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'Born leader' Landeskog grows with Avalanche

by Adam Kimelman

Tony Landeskog still has the story saved on his computer, the one he read over and over with his son, Gabriel:

"What it takes to be an NHL captain."

"We just printed that out and read through it," Tony told "It was what personality is important to be a captain."

"Take heart and the ability to be heartless," was the lead to the story by longtime hockey writer Alan Adams. "Add experience and the savvy to get a message across. Mix in desire and the wherewithal to instill that same desire in others. And blend in a heaping helping of leadership."

Gabriel Landeskog was 12 years old when that article was published, but the qualities Adams described are evident today in Landeskog, now a 22-year-old in his third season as captain of the Colorado Avalanche.

For those who know Landeskog best, it's not surprising he is the captain of an NHL team. That it happened after his first season raised a few eyebrows. But seeing a "C" on the front of his jersey is about as normal as seeing his name on the back of it.

"He's the kind of guy, you look at him and you can tell he'll be playing in the League for a long time," said Jason Akeson, a teammate with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. "When he was named captain of the Avalanche it wasn't a surprise to me at all. He's a good player. He seems to have always been a leader everywhere he's gone and played. I was really happy for him that he did get that chance to be the captain of a team. Just happy that I got the chance to play with him too."

Since Landeskog was 12, he has been the captain of most of his teams.

"It's nothing he has tried to achieve," Tony Landeskog said. "It's been natural for him."

Tony played professional hockey in Sweden for nine seasons and said he was a captain most of the time he played.

But father and son never talked about what leadership meant, mostly because Tony realized Gabriel had things figured out from an early age.

"It's kind of in the genes maybe," Tony said.

Gabriel Landeskog has been captaining hockey
teams since the age of 12. According to his dad
Tony, a former captain, "It's kind of in the genes."

(Click to enlarge) Courtesy: Landeskog family

Gabriel said the first time he was a captain was when he was 12. He went on to captain Sweden's Under-16, Under-17 and Under-18 teams at tournaments across Europe and North America.

"As a captain, I think it says more about you as a person than you as a player," Landeskog said. "And I think that's something that a lot of people take to heart more than getting a compliment that you're a good player."

Aside from the leadership, high-end production has always been a hallmark of Landeskog's game.

As a 15-year-old during the 2007-08 season he helped the Under-18 team for Swedish club Djurgarden win a league championship. That season he also played for the club's Under-20 team.

The next season, he earned a quick promotion to the Under-20 team. In 31 games, he had seven goals, 21 points, a plus-15 rating and 63 penalty minutes. It showed he was able to compete from a skills standpoint and a physical one despite being one of the youngest players.

Landeskog also had a tournament-leading nine goals in eight games as the captain for Stockholm 1 in the famed TV-Pucken, Sweden's Under-16 national championship tournament and an event that has served as a coming-out party for generations of Swedish hockey players.

He capped his season with two memorable moments. He made his debut with Djurgarden in the Swedish Hockey League, with one assist in three games. He also was an alternate captain for Sweden at the 2009 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Fargo, N.D. He finished second on the team with four goals and Sweden finished fifth.

With a starring role on an international team and his SHL debut under his belt, Landeskog began considering his hockey options.

Most developing Swedish players stay home because they can play in the SHL as teenagers; Landeskog certainly would have had a spot with Djurgarden. However, it can be tough for junior-age players to get more than fourth-line ice time.

"You don't get the opportunity to play big minutes in big moments in the games," Tony Landeskog said. "In that time you mostly got four or five minutes a game if you got up to the men's league early. So we saw [North America] as a big opportunity."

And North America was eager to get a closer look at Landeskog. At least one coach in Canada certainly was.

Steve Spott was an assistant coach for Canada at the 2009 World U-18s. When it played Sweden in the preliminary round he noticed the power forward wearing a full cage on his helmet, signaling he was an underage player.

At the time, Spott was the coach and general manager for the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League. The World U-18 tournament is a great chance for junior coaches to scout talent who could be available in the annual Canadian Hockey League import draft.

As the game went on, it was the eyes behind that protective cage that caught Spott's attention.

"I remember a power-play goal where Gabe tipped it at the net-front against us," Spott said. "He came by our bench and … on his way to his bench to celebrate kind of looked at us and kind of stared down our bench.

"The one side of me was upset being Team Canada coach. But the other side said, 'I've got to find out who this kid is for the Kitchener Rangers.'"

Spott, now an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs, envisioned Landeskog as a player who could help Kitchener. But with the tendency for Swedish players to stay home, he knew he'd have some work to do to persuade Landeskog to make the move.

