Hockey's Historic Highlights

Does "Captain" Mean Much Anymore?

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand


Does "Captain" Mean Much Anymore?

Posted March 02, 2016

Viewed 3529 times

Umpteen years ago the prolific shinny scribe, Stan Fischler, headlined a feature column in the Hockey News Magazine: “’C’ IS THE HEAVIEST LETTER IN THE ALPHABET”. He was referring, of course, to the consonant which indicates the player designated to be captain of his team. He illustrated his point by quoting a current general manager: “When a club is losing a lot, the captain takes the brunt of it. There is added pressure because the coach usually relies on him. If the coach has something to say, he cannot go to 20 guys, so he goes to the captain. A good one will either wither his mates verbally, or orchestrate a crescendo on the ice with superior play.”

   He further drew the expertise of another general manager, who added: “The captain is a leader, counsellor, and conduit. He will be the liaison between coaches and the team.”

   Further, a plethora of requirements necessary to fill the role of team captain is gleaned from respected players, coaches, and knowledgeable sports journalists:

  **”He stands up for his team when needed, and rallies them in tough times.”

  **”He is the spiritual leader—the glue that holds the team together—part management and part player”

  **”He has a great pulse for every part of his team—grizzled veterans, nervous rookies, and struggling teammates.”

  **”He must have confidence, strength of character, and the ability to speak up.”

   **…….must lead by example on and off the ice…with leadership abilities, character skills, and knowledge of the game and his team…..an extra coach on the ice and in the dressing room.

 (It is pertinent at this juncture to point out that, although there have been captains since day one, it was not until the commencement of the 1947-48 season that the letters “C” and “A” were worn on player’s sweaters. Consequently discussions in this missive will involve only captains active from that season on)

   The question prevails: where these traits merely ideals, or were they actually personified in players chosen for this position?

   That can be partly answered by profiling two or three “Original 6-ers” who wore the “C” with distinction, affirming what one respected hockey icon maintained—the “C” stands for “character”.

  This trait applies to no one more than to the late Jean Beliveau, who, for 10 years, sported what one writer called “hockey’s most famous capital letter.” In fact, former NHL President Clarence Campbell used that very word in his tribute to him. “’Character’ was his inherent quality. Any parent could use him as a pattern or role model. He provided hockey with a magnificent image. I couldn’t speak more highly of anyone connected with our game.”

   The fiercely competitive Ted Lindsay added: “Respect is a good word in his case. He commended it from everyone—teammates, opponents, coaches and officials, on and off the ice.”

   The discerning Emile “The Cat” Francis commented: “He’s a leader, and there aren’t many of them around.”

   When the time came in 1961 to replace Doug Harvey as captain, a close vote by team members elected “Le Gros Bill” to that position over “Boom Boom” Geoffrion. Beliveau was overcome with emotion when he was given the result, with tears coming to his eyes. But he saw that Geoffrion took the news badly, and began to sulk. Seeing this, Jean approached management and urged, “for the team’s sake” that Bernie be given the captaincy—indicating how much he was a team player. In fact, following his retirement, he maintained that he hoped he would be remembered for that quality more than anything else.

    “For the captain, the worry never ends. The day of the game I am nervous. I can’t sit still! I keep walking in and out of the house!”, said George “Red” Sullivan when he was captain on the New York Rangers in 1961. His philosophy was being captain meant it was a super highway leading to an ulcer, super worry, and super joy—the wonderful feeling of leadership. It meant being “father, confessor, coach, lawyer, and needler, all wrapped into one.”

   It was Muzz Patrick, manager of the Broadway Blueshirts, who asked Sully if he would consider being captain of the Rangers. “He might as well have asked me if I’d like a million dollars!”, he admitted with a tell-tale lump in his throat.

   Ken McKenzie’s Hockey Pictorial, in which this interview was recorded, opined that “Within a dozen games of his debut in 1956, Ranger fans knew they had a real captain in “Red” Sullivan.”

