This excerpt from Wearing the C: Leadership Secrets of Hockey’s Greatest Captains is printed with the permission of Triumph Books.
Ross Bernstein, the best selling author of nearly 50 sports books, interviewed upwards of 150 professional players for his new book: “Wearing the C.” In chapter two of the book, Ross posed the question: “WHO WERE THE CAPTAINS WHO YOU REALLY LOOKED UP TO OR ADMIRED, AND WHY?” “Getting the players to open up prior to this chapter was difficult at times,” writes Bernstein. “It was difficult because, as I learned, captains are very humble and modest people. They don’t like to talk about themselves or their achievements, that’s just not in their nature. They do, however, enjoy talking about their mentors, heroes, and role models — which is precisely what this chapter is all about. The stories and memories here are straight from the heart. Selfless acts are not only recognized, but celebrated by those who witnessed them first hand. I wanted to know not only WHO their most respected and favorite captains were, but more importantly WHY. And I didn’t just want to hear about the characteristics that made him a great captain per se, I wanted a good story to back it up. So I tried to dig deep and really ask probing questions to get the guys to come out of their shells. Many of them got emotional when talking about their first captain, or the captain who took them under their wing and gave them the confidence they would need to one day wear the C themselves.”
Here is a sampling of what some of the players had to say…
When I first got into the league with Vancouver I was fortunate enough to play with Trevor Linden. He was just about everything you could ask for in a captain, really respected and truly a great leader. Then Mark Messier came in and took over as the team captain. What a warrior that guy was. Just the way he went about his business, both on the ice as well as off the ice, it was amazing. The game was so important to him and he was so passionate about the team’s success. I learned a great deal from him, no question, he was a true professional. The thing I remember most about Mark was that he never seemed to apologize for anything. Because he was so dedicated and worked so hard, that no matter what he did — his intentions to make the team better were just always right. So even if things didn’t work out, he wasn’t sorry about it. He was just all-in and if it worked, great. If not, so be it. But he wasn’t going to apologize for trying, regardless of what it was. His attitude was if you were trying hard and you were playing the game the right way, and things didn’t work out or you made a mistake along the way, then that was all right. He might not be happy about it, but he was OK in knowing each of us gave it our all for the betterment of the team. It was just all about the team with him, no matter what. From there Markus Naslund took over and he wound up becoming one of my best friends. I’ve never met anyone who was more dedicated to trying the play the game the right way. Just a great guy. Then, full circle, to Phoenix with Shane Doan. What can you say about this guy? Incredible. Everybody knows what he brings every night. Everybody knows the type of person he is, his honesty, his dedication, and his leadership. He’s pretty much everything you could ever hope your captain could be.
Shane Doan was the captain in Phoenix when I was there and I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s one of the greatest captains in the NHL, without question. I really looked up to him. Not only was he a great teammate, he’s such a good person off the ice. Total lead by example kind of a guy. Without a doubt, always the last guy off the ice every practice. He’s always working to get better and to help his teammates get better. As a leader he never asks anyone to do anything that he’s not doing himself. He was the first one to hold himself accountable, yet he was also there to hold everybody else accountable. I just have so much respect for the guy. Look at what that franchise has gone through, both on and off the ice, over the past 10 years. It’s insane. It would have been so easy for him on so many occasions to just bail on that franchise. He could’ve let his contract run out and become a free agent in order to sign somewhere else, or he could’ve easily asked for a trade. Yet, he remains so loyal. He’s been with that franchise from the beginning and in my opinion he’s their heart and soul. What an amazing person. Just first class, a true professional.
I really enjoyed playing with Guy Carbonneau when we were both in Montreal. He was a really good leader and overall just a great captain. What I will always remember about Guy was how calm he was, especially during our biggest games. I’ll never forget being in a double overtime playoff game the year we won the Stanley Cup in ‘93 and him telling us between the extra sessions in the locker room to just stay relaxed. He said “Play your game and don’t get too pumped up boys, that’s all.” Sure enough, we won the game. He had this calming effect on us and really got us to keep our composure, even at the most stressful times. That’s what great captains do, they calm everybody down and keep them focused on the task at hand.
I played with Wayne Gretzky for the first six years of my career in L.A. and he was certainly somebody who I looked up to a great deal. What I learned from Wayne was how a captain has to handle himself away from the ice. Whether it was media requests, or autograph requests, or charity involvement, or just being in the spotlight that was seemingly always shining on him — he always handled himself with class. I was given the C after he moved on to St. Louis and let me tell you, those were some pretty big shoes to fill to say the least.
