Perhaps the most revered role in all of team sports, being named team captain is one of the most prestigious honors a player could be awarded. While “captain of the football team” tends to carry with it the negative stereotype of a womanizing man’s man, it is the apex of the high school social pyramid. We all remember the captain of the football team from our childhood years —whether it’s because we resented or revered that person — and we can remember the mystique that surrounded them. The captain of the football team may be the point of reference for our mental picture of a team captain as a society, but for all the athletes and former athletes out there, we can remember nearly every team captain of every team we have ever played on and how they influenced our teams.
Perhaps the most unique of all the major sports captains is the captain of the hockey team, and more specifically, captain of an NHL team. Being named team captain of an NHL team is one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon an individual in sports, if not the highest. The sport of hockey in general is a dynamic, physical game. There is hitting, fighting, finesse and plenty of gamesmanship constantly taking place throughout a game, and the captain is looked upon to set the tone with their play game in and game out.
If you, a casual hockey fan, were to sit down and look at a list of the captains of every NHL team, you may wonder why so-and-so is captain of a team or furthermore not even know who the player is (i.e. Andrew Ladd of Winnipeg or Edmonton’s Shawn Horcoff). To answer the question “why are they the captain?” you have to understand what goes in to being the captain of an NHL team.
The role of captain carries tremendous responsibility and accountability. The captain is truly the engine that drives the team. They are chosen because they are the players who “get it.” The role of being a professional hockey player, the ones who learn their craft, the ones who are always looking to improve themselves and their teammates, the ones who hold themselves and everyone accountable, they are the leaders, whether vocally or by example. A true captain is the heart-and-soul of their team, not necessarily the public face of their team.
To be successful in the NHL as a team, you can’t just have a captain, you have to have the RIGHT captain. The beauty about being the leader of an NHL team is that you don’t have to be the most skilled player, there are different types of players that are awarded the honor, so to better illustrate the importance of the “C”, let’s take a look at the last five Stanley Cup Champions.
2012 Stanley Cup Winning Captain -Dustin Brown- LA Kings
What makes him captain:
Dustin Brown is a classic version of an NHL captain and the cliché “a blood and guts leader” may be the best way to describe him. He brings his lunch pail to work not just every game, but every day, whether it is practice, film study, training camp, etc. He leads by example and is a coach’s dream because he does all the little things well. He blocks shots, finishes his checks, plays well in all three zones and scores timely goals. To succeed in the playoffs and ultimately hoist the Cup, attention to detail is huge, and Brown pays it. He doesn’t have the skills of an Alex Ovechkin or the Sedin twins, but he combines his offensive skill with a fourth line mentality, is never afraid to drop the gloves and will stand up for any of his team mates.
2011 Stanley Cup winning captain – Zdeno Chara – Boston Bruins
What makes him captain:
Chara is a mammoth presence on the Bruins blueline, checking in at 6 feet 9, 255 pounds. He is one of the rare athletes in professional sports that combine immense size with immense talent and athletic ability. He knows how to use his size to his advantage, often utilizing his ridiculous reach to make up for his foot speed and terrorizing opponents skaters, goalies, and I’m sure even his own teammates with the hardest shot in the world. Chara has been in the league for 14 seasons and has played on three teams; he’s seen it all. The calmness of experience and confidence mixed with his extremely unique skill set and his constant work ethic make him a consummate professional and one of the better captains in the league. He can lead by example, but is not afraid to speak up on the bench or in the locker room to help keep goals out of his net and sending them to the back of the opponents.
2010 Stanley Cup winning captain – Jonathan Toews – Chicago Blackhawks
What makes him captain:
The only player on our list to win the Conn Smythe trophy for MVP of the playoffs, Jonathan Toews is the heart and soul of the Chicago Blackhawks. On a star-studded team with the likes of Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, Toews’ star shown the brightest throughout their Cup run and that wasn’t by accident. Known as a quiet leader, Toews is the one who holds everyone accountable by his actions. He pushes the pace in practice, forcing his teammates to perform at their best to get better and he brings it EVERY SHIFT; he scores beautiful and dirty goals alike, and when his team needs a boost, they look to him and he delivers. Lifelong hockey nerds such as myself can see striking similarities between Toews and Hall of Fame Detroit Red Wing, Steve Yzerman. Their quiet demeanor but conversely loud work ethic are nearly identical and their knack for scoring HUGE goals is uncanny. Toews is the youngest captain in the history of the NHL but you wouldn’t know it by the way he plays and carries himself.
2009 Stanley Cup winning captain – Sidney Crosby – Pittsburgh Penguins
What makes him captain:
This one isn’t nearly as difficult to see as some other choices for team captain. Sidney Crosby is not only the face of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but also the face of the NHL and the face of the sport of hockey today. He is the most recognizable name in the game, mainly because of his otherworldly talent and skill and his seemingly infinite list of highlight reel goals. TheKid has scored from his stomach, his rear end, behind the net, but that isn’t what makes him a leader and a captain. Sid is the captain because, despite his overwhelming talent and God-given ability, he understands what is expected of him as a player, and is one of the hardest working, if not THE hardest working player in the game. Growing up in Canada, the attention and scrutiny placed on him from an age as early as nine years old is nearly unimaginable, yet he has always carried himself with class. Not known for fighting in the least, when the time has been right he hasn’t been afraid to drop the gloves. Each year he has focused on improving another aspect of his game, and each time he’s done so, the results have been evident. Mature beyond his years and gifted, he has earned the reputation from his teammates him as an intense competitor and true leader. At the time the Penguins won the Cup, he was the youngest Cup-winning captain, however he was unseated from that spot the following season by Jonathan Toews.
2008 Stanley Cup winning captain – Nicklas Lidstrom – Detroit Red Wings
What makes him captain:
One of my personal favorite hockey players of all time, Nicklas Lidstrom is one of the best captains in the history of the NHL. Recently retired, Lidstrom is a first-ballot hall of famer, playing 20 seasons in Detroit, winning seven Norris Trophies for top defenseman in the league and also a Conn Smythe Trophy. Lidstrom appeared in more than 1,500 NHL games, and posted over 1,100 points as a defenseman. Known as one of the quieter captains when he played, Lidstrom was a master of the little plays as a defenseman: getting the puck deep when he had no play, making tape-to-tape outlet passes from his own end to jumpstart a sometimes insane Red Wings offense and generating offense many times, including scoring his fair share of goals. The best way to describe Lidstrom is that he did all the right things on and off the ice very well.. Always winning and losing with class, always putting in his best effort, always showing younger teammates how to be a good NHL player, Lidstrom will be in the Hall the first time he is eligible, and don’t be surprised when it comes time to retire his jersey in Detroit, an honor he will share with the likes of Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman and Ted Lindsay.
I hope you have enjoyed this trip into understanding the intangibles that it takes to be a captain of an NHL team and why being captain is such an honor in the NHL. In a sport and a league that is high paced, often times physically brutal and always in the spotlight, the captains are the ones who persevere through everything that the game and life can throw at them. They come to work every day and lead by example, doing what is asked of them.. They work hard because they love what they do and put all of their efforts into doing it better each day than the day before. In a game that constantly showcases skill, toughness and physical sacrifice, these guys are the starting point for any franchise to be successful. Whether they have spent their career learning the ropes from players before them and becoming a captain later in their career, or whether they are child prodigies thrust into the spotlight and responsibility at a young age, these players are what makes hockey the best game on earth and to see them put everything out there every time you watch them play is truly inspiring.
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