we win and lose as a team.
Here are the men who are the heart and soul of their teams, the
captain's log of the NHL
Captains, My Captain
Here's how teams in the three other major pro leagues select
captains--if they choose to have them at all--and what functions,
official or otherwise, those players perform.
MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
METHOD OF SELECTION Usually by the manager
DUTIES Largely an honorary title
THE SKINNY There was a time when the captaincy was more important
than it is today. Pee Wee Reese, for example, was instrumental in
getting his Dodgers teammates to accept Jackie Robinson after
Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, in part because of his
standing as captain. In recent decades, however, the importance
of the captaincy has diminished. In fact, only two of 30 teams
have captains: the Chicago Cubs (Rick Aguilera, Mark Grace, Sammy
Sosa and Kevin Tapani) and the Cincinnati Reds (Barry Larkin).
METHOD OF SELECTION Usually by player vote
DUTIES Mostly ceremonial; meet with the referees and opposing
team's captain(s) before each game to discuss, among other
things, how the game may be officiated.
THE SKINNY All 29 teams will likely have a captain (or
co-captains) this season, and the title clearly has appeal.
During the offseason, Allen Iverson lobbied hard for the 76ers'
captaincy. Iverson wouldn't be the first NBA player with a
dubious rep to be a captain: Others have included Derrick Coleman
with the Hornets and Latrell Sprewell with the Warriors.
METHOD OF SELECTION Some by player vote, others by coaches
DUTIES Lead pregame stretching, call the coin toss, accept and
THE SKINNY Every team has at least one captain, and most have one
each for offense, defense and special teams. While the captaincy
is often a seasonlong appointment, some coaches rotate captains
weekly. Those selections are based on anything from a player's
performance in practice that week to the proximity of the game to
a player's hometown.
of it," says the Rangers' Glen Sather. "It's like knighting
strong enough to blend the disparate elements of a slovenly team.