From there I got traded to Colorado, where I was fortunate to play alongside Joe Sakic. What a great leader he was. He was very quiet too, not a yeller or screamer at all — a real lead by example kind of a guy. Joe’s level of play was unbelievable. The bigger the game, the better he played. He just seemed to thrive under pressure.
Later in my career I was given the opportunity to serve as captain of the San Jose Sharks. I think it was here where I really came into my own as a leader. I learned a ton from our head coach, Todd McLellan. He really helped me understand how important it is to take over the team. His philosophy was that by the end of the season the team is being run by the leaders in the dressing room, not the coaching staff. He knew that the coaches came in with a plan and then that was it, it was up to the leaders to help execute it. So he felt very strongly that the captain had to be the guy who could facilitate that. It was critical. Coming into San Jose I had already worn the C for 10+ years, yet he taught me more about what it meant to be a captain than all those years combined in just two seasons. The guy was just incredible.
Terry O’Reilly was my captain in Boston when I first broke into the league and I thought he was an incredible leader. I’d have to say he was the hardest working guy I ever played with. How he practiced, how he prepared, how tough he played, how passionate he was about the game — he was just the ultimate Bruin. I was really in awe of him as a younger player, he taught me so much about how to be a professional both on and off the ice. When your captain is that well liked and respected, everybody just follows his lead.
I was fortunate to have played with some pretty amazing captains over the years. I always enjoyed playing on the Olympic and World Cup teams because those teams are basically made up of captains. To sort of watch how the best leaders in the game come together, it’s pretty humbling. If I had to pick one guy from all my years of playing who really stood out, I would have to go with Steve Yzerman. I He led by his example on the ice and always handled himself with such class off the ice — just a true professional. remember playing with him on some international teams and I was always so impressed by the fact that he would go back out onto the ice after games to get in extra ice time. He took his craft so seriously and I had so much respect for that. He didn’t say a whole lot but he didn’t need to. I admire leaders like that the most, guys who just let their actions do the talking for them. I’ll follow those guys all day long. Anybody can get up in front of a room and say the right things, but to back it up out on the ice is what really matters. That was Stevey Y to a tee. He backed it up.
Two guys stand out over the years. First, I thought that Craig Hartsburg was an excellent captain. We played together in Minnesota. He was a solid defenseman and a great competitor out on the ice. He was just an all around good guy and someone who I certainly looked up to. Scott Stevens was another guy who I really thought did a great job. We played together briefly in New Jersey and he was just a tremendous competitor. He’d give his left leg for the team if it came down to that, the guy just hated to lose. He was a pretty quiet guy and really let his play do all the talking, which I kind of admired. Good captains can just tell which guys need a kick in the butt or a pat on the back, depending on their personalities, and that’s how they would lead. I respected guys like that a whole lot more than the guys who just sit and flap all the time, telling you how to play the game. I didn’t particularly care for guys like that too much. That’s why I liked Hartsy and Scotty, both were really laid back kinda guys. They definitely earned the right to wear the C in my eyes.
I tried to learn as much as I could from my teammates, wherever I was playing. Sometimes the best leaders aren’t even the captains, they are your veterans who have been around for a long time. When I played in New York (Islanders) there were a couple of great leaders on our team, Kenny Jonsson and Tom Chorske. They were both really good at working with the younger players and I have a lot of respect for those guys. Then when I played in Ottawa I played with Daniel Alfredsson, who was and still is a tremendous captain. I would like to think that little bits and pieces of all of those guys have rubbed off on my own leadership style that I use now as the captain in Boston.
From a leadership standpoint in his play I would have to say Brett Hull was unbelievable. We played together in St. Louis and I never got tired of watching him score goals. He was a warrior. He complained about everything, but never about being hurt. He’d play through so much pain on a nightly basis and never took a night off. I remember talking to some of his teammates from the ‘99 Dallas team that won the Stanley Cup. They were telling me that he was literally playing on one leg. He didn’t say a peep about it either, he just sucked it up and played hockey. That’s the definition of leadership right there in my eyes. When you see other guys who take nights off because of little bumps and bruises, and you compare them to a superstar like Brett Hull, a captain nonetheless, who plays through unimaginable pain on a nightly basis, it makes you think twice about your level of commitment to the team. Brett was a fantastic captain.