"What we did was, before the import draft, I brought Gabe and his father over to Kitchener and gave them an opportunity to visit Kitchener and see our building, see a game," Spott said. "So that if we were able to draft him he would already have had an idea of what it was like in Kitchener and the Ontario Hockey League."

Courtesy: Landeskog family

Tony and Gabriel toured a few OHL teams, raising their comfort level with a decision Gabriel already had made.

"From a hockey perspective, it was more, 'I'm going to get to play against junior players,'" Gabriel said. "'But I'm also going to get to play more in different situations and play lot of minutes and make all the mistakes and still get a chance.' If you stay in Sweden you might get five minutes and you make one mistake and you're on the bench. And you're the young guy for at least three years."

More than the hockey, Landeskog saw North America as a life experience.

"I wanted the challenge," he said. "I wanted to move to a different country, I wanted to speak a different language, I wanted to go to a new high school. I wanted to get to know new people. That was a part that intrigued me."

Though Landeskog was sold on the idea, it wasn't so easy for his parents to sign off on their 16-year-old son moving thousands of miles away.

"My dad and I made a trip to Kitchener in the summertime and got to meet my billet family and I think that was a huge part of it for my dad, just to feel comfortable," Gabriel said. "I'm sure he was a little hesitant at first. But when he came back home and explained to my mom and I told her how great everything was, she was like, 'You really want to do this, don't you?' I was consistent with it. It's hard. I can't understand what it's like; I don't have any kids. To let your son go at 16 ... my mom still wanted to have her son home. She wasn't done being mom. But it worked out."

Kitchener was the family's first choice, but there was a bump in the road. Kitchener had the No. 6 pick of the import draft; the Plymouth Whalers, picking third, selected Landeskog.

Spott wasn't giving up. A month after the draft, he traded the player he picked at No. 6, forward Tomas Tatar, to Plymouth for Landeskog, who

signed a two-year contract with Kitchener the day after the trade.

Tatar, now a forward for the Detroit Red Wings, remained in Slovakia and never played in the OHL. Landeskog emerged as a key part of the Kitchener lineup.

"Probably less [of an adjustment] than some of the other European players because he played a North American-style game," Spott said. "Gabe came in with a physical presence. He finished his hits, he blocked shots, he killed penalties. The challenge for us was where he could take his game offensively. We knew how reliable he was defensively, we knew about his character. But could he translate that into some offense as well? That was our early challenge. He got better and better. We found a home at the net-front for him on the power play. The line of Jeff Skinner, Gabriel Landeskog and Jeremy Morin was one of the most dangerous in junior hockey that year."

Landeskog had 24 goals and 46 points in 61 games, third among OHL rookies. In the 2010 OHL playoffs, he was seventh in scoring with 23 points in 20 games. Skinner graduated junior hockey to star for the Carolina Hurricanes. Morin played for the Chicago Blackhawks for parts of five seasons before being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets this December.

It wasn't always easy for Landeskog, who like any young person living away from home for the first time had his ups and downs.

"Of course the homesick struck him sometimes," Tony Landeskog said. "That was tough talking to him when he had those tough moments. … Especially when you're talking on Skype, when you see your parents back home and you're kind of homesick, that's tough to see your son in that situation."

After a trip home during the December holiday break, Landeskog said he felt more comfortable in the second half of the season.


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"There were times that first three months that it was hard," he said. "Whether it was school, math was in English, I was taking Canadian history. I had no clue what was going on and everything was in English. I was forced to get out of my comfort zone. That was a huge part of it for me. And then over Christmas I didn't make the World Junior team that year in Saskatoon. So I went home for five days, and to come home and realize that everything was the same at home and everybody was the same, somewhere inside of me [that] hit home. Then when I came back to Kitchener I felt way more comfortable and it just kind of … everything fell into place at that time."

Like every team he had been on, Landeskog quickly emerged as a presence for Kitchener.

"You could tell right away he was a pretty good leader in the room and on the ice," said Akeson, who plays for the Philadelphia Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate. "I remember one time he fought a pretty tough guy and everyone shook their heads, like, 'What's he doing?' But he did pretty well. Since then he took on more of a leadership role."

Spott knew he'd need a new captain in 2010-11 and viewed Landeskog as the best choice. The coach canvassed some of his departing players and they backed his opinion.

"When I threw it by the players that were graduating, 'What do you think of Gabe being captain,' it was unanimous that he was the best choice for our hockey club to be the captain," Spott said. "Players know players best. They all felt, at least the graduating players, that he would be the guy. Then you go to your medical people and your equipment people to get their opinion about what he's like in the locker room when we (the coaches) are not in there. He definitely was the unanimous choice as a natural leader for our group.

"HIs character just resonated and that's why we felt comfortable putting the 'C' on him."

In 47 years, Kitchener never had a European-born captain.

