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 three of the book, Ross posed the question: “SO HOW DO COACHES AND GENERAL MANAGERS REALLY CHOOSE THEIR CAPTAINS?” Wrote Bernstein: “It’s never an easy process to choose a new captain. Make the right choice and you will be rewarded handsomely with a player who brings a clear identity to your franchise. Make the wrong choice and you, the coach or general manager, could be out of a job in a hurry. Yes, it’s that important to pick the right guy. Each team is different though, and for a lot of teams its about picking the right guy for the right time. Do you have a young team, a veteran team, a team with a lot of foreign players? All of those factors weigh in to the final decision. Ah, decisions, decisions…
Do you go with a grizzled veteran, a guy whose experience and presence speak volumes without saying a word? In today’s game maybe that’s Niklas Lidstrom, Rick Nash, Chris Pronger or Daniel Alfredsson. Maybe you want to go with a young guy, a future superstar in the making? In today’s game maybe that’s Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, Eric Staal, or Ryan Getzlaf. Maybe you want an emotional leader who doesn’t say much but just delivers each and every night. In today’s game maybe that’s Shane Doan, Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Joe Thorton, Dustin Brown, or Ryan Callahan. The right captain becomes your identity with the fans and in the media. Boston’s toughness is epitomized in the six-foot-seven hulking frame of Zdeno Chara — who just so happened to lead his team to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011. Not a bad choice.
If you’re with one of the Original Six franchises, steeped in history and tradition, like Montreal, New York, Toronto, Chicago, Boston and Detroit — then you’d better trade for somebody good, because your fans aren’t going to accept anything less than the best. That can be tough too, because that means you’ve now got to take the C away from your current captain. Talk about a “difficult conversation.” Maybe you’ll get lucky though, and have that conversation with somebody like Trevor Linden, who was always all about the team. Trevor had been given the C at just 21 years of age, then one of the youngest captains in league history, and most assumed he’d serve as the team’s captains for 10-15 years easy. Linden’s world came crashing down upon him in 1997 when the organization brought in none other than six-time Stanley Cup champion Mark Messier. Yes, the same Mark Messier who had captained the New York Rangers past Vancouver in the ’94 Stanley Cup Finals just a few years before. How would “Captain Canuck” react? With class, of course. He welcomed Messier and before anyone could say a thing, he gave him the C off his chest. He said it was out of respect and because it was just the right thing to do. That’s why he remains the most popular captain in franchise history even to this day.
Maybe you already have your guy in place, but he’s getting long in the tooth. Great organizations never seem to miss a beat with regards to succession plans. Look at how the Red Wings seamlessly passed the torch from Steve Yzerman to Niklas Lidstrom, talk about consistency. Or how about when Sidney Crosby took over for the great Mario Lemieux? Just incredible to see that small market franchise, once on the verge of relocation not too long ago, back on top and winning Stanley Cups like the days of old.
So that’s the deal for WHO you choose, but then there’s the whole dilemma of HOW you chose. Do you pick “your guy” or do you let the players vote. Interesting, very interesting… I also wanted to try to delve into the coach-captain dynamic, and shed some light into that unique relationship. You know, the bond between coach and captain oftentimes runs deep. Their relationship starts off as adversarial, but evolves over time into a working partnership — even a friendship. I came across a lot of inspirational stories in writing this book, and one that particularly stood out was the relationship between Canadiens defenseman Butch Bouchard and his coach, Toe Blake. Bouchard played for Montreal for 15 seasons, 1941-56, and wore the C for eight of them. Late in his career he suffered a severe knee injury that slowed him down considerably.
By 1956 Butch could barely stand on the knee and couldn’t suit up for the latter half of the season. As luck would have it, in his final game ever that season the Canadiens beat Detroit, 3-1, to capture the Stanley Cup. Coach Blake, out of respect and admiration, had Bouchard suit up for the game. He sat on the bench until the very end of the game, when Blake sent out his old warrior for the final minute to enjoy what would ultimately be his last shift. Blake wanted to say thanks for his service and let him proudly conclude his illustrious career on a high note. As the buzzer sounded the elated Bouchard led his teammates over to congratulate their net minder, Jacques Plante. With the fans going wild, NHL president Clarence Campbell called for the team captain to come out to center ice to accept the Stanley Cup, which Butch gladly did.
