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Defining Leadership

Bill Meltzer takes a look back at Captain's Night through the eyes of three leaders

by Bill Meltzer @NHLFlyers / http://www.philadelphiaflyers.com

While leadership comes from multiple players uniting to enforce mutual accountability and keep the team on the same page, it certainly helps to have a take-charge figure holding the captaincy. Throughout the history of the organization and even apart from the iconic Bob Clarke - widely considered not just the top captain in team history but of the best leaders the National Hockey League has ever seen the Flyers have had a series of strong leaders serve as the captain.

Inaugural captain Lou Angotti, vital 1980s leader Dave Poulin and Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Pronger were three such men. Speaking before Captains' Heritage Night, at which Clarke, Bill Barber and Eric Lindros were also honored, Angotti, Poulin and Pronger spoke candidly about the qualities that make for good leadership and how the role of captain has changed over time.

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As a brand-new expansion team entering the National Hockey League in 1967-68, the Philadelphia Flyers needed to establish an identity. The team tabbed two-way forward Angotti, whom they selected from the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1967 Expansion Draft, to serve as its first captain.

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"I've been asked a number of times about being a captain then, as compared to today. I really don't think there's a real comparison. There's so many younger players coming into the league now, coming out of junior that fortunately talk about leadership. A lot of those kids need the kind of direction with regard to living on their own, playing in the schedule and the traveling," Angotti recounted.

"My first year here in Philadelphia, we had NHL players that came here, and some outstanding American [Hockey] League players, all living on their own, taking care of themselves, going through the experience of traveling and taking care of one's self without needing direction from someone else. My situation in Philadelphia was relatively easy. The players always took great care of themselves. They didn't need me at all, really. I don't know why they voted me in but they didn't need me at all."

Video: Pronger, Angotti & Poulin on being captain

Poulin became the Flyers captain in 1984-85. Originally, veteran star Darryl Sittler was slated to become the Flyers captain, but the plan changed after the Flyers traded Sittler to the Detroit Red Wings.

In many ways, Poulin's tenure as Flyers captain was nearly as remarkable as Clarke's first stint. The team reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1984-85 and 1986-87, falling just one win shy of the championship in '87 and posted 100 or more points in the regular season three straight seasons. 

As the central figure in the Flyers' leadership group, Poulin helped keep players unified despite grumbling over the tyrannical ways of head coach "Iron" Mike Keenan. In the fall of 1985, Poulin comforted his teammates and kept them focused after the death of Pelle Lindbergh (while dealing with his own grief at the loss of his close friend). Twice, Poulin played in the playoffs wearing a flak jacket to protect broken ribs. In 1989, with Paul Holmgren at the helm as head coach, the Flyers reached Game 6 of the Wales Conference Final.

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While, in recent years, the concept of a "strong leadership group" has become something of a buzz phrase around pro hockey, Poulin points out that it has always existed. However, the way it comes about has changed somewhat since his playing days.

"The coach gets the guys in he wants in now. That's probably more than anything. They were ad hoc then. The right people were doing it because they wanted to be a part of it," said Poulin, who has also seen the game from the collegiate coaching and NHL assistant general manager chairs.

"When I was named captain, it was my second year in the league. The leadership groom in that room was really strong. Brad Marsh had been a captain. Brad McCrimmon was a great leader. Mark Howe was there. You had a lot of guys and a lot of help, and you needed that help. A lot of nights we were battling the coach as well back then."

During Clarke's seminal first tenure as Flyers captain, the players on the team revered head coach Fred Shero and, even if they were sometimes bemused by his idiosyncrasies, wholeheartedly bought into his methods of coaching the team. In the 1980s, that was not always the case with Keenan. Poulin, however, believes that the tensions with Keenan ultimately had a bonding effect.

"Mike Keenan, in a way, forced our group together. But the leadership in that room was really, really strong. Those guys were so helpful, all of them. You mentioned Craven, Ronnie Sutter, Rick Tocchet became a leader with that young group. It was by committee then, it happened to be the one guy who had the "C" on," Poulin recalled.

Pronger's tenure as Flyers captain lasted only during the 2011-12 season until he suffered a serious eye injury and related post-concussion issues. However, as a long-established superstar with a strong voice in the locker room, he was an integral part of the Flyers' leadership core throughout his stay in Philadelphia. A leader with two of his previous teams as well, Pronger opined that the basic elements of leadership are universal even if the specifics vary from team-to-team and situation to situation.

"I think it's patience, it's understanding the schedule, the process of getting your team better with each and every game, being patient with results, and ultimately it's building each and every game on top of one another and getting that full buy-in from the group," Pronger said. 

Before Shero introduced the concept of full-time assistant coaches to the NHL, teams had only one man behind the bench. This was the case when Angotti was the Flyers' captain under Keith Allen. Nowadays, there are many more layers of coaches who perform different functions. 

Nevertheless, the captain remains a crucial liaison (and, often, advocate) for the players in his relationship with the bench boss. As Pronger noted, keeping the members of the team on the same page, is also an important of the role that has stood the test of time.

"I looked at it then, it's similar now in one sense. One characteristic I would look for in a captain is someone that can be a liaison with the coach and act as a buffer at the right time. I laugh because I always think the three most important minutes of a coach's life are the three minutes after he walks out of the locker room. What takes charge of that room? Who says something next? If it's positive or negative. If it's negative, who stands up to that? I think the relationship the captain has with the coach is really important," Poulin said.

Angotti concurred wholeheartedly. 

"I can't agree with you more because I think when I go back to when I walked in, in the 60s. What Dave just said about a liaison between a captain and a coach, we did everything they told us to do. We didn't have players that came out publicly. It's great for the press to get all these guys coming out making all these quotes and everything, but we never did anything like that. If we weren't happy with the coach, or we weren't happy with the way things were going, we never said anything. Nobody said anything, even the outstanding, the great players didn't do it. It just was not something you did. You didn't need anybody to talk for you because nobody talked. Nobody expressed themselves. If you didn't like what was going on, that was your problem."

Regardless of the letter on his sweater, Pronger was never one to mince words and was not shy to speak out when he felt it necessary. However, there were times he served as a "translator" of sorts to turn coach-speak into something the team could digest.

"We used to laugh. We used to say that the coach actually speaks a different language and when he left, here's what the interpretation was. We just put it in the words we wanted rather than some of the words we heard," Pronger recalled.

While trends have come and gone in on-ice systems and factors such as salaries in general and the salary cap have altered the way players interact with one another and the coaches, Poulin believes that the greatly increased complexity of the game is something that could eventually be scaled down again to some degree.

"It's hard in many ways to use the word coach without the word 'over' in front of it right now. That's just the trend it's gone. With the football coaches, we used to laugh and those guys we used to call them 'graph paper' coaches. There had to be someone in every little square. The beauty of our sport was it wasn't like that. It was more of an impromptu sport. I think it's cyclical. I think it's gone that way and I think it'll come back that way, too," Poulin said

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