To help celebrate NBC Rivalry Night, NHL.com will look at a rivalry within the rivalry of the featured game on Wednesday nights. For this week we're analyzing the captains, Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, trying to determine which team has a more influential leader.
Jonathan Toews had to learn how to be a captain in the National Hockey League on his own. He didn't have a mentor.
The Chicago Blackhawks’ captain before Toews was Martin Lapointe, who was traded midway through Toews' rookie season. Toews was named captain as a second-year pro. He was 20 years old, the third-youngest team captain in NHL history behind Sidney Crosby and Vincent Lecavalier.
Steve Yzerman was the Red Wings’ captain during Zetterberg's first three seasons in the NHL (2002-06). Nicklas Lidstrom wore the “C” after Yzerman retired before he hung up his skates following the 2011-12 season.
That's when the door opened for Zetterberg. He was 32 years old when he was named captain on Jan. 15, 2013.
Toews and Zetterberg will skate against each other as captains for the fourth time in the regular season and first time in 2013-14 when the Red Wings play the Blackhawks at Joe Louis Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN). The Blackhawks won all four meetings last season, including one in overtime and two in a shootout. Zetterberg missed one of those games.
Since we're examining their merits as captain, we sought the opinions of some of the players they lead. Here are firsthand accounts from Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg and Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith, followed by our verdict as to which team has the more influential captain right now and why:
VERSTEEG ON TOEWS
Versteeg was with the Blackhawks when Toews was named captain prior to the 2008-09 season through their first of two championships in this era. He left Chicago after winning the Cup in 2010 and bounced from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Philadelphia Flyers and finally to the Florida Panthers. He returned earlier this season in a trade, so he talked about the differences between Toews at 20 and now at 25:
"When he was named captain, you looked at him as this 20-year-old kid and I think he might have been a little overwhelmed at the start. I remember him standing up in the room and asking everyone to help him out. He was kind of taken aback by the whole responsibility of being a captain in a NHL market, especially somewhere like Chicago.
"To see how he grew over the first few years I was here, to winning a Stanley Cup, and then watching him as an outsider you see how much respect he has throughout the League. I've played on a few different teams these last few years and every time we'd play [the Blackhawks] everyone would always talk about him, the type of player he is and the type of captain they hear he is.
"I think he has an aura about him and a myth about his leadership, but if you've played with him it's definitely no myth. He's the real deal. I come back now and instead of this little kid standing in the middle of the room pleading for help, you have this confident young man there now."
Versteeg said Toews is now the exact type of confident person he always thought he could become.
"At 20, you have a different kind of confidence; it's more cockiness than confidence. You have to learn to be that confident player no matter what circumstance is thrown at you. I've seen Jon grow a lot. How far he's come -- it hasn't surprised me at all, but it impresses me. You look at your own self and what you can do. You see the amount of time he puts into his own game every summer and the amount of effort, whether we have a day off and how he takes care of himself, it all goes into being a great leader. Not only that, he's not scared to go hang out with the guys and have fun too. He's not a one-trick pony. He'll put a team party together and make sure everyone is part of it."
SMITH ON ZETTERBERG
Brendan Smith started his career with Lidstrom as the team captain and Zetterberg as an alternate. He has witnessed the transition in Detroit from one veteran Swede to another. He also has seen the transformation in Zetterberg from alternate to captain, which he talks about below:
"I think for 'Z' he was always a leader even when Nicklas Lidstrom was here, but Nick obviously took full control and was the ultimate leader. Once Nick Lidstrom retired and 'Z' stepped in, it's like he took on a whole new level. He really put the team on his back. You saw that last year in the playoffs. He really was the force and especially more this year with more younger guys and having a lot of call-ups and rookies, he's one of the only guys who has been so consistent every night and every practice. He's playing 20-plus minutes in every situation and he leads by example."
Smith said Zetterberg has been more vocal since he took over the captaincy.
"I think he's been more vocal than Nick was. I didn't see him being as vocal [before]. He would chip in with a few words, but now with the 'C' he's been more vocal after the games. I'm not sure if that's because we do have a lot of younger guys, but it's helped our club for sure. People wrote us off last year and we ended up making the playoffs and making a push. He was very vocal through that. If you watch him, he's bringing in it every shift, every time he's on the ice. That to me what a truly leader. If you look at Nick, that's what he did and 'Z' has done that his whole career."
It helps, Smith said, to have a veteran captain on a team that appears to be in transition with a lot of young players.
"They've been around. They've done it. I can't say just Hank the whole time, we have Kronner [Nicklas Kronwall] and Pav [Pavel Datsyuk]. Kronner is very vocal and he helps the 'D' a lot, but having an older leadership core with Danny Cleary and Bert [Todd Bertuzzi], it does help our younger guys. I know a bunch of those young forwards look up to hank so every time he says something everybody listens.
"He's just a phenomenal captain, and arguably the best captain in the League."
Zetterberg is a proven veteran and one of the most respected players not only in Detroit, but in the entire NHL. He worked for his captaincy and earned it.
However, in a short period of time Toews has become a face for the resurgence of hockey in Chicago, a face for the NHL, and a face for hockey in Canada.
Toews has led the Blackhawks to two Stanley Cup championships, and they are arguably the top contender to win it again this season. In addition, Toews will be an alternate captain at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Granted, Toews has had more of an opportunity to make his mark as a captain than Zetterberg, and overall he has a better team to work with. But what he has been able to accomplish at 25 years old is nothing short of remarkable, so he gets the edge in this week's rivalry within the rivalry.
"As all great players are, they want their legacy to live on," Versteeg said. "He takes that part serious."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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