Neat stuff, hopefully that sheds a little light into what goes on behind the scenes in this most interesting of associations…
I wore an A for a time as an amateur player but never wore the C. Anytime you are singled out as a team leader, it’s a prestigious honor for sure. As I got into coaching and management I quickly learned the importance of finding the right guy for the job. It’s often a tough decision too, because you really want to get the RIGHT guy for the job. And getting the two alternates is equally important as well. As for selecting the guys to wear letters, I always let the coaching staff weigh in on the decision. I never let the players vote, however, that was just something I didn’t believe in. There were a lot of qualities I looked for when choosing the right captain. Good captains have to have a lot of patience. They have to be able to make decisions based on what’s best for the team, not necessarily what’s best for themselves. And they have to be good leaders who will work hard every day in practice. That’s so important, to have someone who is going to lead by their example. Beyond that, I always looked for someone who I could have a good relationship with. Your captain is your go-between to the players and you have to have an open line of communication with that person in order to be an effective coach. I was very fortunate in that I have had some outstanding captains to work with over the years: Steve Yzerman in Detroit, Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, and Serge Savard in Montreal, just to name a few. Highly respected captains like that don’t come around very often, that’s for sure. Putting the C on natural leaders like that is what sets average teams apart from the great ones.
When I was playing in Calgary at the tail end of my career I had a pretty tough experience regarding this. As a team we went ahead and voted on who we thought should be the team captain. Jim Peplinski, one of my good friends on the team, kind of went around afterward and asked a bunch of the guys who they had voted for. Pep then told me that without a doubt I’d won the majority of the votes. It was extremely flattering to know that I had the respect of enough of my teammates to be named as the team leader. I’d worn the C in Washington earlier in my career and was ready for the challenge. Shortly thereafter, once the votes had been tallied, it was announced that the captain had been chosen by the organization… and it wasn’t me. It turned out that our coach, Al MacNeil, didn’t care too much for me. At all. We had battled each other for a while regarding ice time and a host of other issues, and this was his final way of telling me how he felt about me I suppose. I had no respect for the guy, plain and simple, and in the end it cost me the C. I certainly understood why management wouldn’t want a guy who hated his coach as their captain. As it turned out, our GM, Cliff Fletcher, let me go following the season. He was going younger and knew that I wasn’t going to be a part of the team’s long term plans, so it was easy for me to take a philosophical approach about it. It was easier for me to accept his rationale versus Al’s, but nevertheless it was a tough situation all the way around.
I coach high school hockey in Minnesota nowadays and choosing our captain is very important for us. What we do is we ask a lot of questions and interview a lot of people. The biggest thing I think is asking our graduating seniors who are leaving the program about who they think would make a good captain. We have a lot of respect for those guys and we value their opinions and input regarding which kids are the best leaders coming up. You get a different viewpoint from those guys once they are gone and no longer have to play politics. Beyond that, we look for kids who lead by example, who are respected by their teammates, and who obviously work well with others. You’ve got to put the C on the right kid, it really matters.
For all the years I wore a letter in the NHL it was always the coaching staff that chose the guys, never the players. Some teams do it that way though, but it can be risky. Now that I am in coaching myself, I can see why. The coaching staff needs to pick their guy to be captain. There’s jobs on the line and they want to make sure that they have the proper guys in place. They need to be sure that they guy they pick can be an effective communicator back and forth between management and the players. It’s not a popularity contest, it’s about finding the right guy to not only lead the team — but also deal with the media and that whole side of the game as well.
I’m a high school coach in Minnesota now and it’s always an important decision to me who wears the C for our teams. It’s not always about picking the best player either. First and foremost I look for character. That’s the most important thing for me. You want guys who are going to best represent not only the team, but the entire community, both on and off the ice. Your best captain might be a role player who’s a really hard worker and who’s looked up to by the his teammates. He needs to be someone they respect and someone they will listen to. He needs to be someone who is going to make smart decisions off the ice and not care about peer pressure. He needs to be a really hard worker in practice. Is the role going to be a burden on him and prevent him from being the type of player he hopes to be? You have to ask yourself that question too, because you obviously want someone who wants the job. Your leader sort of sets the tone and leads by his example, so it’s an important aspect of your team chemistry for sure.
