A 'C' of responsibility
There may not be a more pressure-filled role in the National Hockey League than that of team captain.
Yet, it is a role that most every player that pulls on an NHL sweater aspires to reach one day.
To wear the "C" on your sweater is an honor that few outside of hockey understand. Captains, if present at all in other sports, are mostly ceremonial figureheads. Not so in hockey, where they often become near mythical figures entrusted with an almost overwhelming amount of responsibility.
On the ice, the captain rules supreme. He is entrusted with dealing with the on-ice officials and he becomes the conduit between referee and head coach in most cases. Off the ice, he is often the team's primary spokesman to the media; and a good captain is always the team's conscience.
In essence, the man named captain of an organization becomes the face of that organization to outsiders.
"It's quite an accomplishment (to become captain)," says Mike O'Connell, the general manager of the Boston Bruins. "No other sport really recognizes a captain like hockey."
O'Connell should know. His team wrestled long and hard before naming 23-year-old center Joe Thornton as Boston's new captain this summer. Thornton replaced Jason Allison, who was captain for a year before he was traded to Los Angeles. Allison, meanwhile, had replaced Ray Bourque, who was Bruins' captain for more than a dozen years.
During Bourque's tenure as captain, there was no doubt that the all-everything defenseman was the face of the Bruins. His quiet, workmanlike way became the trademark of the Bruins during that span. It has been that way for every great captain in the League.
Just think about today's highest-profile captains.
Mark Messier, captain of the New York Rangers in 1994, used his steely gaze and take-no-prisoners attitude to will his team to the Stanley Cup that season. Today, at 41, he remains the face of that Original Six franchise in his second tenure as team captain.
Steve Yzerman, the longest-running current captain in the NHL, epitomizes the grace and courage the Detroit Red Wings showed in claiming the 2002 Stanley Cup. Despite being out all this year with a knee injury, Yzerman's presence still carries the team in its defense of that championship.
Scott Stevens, the hard-as-nails captain of the New Jersey Devils, has laid his body on the line through each of the team's two championship seasons. Today, he remains the essence of what it means to be a part of that proud organization.
Each of those players earned the ultimate reward of being an NHL captain -- being the first player on his team to raise the Stanley Cup after the traditional presentation from Commissioner Gary Bettman.
Michael Peca has reawakened the New York Islanders' spirit since his arrival in a trade from Buffalo, where he captained the Sabres to the 1999 Eastern Conference title. Mats Sundin, after a rough start to his captaincy, has emerged as the focal point of an always competitive Maple Leafs squad performing under the never-ending scrutiny of the franchise's rabid fans.
Owen Nolan has presided over San Jose's transformation from an expansion also-ran to one of the Western Conference's elite teams. Veteran Dave Andreychuk is leading what appears to be a similar resurgence in Tampa Bay. Vancouver's Markus Naslund, meanwhile, has grown into his captaincy at the same time the Canucks have grown into their role as Western Conference giant killers.
Despite the differences the above men have, both as players and as people, there are certain traits that distinguish captains from other players.