If you want your hockey team to win the Stanley Cup (or Calder Cup, or Kelly Cup, and all the way on down), it helps an awful lot to have a captain. Not like, a guy who wears the letter “C” on his chest, but a captain. If you don’t have a legit guy for the job, there’s no point in faking it.

The Philadelphia Flyers are currently without their big dog Chris Pronger. Pronger is a captain in every sense of the word – for one, he actually has the official title, what with wearing the “C” and all. But all that thing means is ”I get to talk to refs without getting yelled at” (this matters less in the NHL than any other level – NHL refs are reasonable with almost everyone). But more importantly, he’s a commanding personality, a demanding, competitive person, and he’s capable of leading with both his play and his words.

So with him out for the year, the question is: do they slap the “C” on someone else’s chest for the remainder of the season? So far they’ve been rotating “A’s” around (which has been working pretty well), recently including Scott Hartnell in the mix.

For my money, they’re doing the right thing.

Let’s take a look at what the responsibilities of a captain are, and why it “faking it” with a pseudo-captain does your team no good.

A captain’s role

Communicate the team’s needs to coach

Being an NHL coach is like being a boss in any other line of work. While you’d like your players to like you, you can’t be their friends. There’s no showing up to parties, there’s no gossip talk, and there’s no after work pub time. There has to be some division there so coaches can maintain their authority.

That means that coaches often don’t have a finger on the pulse of the team – if something is problematic, the captain is to be his liaison (“Torts, the guys are about to put bars of soap in their pillow cases and beat Avery, may be time to send him to the Whale”). And, when the team has a complaint, (“Our plane just landed and it’s midnight. A 9 a.m. morning skate means we’re going to get five hours sleep – you gotta get that thing cancelled for us man”) they need to have a guy who will go to bat for the boys.

Sense when team lulls are coming, get out in front of them

You’ve probably heard them referred to as “trap games.” A team battles its butt off on the road against two top teams, gets some points, and returns home to play a garbage team….only to give up the two points. While most guys operate day-to-day, captains need to sense when the team needs a kick in the ass, provide it verbally, then match it on the ice.

Lead by example

That “match it on the ice” talk is crucial. If your captain’s words become hollow, he’s useless.

Speak when necessary

If the captain’s words do carry weight, he has to be careful not to over-use them. Coaches do this, and suddenly we’re hearing “He just lost the team” during the we-just-fired-our-coach press conference.

You can’t fathom how many “Let’s go boys” happen over the course of an 82 game season. That phrase is worthless. A good captain should be able to actually say something when he speaks.

Be consistent

I don’t care how great a speaker a player who falls into the “enigma” category is, he can’t lead. You need to be able to count on a captain night in, night out.

In the end, everyone is responsible for preparing themselves. But a captain can help squeeze the extra drops of juice out of the fruit that makes all the difference at the final buzzer.

***

When teams don’t have a guy like this – and probably a third of the teams don’t – they still hand out a “C”. You kinda have to.

So when you have a guy wearing the “C” who can’t live up those things above, it’s no good because…

There’s some prestige that comes with wearing the “C”. When it’s not deserved, players resent it

When you have multiple guys that could wear the “C” (meaning they’ve played in the league long enough to justify it), guys tend to get annoyed at the extra attention and status given to someone who’s not worth a lick more in the dressing room or on the ice. Jealousy is a very real thing. That’s never a good way for a team to get rolling.

Fake C’s can overstep their bounds and try to do too much

This is the biggest problem. A guy gets a “C” and suddenly feels like he has to be an assistant coach. He speaks up between every intermission, he harps on guys at practice, and generally alienates himself from the team. I’m not proud to say I’ve done this. It takes awhile to realize that sometimes, less is more.

It makes your team feel hollow

When you have a real captain, you know that your team can be pushed and pushed without giving in. With the pseudo-C, there’s always the feeling that your team is a hollow chocolate egg three months after Easter, and if you get pushed enough, you’ll collapse.

***

Some teams just give the “C” to their best player, like it’s better for jersey sales or something. The guys in the room know who they follow, and in the case of, say, Alex Ovechkin, they’re okay with him wearing it (whether it’s “token” or not) because of his status. Still, it’s odd having a “C” for the public, and a different one in the room.

The point here is that for a team like Philadelphia, they can survive without giving somebody the temporary ”C”. All the guys with letters can still talk to the ref, so it’s not like you put your team at a disadvantage by not assigning someone Pronger’s title. And not to mention, there’s something grimy about assigning a new captain, like Pronger was never a part of the group. He’s either the captain or not – whether he can play or not shouldn’t change his status as a member of that team.

There’s thousands of ways to lead a team. With the way hockey playoffs go, more-so than any other sport, it’s sure a lot easier to win when you have a captain who can choose one of them and execute it effectively.

Comments (2)

  1. Hi Justin,

    Would you consider Phaneuf to be a Captain, or just a guy wearing the letter ‘C’? I hear rumors that he’s a lot more vocal in the dressing room, but aside from what little he gives to the media (don’t want to fault him just because he gives a bad interview), and the humble opinions of his distinguished peers (Hartnell, Ferraro) I can’t say I know anything about the guy. Unlike, say, Clark, Gilmour or Sundin who even the casual Leaf fan could probably write bios about.

    That said, do you think the Leafs would be better served with someone more media friendly, like Joffrey Lupul as Captain?

  2. Fun read, and good to hear the insight, love these kinda posts. How important is it for the C to be able to get along with and have a relationship with every teammate? Probably different answers for different leagues, but curious how much a guy like Pronger really has a relationship and understanding of a guy like Couterier and if that really even matters. I see locker rooms as possibly having a very clique-like feeling at times and imagine the “C’ has to be the one gets along with pretty much every group. I assume its much more important for College and Junior versus professional “grown adults”.

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