As a coach today, I can tell you that I learned about leadership as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. In my opinion it’s so important to have your natural leaders as the captains of your team, not necessarily your top players. There is a big difference. Great players don’t always make great leaders. In Edmonton we had both and that was a big reason why I think we were so successful. Great leaders get everybody involved. Even though I was a role player, the ‘20th man’ on the roster as I used to consider myself, the leaders on the team made me feel very, very important. I really appreciated that and as a result, I wanted to work hard for them.
I have a unique perspective on captains. As a player I wore it in junior and then later wore the A for the Cincinnati Stingers in the WHA. Later, as a coach, I quickly learned just how important they are. Captains were very, very important to me when I coached. I firmly believe that you’re not going to win anything as a team without a great captain. To be chosen it’s both an honor as well as a sign of respect. It means you’re a leader. The teams that I coached I always picked the captain. I’m always surprised when I hear about a situation where the players picked their captain. In my opinion it’s way too important of a decision to let the players vote. Friends vote for friends and then it becomes a popularity contest. Not good. Your captain isn’t your most liked guy on the team, it’s your most respected guy on the team. I think it’s very important that when the captain gets up and speaks that he doesn’t care if the guys like him or not. Good captains get up and say what they believe in and what they believe is best for the team. Again, it’s much more important that the captain is respected rather than liked.
When I was coaching the guy I picked to by the captain was an extension of myself. I felt that the captain had to believe in the same things I believed in as the coach. He was the guy I depended on to say the right thing at the right time. He was a guy I expected to make the right decisions outside the rink. If the guys were out late screwing around for a road trip, I’d expect him to grab them and remind them that curfew was in 15 minutes. He had to make tough decisions, many of which are very unpopular, and then stand by them. Most importantly though, he was the guy I depended on to be my voice in the dressing room. That’s VERY important to a coach. If he didn’t agree with everything I said, I told him that we could talk about together in private, to discuss it. But it was VERY important that we NEVER disagree with each other in front of the players. We were a unified front, no matter what.
When I took over as the head coach in L.A. in ‘93 Wayne Gretzky was already wearing the C. He injured his back in training camp that season though, and we didn’t know when he was coming back. So I named Luc Robitaille as my captain and it turned out to be one of the smartest moves I ever made because he really thrived under the C. It made him a better player. In fact he set a record that year for goals by a left winger with 63. He just became a different guy with that C on and really emerged as a team leader. It was an amazing transformation. Wayne wound up coming back midway through the year and of course I gave him the C back. Luc was cool with that too, which was very classy on his part. Wayne was one of the greatest captains in NHL history, so out of respect I did what I felt was right. I was worried if it would upset the team chemistry but it didn’t at all. In fact, Wayne came back refreshed and invigorated and wound up leading us all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals that year. We wound up losing to Montreal but it was an amazing run we put together down the stretch.
What can you say about Wayne Gretzky? He played so hard every single night and just made everybody around him better. He played on the road, he played at home, he scored points at will on anybody and everybody — they call him “The Great One” for a reason. He loved to practice, he loved to be with the guys, he was great with the media, and he just loved to play hockey. As a captain he commanded respect. I mean when the best player on the planet with a handful of Stanley Cup rings stands up in the dressing room, people listen. The guy was just unbelievable. It was a real privilege to be his coach.
When I was the GM I would talk it over with my coach and we would make the selection together. You can’t just pick the best player, nor can you just pick the most popular player. As for who we chose, we wanted someone who we felt had the respect of his teammates. We wanted somebody who was committed to winning. We wanted someone who could be a liaison between management and the players, and would help us facilitate a proper working relationship together. We wanted someone who we knew was going to work extremely hard every time he was out on the ice, in practices and in games, to lead by example. There were a lot of different criteria that we wanted so it was no easy task. You had better do your homework on that guy though before you put the C on his jersey, because the microscope will be on him at all times. You need the right guy for that role, it’s extremely important.
Nowadays you see coaches rotating the C and rewarding different players and what not, I never cared for that approach. I think you need to do your homework and then go with one guy. That’s your leader. Period. The reality is the guys in the locker room know who the captain is whether he’s got a C on his jersey or not. Your veteran players, the guys who lead by example, they are the ones who are the most respected players on the team. When things go wrong and the sh– hits the fan, those are the guys they all turn to.
