Being a captain requires class, courage
and the feel of a champion
By Larry Wigge
A funny thing happened on the New Jersey Devils' way to winning the Stanley Cup in 2000.
Early in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers, then-Devils right winger Claude Lemieux exchanged pleasantries with Flyers defenseman Eric Desjardins along the boards. A couple of high sticks later, Lemieux looked at Desjardins, who had just replaced Eric Lindros as captain, and sarcastically chirped, ''What does that 'C' stand for -- selfish?''
Forgive Lemieux's fractured spelling, but there is a lesson to be learned in choosing which player wears the "C." In the case of Steve Yzerman of the defending champion Detroit Red Wings , Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche and Scott Stevens of the New Jersey Devils -- captains for the last three Stanley Cup winners -- the "C" stands for class, courage and ultimately the feel of a champion.
It is a huge error when a team's best player inherits the honor as if it were a popularity contest. It is a totally undesirable situation in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the captain needs to be a force for his club. The captain needs to play with an attitude, a focus, and everyone else has to play with a purpose. Often, the team's glamour boy can't become the kind of warrior he needs to be.
Last spring, watching Steve Yzerman walk through the corridors of Savvis Center in St. Louis out to the team bus with a limp -- a severe limp on his right knee that some doctors said might cause him to miss three months into this season -- which it has -- was a perfect example of a player willing to sacrifice for his Red Wings teammates.
''The only thing the doctors say for sure is that I can't hurt it any more,'' Yzerman said, with the hint of a smile after he contributed one goal and one assist in Detroit's 4-3 victory over the Blues to give the Wings a 3-1 lead in their second-round series they won in five games. ''They would have to carry me off on a stretcher to keep me from playing at this time of the year.''
Crazy? Not for a champion like the 37-year-old Yzerman, who, in some people's eyes, has supplanted Mark Messier as the best leader in hockey today.
When his team lost the first two games of the playoffs to the Vancouver Canucks after posting the best record in the NHL in the regular season, it was Stevie "Y" who stood up in the team's locker room and said that the team's performance was unacceptable. This coming from a guy who stepped on the ice each night, basically on one leg, and showed his teammates that the playoffs are all about passion and paying the price .
''I never realized Stevie was such a quiet leader,'' said the loquacious Brett Hull, who was in his first season with the Red Wings. ''He probably doesn't even realize how important it is to have him back. He's off, what two months (with the knee injury), and then comes in and plays as if he hasn't missed a beat.''
And Detroit's Stanley Cups in 1997, '98 and 2002 are proof that Yzerman has been rewarded for his sacrifice -- giving up the headlines he had from being the team's leading scorer to show the way for the Wings as leader and warrior.
Don't be fooled, leadership is all about trust -- and when Yzerman stood up against Vancouver, just as he did in 1997, when the Red Wings fell behind in a first-round series in St. Louis -- every one of his teammates was riveted on each of his words.
''I'm no Knute Rockne,'' Yzerman laughs. ''I'm no great speechmaker.''
''All I know,'' Yzerman continues, ''the playoffs are all about pressure and how you respond to it. We've had our backs to the wall a number of times over the years. But the key is never losing faith in what you know you're capable of.''
The first time I really thought about the aura of leaders was when I saw the Montreal Canadiens win Stanley Cup after Stanley Cup in the 1960s and '70s playing on the passion of their great defensemen -- Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe and the play of captain Bob Gainey.
Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito of the Boston Bruins, Bobby Clarke of the Philadelphia Flyers, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies and Denis Potvin all were leaders during the New York Islanders' dynasty. Ditto for Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Kevin Lowe, et al and the Edmonton Oilers during their five Cups in seven seasons.
Sometimes you don't think about the "C" and those who lead until a player you consider a heart and soul player comes right out and pays other players a supreme compliment, like when Flyers forward Dave Poulin singled out the brilliance of the Oilers players on Team Canada after a Game 1 victory against Russia in the two-game Rende Vouz '87 series at Quebec City.
''Now I know why they are so dominant,'' Poulin said. ''Messier, Gretzky, Anderson, Lowe. They all stood up at just the right time and said just the right thing.''Steve Yzerman, the longest-running current captain in the NHL, epitomizes the grace and courage the Detroit Red Wings showed in claiming the 2002 Stanley Cup. Despite being out all this year with a knee injury, Yzerman's presence still carries the team in its defense of that championship.
There may not be a more pressure-filled role in the National Hockey League than that of team captain.
Yet, it is a role that most every player that pulls on an NHL sweater aspires to reach one day.
To wear the "C" on your sweater is an honor that few outside of hockey understand. Captains, if present at all in other sports, are mostly ceremonial figureheads. Not so in hockey, where they often become near mythical figures entrusted with an almost overwhelming amount of responsibility.
On the ice, the captain rules supreme. He is entrusted with dealing with the on-ice officials and he becomes the conduit between referee and head coach in most cases. Off the ice, he is often the team's primary spokesman to the media; and a good captain is always the team's conscience.
In essence, the man named captain of an organization becomes the face of that organization to outsiders.
"It's quite an accomplishment (to become captain)," says Mike O'Connell, the general manager of the Boston Bruins. "No other sport really recognizes a captain like hockey."
Each of those players earned the ultimate reward of being an NHL captain -- being the first player on his team to raise the Stanley Cup after the traditional presentation from Commissioner Gary Bettman.