"He adapted to it pretty well," Akeson said. "He was good with all the fans, he was good to have in the room as a leader. He talked, but he was kind of a quiet leader. He would leave it on the ice, show the way."

Landeskog had the burden of being a first-time captain in his NHL draft season, but he handled everything with ease. He led Kitchener with 36 goals in 53 games and was No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of the top North American skaters for the 2011 NHL Draft. The Avalanche selected him with the second pick, after the Edmonton Oilers drafted Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Rick Pracey, then Colorado's director of amateur scouting, ran down Landeskog's list of attributes. Among them was this, told to the Denver Post: "We think his character is just going to resonate through our lineup."

Scouts assessing the 2011 draft viewed Landeskog, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound forward, as the most NHL-ready player, so it was no surprise he made Colorado's opening-night lineup.

He was the only player in his draft class to play all 82 games. He led NHL rookies with 52 points, his 22 goals and plus-20 rating were second, and he was an easy pick for the Calder Trophy.

Landeskog was preparing for his second season when he got a message.

"I was actually in Toronto at the time and visiting some friends from my time in junior," Landeskog said. "I got a text from Milan Hejduk, our captain at the time, just saying, 'Hey, whenever you get into Denver shoot me a text or give me a call, I need to talk to you about something.'"

Landeskog wasn't sure what Hejduk had in mind, but when he showed up at the Avalanche practice rink a few days later, Hejduk took Landeskog into a meeting with coach Joe Sacco.

"They sat me down, and Milan started talking and talking about him and how he was getting toward the end of his career, and he felt like the captaincy should be given to somebody else. And he felt like I was a perfect choice for that," Landeskog said. "And once he said that, I was kind of taken aback and I almost started laughing right away because I wasn't sure what was going on and how to react at that time."

Tony Landeskog said he and Gabriel previously discussed Gabriel becoming captain of an NHL team.

"We had talked about the possibility in the future," Tony said. "Not during his rookie contract. We didn't believe it would happen that fast."

Prior to the 2012-13 season, Gabriel Landeskog became the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 286 days old. (Photo: Getty Images)

It did happen, on Sept. 4, 2012. At 19 years, 286 days old, Landeskog was the youngest captain in NHL history, 11 days younger than Sidney Crosby was when the Pittsburgh Penguins named him captain in 2007. Landeskog joined Crosby and Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning (2000) as the only teenage captains in League history.

Landeskog had help in his first season as captain. Hejduk was on the roster, and Landeskog said goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere and forward Paul Stastny were very important for him.

"There was a lot to learn, and I knew that was a big part of it, the age difference with [Giguere] and Milan and some of these older, veteran guys," Landeskog said. "But to me I wasn't going to go in and say, 'Let's do this just because I have a 'C' on my chest.' It's about earning your respect first and foremost and then things will come natural."

Injuries limited Landeskog to 36 games in 2012-13 and the Avalanche finished at the bottom of the Western Conference. Healthy last season, he was second on the Avalanche with 26 goals and 65 points and Colorado was a surprising winner of the Central Division.

Things haven't gone as smoothly on the ice this season, but Landeskog is producing; through 30 games he has 19 points, second on the Avalanche. He's in the first season of a seven-year contract he signed prior to the start of last season. In his third season as captain, he's growing more comfortable in his role.

Daniel Briere, in his first season with the Avalanche but a captain earlier in his NHL career, said it didn't take him long to see what kind of leader Landeskog was. He mentioned a game Dec. 11 against the Winnipeg Jets. The Avalanche entered on a four-game losing streak, and though the game was tied 1-1 midway through the second period, Colorado was being outshot 13-4 in the period. Then at 11:16, Landeskog challenged Jets captain Andrew Ladd to a fight.

"It was a game that was must-win for us," Briere said. "[The fight] just fired us up. Kind of gave us the will to battle back and find a way to win in a shootout (4-3)."

That's one example of how Landeskog has matured as captain.

"Maybe before in junior I was more the rah-rah guy, getting the guys fired up and stuff like that," Landeskog said. "Now you focus on what you have to do, and if you do your job at 100 percent it'll rub off on other guys. Guys will follow."

Guys have been following Landeskog as captain for a long time, whether it's a youth team in Sweden, a junior team in Ontario, or the NHL.

"He's got that aura around him," Briere said. "He's a born leader. You can tell right away. ... He really is the heart and soul [of the Avalanche]."

If Adams ever writes a follow-up to his captains piece, Spott suggests using a newer model.

"When you talk about the [Mark] Messiers and the [Steve] Yzermans as leaders," Spott said, "Gabe is hopefully going to be in that group of guys where he's going to be a notch above everybody else in what the blueprint of a captain should be."


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