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 4091 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… 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:

    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.

Viewed 4091 times

Go to top

Blues Not the Only St. Louis Pro Hockey Champions - Part One
Posted October 14, 2019

That Decisive Seventh Game
Posted May 26, 2019

You Gotta Have Hart!
Posted May 13, 2019

He Shoots! He Scores! Hockey's Clarion Call
Posted April 25, 2019

Second Thoughts on Penalties
Posted April 14, 2019

His Night to Howell
Posted March 30, 2019

Firing Blanks
Posted March 18, 2019

Humour - A Way to Catch Your Balance
Posted March 03, 2019

The Revival of Hockey's Lost Art of Stickhandling - Part 2
Posted February 15, 2019

The Revival of Hockey's Lost Art of Stickhandling - Part 1
Posted February 01, 2019

The Rise and Fall of Sweater Number 9
Posted January 23, 2019

Penalty-Free NHL Games
Posted January 09, 2019

The Greatest of These is Charity
Posted December 22, 2018

Minor League 'Davids' Defeating Major League 'Goliaths'
Posted December 07, 2018

The Shadow Knows
Posted November 25, 2018

Lying Down on the Job
Posted November 04, 2018

The Perils and Pleasures of Water
Posted October 19, 2018

Hockey's Cinderella Teams
Posted October 07, 2018

"Stop Thief!"
Posted May 19, 2018

Hockey's Classic Embarrassing Moments
Posted May 10, 2018

Playing in a Fog
Posted April 21, 2018

Media Goofs
Posted April 08, 2018

First Game, First Shift, First Goal!
Posted March 26, 2018

Always a Bridgroom
Posted March 12, 2018

The Year the Canadiens Almost Died
Posted February 24, 2018

Tangled With the Law and the Lawless - Part 2
Posted February 17, 2018

Tangled With the Law and the Lawless
Posted January 28, 2018

Lucky Black Cats and Number 13
Posted January 17, 2018

Concussions in Hockey Nothing New
Posted December 30, 2017

The Best Christmas I Remember
Posted December 18, 2017

Filling the Gap
Posted December 01, 2017

Off Duty Injuries; mishaps away from the rink
Posted November 13, 2017

The Most Cruel Bird of All
Posted October 26, 2017

Las Vegas — NHL's 31st Team — Knights or Knaves?
Posted October 13, 2017

Playing Under the Influence - of Pain
Posted May 29, 2017

In Tune Pucksters
Posted May 14, 2017

Laughter - The Best Medicine
Posted April 29, 2017

The Last Straw
Posted April 15, 2017

Whose Side Are You On Anyway?
Posted March 30, 2017

Ferreting Out Phantom Hockey Stars
Posted March 17, 2017

A Woman's On the Ice (Part 2)
Posted March 08, 2017

A Woman's On the Ice (Part 1)
Posted February 19, 2017

Tales From the Sin Bin!
Posted February 04, 2017

Happy 100th Birthday N.H.L
Posted January 25, 2017

New Year's Resolutions that Might Have Been
Posted January 06, 2017

It Happened on December 25th
Posted December 21, 2016

The Best of Hockey's One-Liners
Posted December 10, 2016

The Price of Stardom
Posted November 18, 2016

Is There a Doctor in the House?
Posted November 03, 2016

Auston Matthews: Liberator or Lemon?
Posted October 14, 2016

Hockey's Multi-Generation Families
Posted June 16, 2016

Picture Perfect - A Dozen Classic Hockey Photos
Posted June 08, 2016

Anatomy of the Penalty Shot
Posted May 17, 2016

Hockey's Honourary Indian Chiefs
Posted May 04, 2016

Goaltender's Idiosyncrasies
Posted April 17, 2016

Records That Will Never Be Broken
Posted March 31, 2016

Right Church — Wrong Pew
Posted March 23, 2016

Does "Captain" Mean Much Anymore?
Posted March 02, 2016

I Quit!
Posted February 21, 2016

Now That's Not Pun-ny!
Posted February 07, 2016

A Century of Leap Year Landmarks - Part 2
Posted January 26, 2016

A Century of Leap Year Landmarks - Part 1
Posted January 06, 2016

Christmas Babies
Posted December 29, 2015

Practice Can Be Precarious
Posted December 11, 2015

How Much is a Body Worth?
Posted November 25, 2015

Brooklyn Bridge is Falling Down...
Posted November 15, 2015

Did You Have a Good Summer? (Part Two)
Posted November 01, 2015

Did You Have a Good Summer? (Part One)
Posted October 16, 2015

From Champs to Chumps
Posted June 07, 2015

Posted May 11, 2015

Putting the Bite on the Opposition
Posted April 24, 2015

One Eyed Wonders
Posted April 12, 2015

Captain Cage Cop
Posted March 26, 2015

Trade Deadline Deals — Blockbuster or Bluster?
Posted March 17, 2015

Fun In the Snow
Posted February 27, 2015

Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated
Posted February 16, 2015

It's not what they said - it's what they meant!
Posted January 31, 2015

Funny Fights
Posted January 18, 2015

Hockey's New Years Babies
Posted January 03, 2015

Strange Gifts - Christmas or Otherwise
Posted December 20, 2014

Two Dozen + 1 Wacky Wonders
Posted December 06, 2014

The Last of a Long Line of...
Posted November 24, 2014

A Compendium of Referee Non-Calls
Posted November 09, 2014

40th Anniversary of the 1974 Summit Series
Posted October 25, 2014

The Many Faces of Training Camp
Posted October 13, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Playoff Heroes
Posted May 30, 2014

Boston Bruins Celebrate 90 Years
Posted May 17, 2014

A Curse Upon Ye!
Posted May 01, 2014

For the Birds
Posted April 20, 2014

They Were Not Fooled By Their Birthdates
Posted April 08, 2014

Bitten By The Hand That Feeds
Posted March 22, 2014

Tongue in Check
Posted March 08, 2014

A Few L.A.F.F.S. to Relieve your S.A.D.
Posted February 21, 2014

The Ultimate Valentine - A Kiss
Posted February 08, 2014

Hats Off to Hockey
Posted January 25, 2014

Horsing Around
Posted January 11, 2014

New Year's Revelations
Posted December 30, 2013

Christmas Specials
Posted December 23, 2013

Esposito vs Esposito - Smith vs Smith
Posted November 30, 2013

Just Dying to Play Hockey
Posted November 17, 2013

What's In 50 Years
Posted November 02, 2013

The Ongoing Resolve - NHL Season is Too Long!
Posted October 20, 2013