I’m the coach and general manager of a junior team nowadays, on top of also coaching my son’s peewee team. Choosing captains is really important, even at these levels. For me character is everything. I’ve never felt that the best player on the team should be the captain. Rather, I think the captain should be the best leader on the team. You have to find the RIGHT guy for the job. You need a guy who has the ability to say “jump on my back” or “follow me.” Finding the guy with the right personality and character is tough, but oh so important. It’s hard almost to describe, those intangible qualities, you just know it when you see it. Leadership is key. The guy I’ve already picked out to be the captain on next year’s team is being recruited to play hockey at West Point Military Academy. He embodies leadership and I know he’s going to be a great captain for us. So it really matters who you pick. That guy sets the tone and leads by example at every practice and in every game. He’s YOUR guy. You can see teams over history who make a poor selection as captain, it really has a negative effect on the hockey club.
When choosing it should be the general manager and coach who decide, NOT the players. The C is not a popularity contest, it’s serious business. You can get input from the players but at the end of the day it has to come from management. You need to be comfortable with YOUR guy. He’s your liaison between our office and the locker room, so you have to be able to trust him. That’s key. We need him to be able to convey our message in there, otherwise we’re not going anywhere in a hurry. Once you get that guy, then you pick your assistants — collectively that becomes your “leadership group.” Every team has them, and they’re critical to the success of your team.
There are SO many important characteristics that go into finding a good captain, but it all depends on your team that season. It all depends. It might not be your best player, or even your best leader, and it can’t be a fourth line player who gets eight minutes a night either. You really have to ask these tough questions and weigh all your options. Maybe you look over your roster and say to heck with it, and you just go out and trade for the guy you want or sign him as a free agent. That’s a possibility too. You can never limit your options. You might ask a guy to be your captain and that guy might turn you down because he feels like the “real” captain, the leader the players look up to and respect, is already in the locker room. That happens too. He doesn’t want to step on anyone’s toes and cause drama, so he’ll just respectfully decline. I’ve seen that too. You just never know with this stuff.
You have to really dissect what’s your structure’s like. Do you have a young team? Or is it a veteran team? What do you need from your captain? Do you need a guy who can pass the message along to the players from management the right way? Do you want somebody who’s just gonna be a rah-rah guy? Do you want a hard-ass who’s gonna get after guys and hold them accountable in the locker room? Do you need a guy who’s going to work his ass off in practice every day and lead by example? Do you want a young guy who you can groom into the role? And if so do you have the veterans on the roster to help teach him how to become a leader? If not, then it won’t work. Do you want an older guy who can show the kids how to be a professional when it comes to preparation and training in the weight room? Maybe you want a tough guy? Or a really intense guy? Do you want a guy who’s really polished with the media? Or do you want a guy who can do all of these things? Good luck finding that guy!
I’ve had some good ones over the years. In St. Louis we had Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger, who did a great job for us. And then in Hartford I had Davey Keon, who was a great captain in his own right. Look, if you have a natural leader like Al MacInnis on your roster, consider yourself extremely lucky. Guys like that don’t come around very often. What that does is it frees you up to make some other decisions, like who’s going to wear the A’s. Maybe you can do a good-cop, bad-cop. Or give an A to an up-and-comer, or to a veteran who’s going to be your rah-rah guy in the locker room. Either way, when you have a great captain in place it really gives you a lot of flexibility from a coaching standpoint.
As the coach or general manager, these are the questions you need to ask before the start of every season. Yes, it’s THAT important. Trust me. There’s a LOT of discussion and thought process that goes into this. Timing is everything with this stuff but you can’t screw it up or it will come back to bight you. If you don’t get the right guy who can get you to the next level, it could set the entire organization back for years. I’ve spent many a night asking myself and my staff these questions, analyzing the date over and over, and as the older and smart I get — it still never gets any easier.