Scotty Stevens was another amazing captain. He was a quiet leader who led by example and was just tougher than hell. He was physically tough and he was mentally tough. Just a warrior. He was so confident as a player too, it was literally intimidating to see how confident he was out on the ice.
Lastly, I would have to say Garth Butcher, who I played with in St. Louis. He was my all time favorite. Great guy. Garth was my captain during my rookie year and I will never forget how he just took care of me. I didn’t have a nice suit so he bought me one. From a leadership standpoint he just took the young guys aside and showed them how to do it. He showed me how to prepare and how to practice. I had no clue but he showed me the way. Garth was a big part of my career because he let me follow him around and learn from him. He made me feel like I was a part of the group. Gino Cavallini wore the A that year and I’ll never forget how he paid for all my meals on the road because I didn’t make very much money. Those are things that you remember and then pay forward as you get older and wiser throughout your career.
I will never forget the time I got suspended for 10 games at the end of the season early in my career in a game against Chicago. I was sticking up for one of my teammates who had gotten cheap shotted and got into this huge fight, which resulted in the suspension. Now, it was just sort of understood in those days that and the team would pay your salary while you were out, but I never got paid for whatever the reason. That year Scotty Stevens also got suspended for a couple games and I later found out that the team paid him for the games he sat out. I was kind of upset because it was a ton of money that I had lost at a time when I wasn’t making very much money. Now granted, I was no Scott Stevens, but I thought the organization would still take care of me. Nope. So I went to Garth at the following training camp and told him the story. He just looked at me and said “Don’t worry Chaser, I’ll take care of it.” Sure enough, Garth took it upon himself to go around and talk to each guy. He basically said “Listen, this kid fights for us every night and he lost a pretty good chunk of change, so we need to make it right for him.” Each guy chipped in a couple hundred bucks and he wound up collecting about five grand. He handed me this envelope just stuffed full of cash and said “Chaser, this is from your teammates and we want you to know that we appreciate what you do for us. We know the team didn’t do the right thing by not paying you, but we need to get past that and move on as a team.” I was just blown away. What an unbelievable classy thing to do.
I was fortunate to play alongside a handful of great captains over the years, solid hard working guys who led by example like Chris Chelios, Scott Stevens, Daniel Alfredsson and Randy Cunneyworth. Another guy who I played with that has gone on to become an incredible captain is Zdeno Chara. He was my roommate when he was a rookie and I take great pride in the fact that I was sort of able to mentor him a little bit early on in his career. He’s a great person and I couldn’t be happier to see the success he’s had as the captain of the Bruins. All of those guys were very high integrity and high character guys who were all cut from the same cloth. I had a lot of respect for all of them, just really good people on and off the ice.
Scott Stevens probably had the biggest impact on me. He was incredible at leading by example. His actions on the ice did all the talking for him. Period. He wasn’t a guy who was going to stand up and give a real long fiery dissertation to the guys before the game. That’s not to say he wouldn’t bark out some choice words in the locker room between periods though. He was a man of few words, but what words he did choose to say were very meaningful. When he spoke, guys listened. And they acted. He was just incredible at getting everybody on the same page and ready to go to work. He was very demanding, especially in practice, where it was just the expectation that you had better be trying as hard as he was. It didn’t matter what your role was or how many minutes you played, he set incredibly high standards and held everybody accountable. Scott was just all about the team. He didn’t care about anything else, it was all about the team and about winning hockey games. It was just an incredible “follow my lead,” “jump on my back” attitude.
I’ve seen captains call certain players out before. It’s rare but it happens. If one of your star players isn’t playing well, you need a captain who can get that guy to step up his game and bring more effort. He’ll just tell him that he owes it to the team and to his teammates. That’s tough to do, but the top captains — the respected leaders with a lot of credibility — they can get that kind of stuff done. Scott Stevens was that kind of a guy. No question.
Playing in Philadelphia when I first got into the league I was fortunate in that I got to play for two very good, but very different captains. My first captain was Eddie Van Impe. Eddie was a quiet leader. He was very dedicated to helping anybody that needed help both on or off the ice. He was a leader by example in the sense that he sacrificed his body, and even his personal safety, to help the team win. He didn’t speak too much but he had a real loud voice, literally, so when he said something the guys listened. Everybody respected Eddie. So what I learned about leadership from Eddie, more than anything, is that sometimes less is more.
The guy who replaced Eddie as the Flyers captain was Bobby Clarke. What a guy. For sure the most dynamic player I ever played with. I don’t think there was a deficient bone in his leadership body. He was so dedicated to the team and to winning, that was what it was all about with him. That was sacred to him. He led by example, no matter what. He would attempt to win at all costs. He was ruthless with opponents and was never afraid to back down to anybody. As a team leader he demanded excellence from everybody around him. He was forthright and direct with his teammates and wasn’t afraid to be confrontational with them with regards to what he felt was required of them. And most importantly, he had the ability to have difficult conversations with people, anytime and anywhere. He just wasn’t afraid to say things that needed to be said, which was incredible. The bottom line with Bobby Clarke was that he was a winner. Not only was he an outstanding leader, he knew how to win. Bobby was the real deal, just an amazing captain.
I remember in 1974 when we were playing the Rangers in the semifinals of the playoffs. I wound up tearing some ligaments in my knee week and it was pretty bad. We played the Bruins in the Finals and I really wanted to play. We had three other guys who were all out with injuries and we had been forced to call up some guys from the minors, and they just weren’t there talent-wise. I watched the first two games in Boston and was just beside myself. Fearing I would never get the opportunity to play in a Finals again, I asked him to take my cast off so I could try skating on it. He told me that I needed to be in it for at least another 10 days, but reluctantly agreed to let me “test it out” on skates. I went out on the ice to try it out and it felt just awful, I could barely put any weight on it — it was just too painful. A few hours before the start of Game Four I was soaking in the hot tub in our dressing room. Bobby came in and saw me in the tub, so he came over to see how I was doing. I told him I couldn’t bend it 90 degrees and that starts and stops were pretty much impossible.
He then sat down and proceeded to tell me that he wasn’t sure if we could win the Stanley Cup without me that night. He told me how valuable I was to the team and that the team needed me out there. He talked about how good I was at killing penalties, and winning face-offs, and playing tough defense. When he was done he told me that if there was any way I could play, that he would personally really appreciate it because it would greatly enhance our team’s chances of winning the championship. He told me that he didn’t want me to jeopardize my career, but then reassured me that even if I was at 60%, I was still better than the call-up guys. He then got up to leave and said “We’re ready to welcome you back to the lineup as soon as you can make it back out there with us.” I was just blown away. I mean here I was, a 22 year old kid, and our team captain… BOBBY CLARKE, was asking me to play so that we could win the Stanley Cup.
As soon as he left I jumped out of there and grabbed our team trainer. He taped up my leg so tight I could barely bend it, but it worked. I went out there to test it out again and this time I was determined to rejoin my teammates. I was limping on it pretty badly but found a way to use my good leg to push off and make turns. I remember my trainer looking at me just before the start of the game. He asked me if I could go and my brain screamed “Not a chance!” but my lips said “Yes!”. So I played Games Four, Five and Six with a great degree of difficulty and pain, but it was all worth it when I got to hoist that beautiful Cup.
Bobby was a great leader and could get guys to play beyond what they thought they were capable of. He asked me to contribute and I didn’t want to let him down. I never would have had the courage to do it without his encouragement. He took me to a whole other level of determination that I didn’t even know existed. Looking back, sure it was crazy to play on that knee. But in retrospect, thank goodness I did — because it was such an incredible feeling to have been able to say that I played a small part in our franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup championship. He didn’t pressure me, he nurtured me and pulled me into making a decision that I ultimately had to make on my own. That was how he motivated guys, one on one, where he would sort of test you and challenge you. You just didn’t want to disappoint Clarky. No way.
Part of being the team captain is being the liaison between the players and the coaching staff. They’re the conduit, the go-between, and that’s a tough spot to be in a lot of times as a player. What made Bobby so unique was his ability to get along with the players as well as with management. I will never forget the time Clarky skated up to me right before the start of Game Four of the ‘75 Stanley Cup Finals up in Buffalo. It was during warm-ups and he says to me “You gotta have a good game tonight. They (management) asked me if you should play or (another player who I won’t mention), and I told them you. Don’t let me down.” So they were consulting him on roster spots in the Stanley Cup Finals, that’s how much they respected this guy’s opinion. Furthermore, Bobby wasn’t afraid to come to me to say “I need you to deliver tonight because I stuck my neck out for you.” Talk about motivation! Clarky was a master at stuff like that, getting guys to play big in big games and holding them accountable. What an amazing leader. He was a HUGE part of why that team won back to back Stanley Cups, without a doubt.