  The Maple Leafs’ George Armstrong was a leader of a different ilk altogether. Whereas Jean Beliveau skated with such ease and grace, and “Red” Sullivan approached the game like a bull in a china shop, “the Chief” was a plodding skater. Alan Stanley used to say “It was a standing joke. He was no Sonja Henie. When he was going down the ice against a defenseman it always looked like he was going to fall down—but he always ended up the other side of the defenseman.”

   The late stalwart rearguard added: “He was liked by everyone—all the players, management, the owners, and the press. He was a buffer between everybody”.

   Michael Ulmer, in his book Captains, wrote: “He was a leader. He did not harangue or challenge other players, or impose his will on them. He inspired not through intimidation, but through admiration.”

  The normally critical Conn Smythe said, “He was the best captain ever!” Teammates noted that his commitment to hockey was unsurpassed. He took careful notes previous to every game, writing all the possibilities which could occur during the action and how to deal with them.

  In a feature column in the Official National Hockey Annual of 1960, he personally testified that as captain “he had a certain standard to uphold”. The title of the piece, written by Margaret Scott, was “To George Armstrong, the ‘C’ means something.”

   And this prompts the question: “Does the ‘C’ still mean something? And if not, when did it stop bearing its worth?”

  It would seem that there was a least a shadow pride left in sporting this distinguished character in the 1970’s. It is said that Darryl Sittler was sometimes referred to as “Mr. Maple Leaf”; Stan Mikita bore the complimentary tag, “Mr. Blackhawk”; and Lou Angotti, Philadelphia’s first captain was “Mr. Captain” in that neck of the woods.

       But as the number of teams increased, and breaking into the line-ups of NHL teams became less of a challenge, doubts increased as to the amount of pride and passion connected with qualifying for this honour.

    Several theories support this conjecture.

First: They are too casually traded. (Ref: Dion Phaneuf and Andrew Ladd) It was a rarity for a captain to switch uniforms in the “good old days”. But it did sometimes happened. Ted Lindsay was packed off to Chicago Blackhawks in 1957. This was not a case of improving the team but an unsettling undercurrent prompted this switcheroo. “Terrible Ted” made the mistake of participating in laying the ground work for a player’s “union”. Jack Adams would have none of that.

Dion Phaneuf with the Ottawa SenatorsDion Phaneuf shortly after being traded to Ottawa (Photo: http://www.sensnation.ca)

    In 1968 Pierre Pilote was airlifted to Toronto. Again there were “extenuating circumstances” in this deal. He was nearing the end of his career, and actually retired after one campaign in the Queen City.

    But gradually the floodgates began to open, with the “C” becoming, as Sean McIndoe put it—the “scarlet letter”. In 1971, right winger Bob Nevin, considered by many at the time to be the heart of the Rangers, was whisked off to Minnesota. Ted Harris of the North Stars was moved to the Motor City in 1973. Two years later, in what is still considered a “blockbuster” swap, defenseman Brad Park’s position as captain was overlooked, as he made his way to Beantown along with Jean Ratelle.

   There have been several before (like Pat LaFontaine) and after (like Joe Thornton), but the epitome of deals involving a wearer of the big “C” took place in 1988. Not only was he the team skipper, but the best player of his era. Yet Wayne (the Great One) Gretzky was peddled to Los Angeles. After that miscue the position of any team’s on-ice leader virtually amounted to very little. As one writer put it: “Nothing is sacred anymore!”

   With the exception of Steve Yzerman, who capably led the Red Wings for 19 seasons before hanging up his blades, gone are days when a player would wear the “C” until the day he retired—ala Syl Apps, Milt Schmidt, and “Rocket” Richard.

 Secondly: Another reason why the “C” is not sacred anymore is that they are impulsively benched.

   Back in 1968, the North Stars were pitted against Los Angeles in the quarter finals. For some unexplained reason captain Bob Woytowich spent that series collecting splinters from the bench. He skated for only two shifts in the first match against St. Louis in the next series. Before the new season started in October he was sporting Pittsburgh livery.

   Seven seasons later the Canuck’s captain, Andre Boudrias, was a “healthy scratch” for ten games. He celebrated his first contest back to active duty, by being benched after the first period.

Denis Potvin (Photo: SIHR)
Denis Potvin (Photo: SIHR)

   One of the most surprising moves of this kind involved Denis Potvin of the Islanders. In April 1982, Al Arbour sat him down for what he described as “costly errors”. It is impossible to read between the lines to determine whether Potvin, who tended to overestimate his abilities, may have been dogging it or not. But this much is reality. In the “Original 6” days, when countless players vied for one of the 120 spots on NHL rosters, such a tactic would be almost unheard of. In fact, there is a Montreal Gazette report following a 1948 match between the Habs and the Rangers, in which it was declared that Captain “Butch” Bouchard “paved the way for the equalizer at 14 minutes of the third period. “He was outsmarted all the way (by Tony Leswick)”. Methinks that bench boss Dick Irvin didn’t plunk the stalwart rearguard on the bench for that faux pas—or any other.

   Lindy Ruff (who immediately resigned as captain), Lanny McDonald, Randy Ladouceur, and Bill Holder, are others who have experienced this humbling tactic, seemingly so contradictory to their respected appointments.

Thirdly: A further indication that wearing the “C” is held in lower esteem manifests itself in their callously being stripped of that distinguished digraph.

   Back in 1980 when Ted Lindsay demoted himself from the general manager’s post to stand behind the bench, the first step he took to “attempt to change the downtrodden Red Wings”, was to remove the “C” from the jersey of Dale McCourt, the team’s leading point-getter. Though he maintained it had “nothing to do with McCourt”, we wonder if Dale was inclined to agree.

   Rick Vaive made the mistake of sleeping in and missing a Maple Leaf practice in 1986. That was an unforgiveable sin in management’s eyes, and bright blue suddenly appeared where the symbol of his position had once been sewn.

  Brett Hull, in 1995, Trevor Linden in 1998, Kevin Dineen in 1999, Eric Lindros in 2000 (he criticized the Flyers’ medical staff), Vince Lecavalier (was too young) in 2001 all had their appointment yanked back, and Joe Thorton just last season became “just plain Joe” as a member of the San Jose Sharks.

 Fourthly: Perhaps the most telling evidence concerning the declining prestige connected with captaincy in pro hockey is the practice of rotating that coveted consonant among team members. In the early half of the New Millennium’s initial decade, Buffalo, San Jose, and Minnesota were making that their policy. The latter were doing it on a month by month basis.  One journalist questioned: “Does this mean too much or not enough leadership?” Another directly accused teams rotating the “C” as an indication there was not enough of that quality inherent in the team’s make-up.

   Back in the 1960’s both Boston and Chicago went a season or two with no captains. But apparently they decided rather than designating a replacement quickly, an extra skater wore an “A”, enabling management to thoroughly observe who should be given the honour next.

  Sam Blazer once opined: “NHL captains are meaningless” (as far as the fortunes of the team is concerned).

  That is obviously an extremism. Probably neither players nor management are anxious for captaincy to mean very little anymore. But times change. Thirty teams rather than six; salary caps keeping clubs scampering to meet the unrealistic salary demands; free agency and no-trade contracts—all force a “grand-change-all” syndrome for survival. All mitigate against the ideal.  There are still talented skaters; but few who manifest the qualities captains are made of. Untried choices in the search for on-ice leaders prompts what seems to be knee-jerk appointments. And in a manner almost as casual as changing shirts, he is gone to another sextet.  

  Sad as it is, that is reality. More than ever fans need a programme to keep track of who is wearing their club’s colours—and who is displaying the heaviest letter of the alphabet on his chest.

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