Having been on the coaching side now and being a part of the selection process for wears the C, that has given me a different perspective about it. As an assistant coach with the Minnesota Wild we selected a captain on a monthly basis. Because we were an expansion team, Jacques (Lemaire) thought this would be a good way to get more guys into roles of leadership, as opposed to just naming one guy. When you had one guy, like most teams do, you live and die with that guy. That doesn’t always work out, so we wanted to try something different. We would use it as a motivational tool, to reward guys and honor them for playing well. Every month or two we’d all sit down and hash it out, and it wasn’t something that we took lightly either. It was usually a four hour meeting, followed by a dinner conversation, concluded over breakfast. We’d finally all agree on who we wanted to pick as a coaching staff and then Jacques would change his mind, so we would have to start all over again. It was fascinating to see how it would change guys, and boost their confidence out on the ice. Just to see their eyes light up when they saw the C on their jersey for the first time, that was special. Some guys would get real emotional about it. I will never forget when we put it on Wes Walz. He hit the ice and was so fired up that he sprinted a victory lap. The guys went nuts, so it became an instant tradition. From that moment on, whenever a new captain was announced he would take a lap around the rink while his teammates cheered him on. It was a lot of fun. I think the biggest thing for me is that your captain doesn’t necessarily have to be the best player on the team. Your best player might be your top scorer but that doesn’t mean he’s your best leader, so it’s important to make that distinction. Players lead in different ways and as a coaching staff it’s up to you to find the guys who best represent what you are trying to accomplish as a team. We really mixed it up, heck, one time we gave it to Matt Johnson (an enforcer) and that was an extremely popular pick amongst the players. He was such a well liked guy and would do anything for his teammates, so in that instance it went over extremely well. Other guys like Brad Bombardir and Brian Rolston, they wore it for longer stretches. There was no rhyme or reason to it, we would just use it as a reward, or to mix things up. We wanted to develop team leaders and this was a great way for us to do it. The press always wants to talk to the captain when things aren’t going well, so this was an opportunity for them to deal with those types of things as well. For a month or two, that guy was the team’s “figure-head” or spokesman, which some guys enjoyed being and others didn’t. The bottom line with it for us was that it was going to be used as something positive and rewarding that would ultimately bring the guys together in a productive way.
Believe me, as the head coach finding the right captain was very important. It sets the tone right out of the gates, so you have to get the right guy in there who’s going to help execute your game plan. I was one of those coaches who used to let the players vote on who they thought the captain should be, but then I’d count the votes! I wanted to make sure I had MY guy in there. I always felt that if you had a real strong personality on your team and he was obviously the leader in the locker room, then you needed to do whatever you had to do to get the C on that guy’s jersey. I’d lean on the older guys to find out who “that guy” was. It wasn’t a popularity contest though. You weren’t looking for the most liked guy, you were looking for the most respected guy. Big difference. You wanted someone the other guys would follow. The key though, was to make sure that guy was a hard worker in practice and that he would set a good example. If you pick a guy that didn’t do those things, it would all blow up in your face.
It’s important because he was your go-between, your liaison between the organization and the locker room. If there was a problem within the rank and file, maybe a little squabbling going on, I needed to know about it. So I needed to be able to trust that guy, and visa versa, so that he’d be able to talk to me openly and candidly about it. Hell, a really good captain might even tell you, the head coach, when you were getting out of line and screwing up. I appreciated that too, I really did, because sometimes during that long grind of a season you can lose your way. The coach and the team captain have to have a strong, positive relationship. He’s the guy you wind up sitting next to on busses and planes and at breakfast quite a bit, so he might as well be somebody you like — at least that’s how I saw it.
I had some great captains when I was coaching the North Stars. Paul Shmyr wore it when I first got there in the late ‘70s, and he led us all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in ‘81 — where we ultimately lost to the Islanders. Oh boy, that one still stings. Paul was the social chairman of the group, always making sure to get everybody together for dinner and drinks on the road, stuff like that. To pay for the “party fund” he even set up a mock tribunal system for the players whenever they would do something wrong. He was the judge and the players would all serve as the jury. Paul would present the case and then everybody would vote, thumbs-up or thumbs-down. If a guy took a bad penalty or didn’t work hard in practice or whatever, they’d throw him on trial! If he lost, and believe me they ALL LOST, they had to pay a fine — which then went into the beer fund. I even got put up for trial once when I sent the team bus to the wrong arena in Vancouver one time. I pleaded my case and tried to blame it on the bus driver but they made me pay up anyway!
It was a neat tradition and the guys loved it. Fun, silly stuff like that builds team chemistry, it’s really important. And, it forced the guys to be accountable too, which is extremely important. As the coach you don’t want to waste your time dealing with the petty stuff like that, so if you have a captain who deal with those things it’s a big help. Paul was just a natural leader and was really a great help to our coaching staff. He unfortunately signed with Hartford as a free agent that next year so I gave it to Tim Young. Great kid but had a bunch of injuries that year so I wound up giving the C to Craig Hartsburg. Craig was a great fit and wore the C for us for the next six seasons. He was an outstanding captain. He was a really hard worker and the guys trusted him. Once you get a guy like that who you like, you leave him alone and let him do his thing. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke!