Sitting squarely in last place in the Eastern Conference and clearly out of a playoff position, hockey’s version of March Madness for those who qualify as Carolina Hurricanes’ fans was sure to be a painful and unenviable experience.
Almost unavoidable is the exodus of certain players in the final year of their contracts – some of whom raised the Stanley Cup proudly for the Canes in 2006 – who will be flying out of town soon. They’ll be attempting to land their names on hockey’s Holy Grail with a playoff contender in exchange for players or draft picks, or a combination, in GM Jim Rutherford’s grand plan to rebuild what has turned into the rubble of 2009-10.
But the first rebuilding effort for the Canes didn’t involve a jettison out of Raleigh-Durham International Airport. For the lack of a better term, it was an “Inside the Beltline” move in which Rutherford named Eric Staal the team captain, reassigning the slumping Rod Brind’Amour to alternate captain and signaling an new era for a franchise that since landing in the RBC
Center has experienced either postseason feast or famine.
Staal, a 25-year-old rising star and Olympian in a league loaded with great young talent, has been through his own struggles this season, fighting off nagging injuries while expecting to justify his huge contract extension and deal with a major life-altering issue on the home front with the recent death of his sister-in-law from cancer.
Having taken a personal leave of absence from the team for the funeral, it was unclear if Staal would return soon since Rutherford told his star forward to “take his time” and return when he was ready to perform. It would have been easier for Staal to remain in Canada and meet the club in Toronto for a road game, but he spent a full day traveling on connecting flights to get back to Raleigh for a night game against Ottawa. Staal scored in a 4-1 victory. With adjoining lockers, Brind’Amour likely turned to Staal after the victory and uttered the words “you’re ready.”
Being the captain in hockey trumps wearing the “C” in all other team sports, and it’s difficult to know when a player is “ready” to assume the importance and significance of such an honor. On the surface, Staal looks the part. He’s the team’s best player, his best years are ahead of him, his ironman status prior to an injury this season was truly impressive, and despite his meek exterior, he has an underbelly for winning. Only one player in the room may take losing harder than Staal and that’s Brind’Amour.
It appeared the Canes decided to give Brindy 20 games to “turn around” his play from a season ago, and when it didn’t come together, his ice time diminished to a speck of ice shavings from a Zamboni. Leading from the locker room and ice is one thing, leading from the locker room and your fanny is another.
The bench is no place for a captain of a hockey team and all parties involved were man enough to realize a change was necessary, and on many fronts, expected.
It still doesn’t make it any easier for Brind’Amour, a 21-year NHL veteran with the work ethic of a race horse and pride of a stallion, or for the loyal fans of No. 17. It has been hard for all of us to watch the stride fade and the touch around the net go awry.
I kept struggling in the locker room to hear any sort of negative comment coming from Brind’Amour, and while my eyesight may be fading some, my hearing remains razor sharp, and there was none forthcoming. Knowing the man on a personal level, it didn’t surprise me one bit.
Rod has always been about character and team first – with individual accomplishments off in the horizon. In fact, I throw in a replay of the Cup-winning game at least once a year to “get that feeling again” and shake my head watching Brind’Amour with Cup in tow, barely taking a few strides before looking to hand it off to teammate Glen Wesley. Nothing typifies Rod more, having been traded from Philly 10 years ago for a player who was more worried about his contract with the Canes than the bottom line of building a winner in this market.
With Brind’Amour blowing away all his teammates in the preseason conditioning drills, there was hope that at 39 years old, a 75-point season was still possible. However, there were more encouraging words of “hang in there” than “congrats” after wins, which have been few and far between, and despite the discomfort of a mid-season move like this, we all can agree it was time.
It’s no accident Staal was placed next to Francis, and then Brind’Amour, squarely in the middle of the Canes locker room, since Carolina drafted him second overall in 2003. Could Staal have possibly learned from two better stewards of the game?
Superstition aside, the 13th captain of the franchise is ready, willing and able to lead the recovery from the rubble.
And for No. 17, a recent talk with him about the team’s “Moments of the Decade” revealed that Brind’Amour is at peace with memories of a lifetime produced in a Canes uniform, which should make the passing of the leadership torch less painful and maybe the most tolerable of all the moves forthcoming.