I’d have to say Rod Brind’Amour, who I played with in Carolina. He was the best captain I’ve ever played with. The way that he handled himself and led by example was amazing. He wasn’t a real loud guy in the locker room and didn’t say a lot, he just went about his business. When he did say something though, he really thought it through and made it meaningful. Guys listened when he spoke up in the locker room and had something to say. He was so good at saying the right thing at the right time. He was always so positive too, never negative.
His teammates respected him so much for the way he went to work every day. It didn’t matter if he was tired or injured or whatever, you could always count on him to give 100%. No kidding, he was the hardest working guy in practice ever single day. It was incredible. There was just no way you could let up around him. He forced everyone on that team to get better. There was no way you could take a night off when he was around. He made you accountable without saying a word, it was incredible. I learned so much from just watching him prepare every day. He was such a great leader, yet he didn’t try to be. That was just his nature, to work hard and do the right things. He epitomized the old adage: Leadership isn’t what you say, it’s what you do. He was a huge part of why we won a Stanley Cup there in 2006. I know this, we wouldn’t have won it without him leading the way. I was just so impressed with him, he’s such a great guy.
I spent most of my career playing along Scott Stevens in New Jersey and he was one of the best. Scott was a real lead by example type of a captain. He was more of a quiet leader in the locker room, and really let his play out on the ice do the talking for him. He didn’t say too much but when he did, it was heartfelt, to the point, and meaningful. Guys listened. He could get emotional but usually all it would take for him to get his point across was a “look.” Scotty’s “looks” could say a thousand words! When he wasn’t happy with the team’s performance, sometimes that was all it took to shake things up — the “look.” His work ethic and preparation was second to none too. He was always the hardest worker every practice and every game. Everybody just followed his lead. He was incredibly respected and quite frankly nobody wanted to ever let him down. Just a heckuva player, one of the best.
Another guy I really looked up to as a captain was Mark Messier. Mark and I grew up together and he’s a dear friend. Although we only played together in one World Championship I learned a ton from him. He taught me so much about what it took to make it in the National Hockey League. I’d have to say he’s one of the greatest leaders ever. The guy just commanded so much respect, even as a young man. From the way he carried himself to his work ethic, he was just a natural born leader. Maybe the best of all time.
I grew up in New Jersey and in high school I had posters of John MacLean, Bruce Driver and Kenny Daneyko on my wall. I worshipped those guys. Flash forward five years later and I was their teammate when we won the Stanley Cup. I still have to pinch myself whenever I think of that. Unbelievable. All three of them were incredible (assistant) captains. Just great, great leaders. Those guys ran the locker room and whatever they said, went. They worked really hard every single practice and just led by example. They helped the young guys. They treated everybody with respect. They were just great guys. They were a huge reason why that team had success, without a doubt.
Add in a guy like Scott Stevens, who wore the C about as good as any guy in history, and what more could you ask for? Scotty was the epitome of the word captain. He didn’t way much but when he did, guys shut up and listened. He let his actions speak for him very loudly. I will never forget Game Two of the ‘95 playoffs in Detroit. We were scared sh–less of the Red Wings, they were the No. 1 team in the league and everybody was predicting that they were going to sweep us. Well, we were down by a goal and the game was really tight. Detroit’s Slava Kozlov came skating down though the zone and Scotty just nailed him. It was nuts, he was seeing stars he hit him so hard. The place was just silent. After that, the Detroit guys thought twice about trying to intimidate us. That was what Scotty had the ability to do, to change the entire atmosphere, the momentum, with one big hit. It was a statement. Scotty gave us confidence. Needless to say, we went on and won the Stanley Cup.
One of the guys who I really respected a great deal was Bobby Clarke. I will never forget playing against Philadelphia one year in the playoffs. Bobby wound up getting a huge gash in his face from a skate blade. It was ugly, from the bottom of his jaw to his check bone, and blood everywhere. Most guys would be done for the night and then some. Not Bobby. He wasn’t about to let his teammates down. He wasn’t gone more than 10 minutes, if that. He went in and got stitched up and was right back out there, playing just as intense as he was before too. There were no helmets in those days either. It was incredible. He led by example and was not about to let his teammates see him quit. Bobby certainly earned my respect that night, without a doubt.