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Follow the leader: The NHL's 10 best captains

by John Kreiser

There's more to being a leader than merely wearing the captain's "C" on your jersey. Leadership is knowing how to push your teammates to levels they didn't know they could reach, making sure they don't accept anything less than their best on the ice -- and off.

"I think in the end, it's just trying to help people realize their potential and figure out how to motivate them," Hall of Famer Mark Messier once told a writer. "You have to get to know a player on a much deeper level than just hockey. … In the end, they have to know that the only thing that matters to both of you is trying to find a way to win, and that you don't have any ulterior motives against them. You're just trying to find out how to get the best out of them, and they respect that."

Here's a look at 10 of the NHL's all-time best in providing the leadership that got the most out of their teammates:

Chris Brown
G: 318 | A: 470 | PTS: 788
10. Shane Doan

Few captains in any sport have faced the challenges that Doan has during the past three years. Not only is he relied upon to provide offense and on-ice leadership, but he's also the captain of a team that has been without an owner for three years -- the NHL bought the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy in 2009 and has operated it since then.

The unsettled ownership situation hasn't kept the Coyotes from making the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the past three seasons -- they made the Western Conference Finals last spring -- despite a shifting roster and the inability to keep big-ticket players. Doan, who assumed the captaincy in 2003, has become the face of the franchise off the ice while keeping his teammates focused on the task at hand on-ice.

9. Ray Bourque

There was one thing you could be sure of during the 15 seasons Bourque wore the "C" for the Boston Bruins -- they would be in the playoffs. Not only did Bourque win the Norris Trophy five times and appear in every NHL All-Star Game played during his career, he also led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Playoffs every full season he was in Boston, part of a streak that saw the B's make the playoffs for 29 consecutive seasons.

Bourque is the longest-tenured captain in Bruins' history. The one thing Bourque couldn't accomplish in Boston was winning a Stanley Cup -- he finally got one with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001, his final NHL season.

8. Joe Sakic

Like Doan, Sakic became the face of a franchise -- although he wound up doing it in two cities. The Quebec Nordiques gave him the "C" in 1992, and he kept it until the end of his career in 2009, by which time the Nordiques had long since become the Colorado Avalanche.

It's never easy being captain of a newly relocated franchise; Sakic did his job so well that the Nordiques-turned-Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 1996. He led them to another Cup in 2001 with 26 points in 21 playoff games, then capped his season by taking home the Hart Trophy and Lester B. Pearson Award. He spent his entire career with the same franchise, and the Avalanche wasted little time retiring his No. 19 after he hung up his skates.

7. Sidney Crosby

Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby
Center - PIT
G: 223 | A: 386 | PTS: 609
The No. 1 pick in the 2005 NHL Draft owns the honor of being the youngest captain to lead his team to the Stanley Cup. That came in 2009, two years after he took the "C" -- and three years after the Pittsburgh Penguins actually offered it to him. He turned down the captaincy after his rookie season, but accepted it a year after leading the League in scoring and earning the Hart Trophy and Lester B. Pearson Award.

Crosby led the Penguins to the Final in 2008, then helped them avenge their loss to the Detroit Red Wings with a seven-game victory the following year. His skill and drive to win are unmistakable; the only thing that has slowed him down is a series of concussion-related injury problems.

6. Bob Clarke

Clarke was the face of the Philadelphia Flyers during the Cup-winning years of the mid-1970s. His boyish grin (with missing teeth) belied the competitive fire that burned in a kid from Flin Flon, Manitoba, who overcame diabetes to make the NHL.

Clarke served as captain from 1973-79, winning consecutive Hart Trophies while leading the Flyers to back-to-back Cups in 1974 and '75, as well as a trip to the Final in 1976. On a team known as the "Broad Street Bullies," Clarke supplied the drive -- as well as a lot of the offense.

He was captain again from 1982-84, earning the Selke Trophy in 1983, and is still affiliated with the franchise.

5. Nicklas Lidstrom

Niklas Kronwall
Defense - DET
G: 264 | A: 878 | PTS: 1142
Steve Yzerman was a hard act to follow in Detroit, where he wore the "C" for two decades and was one of the cornerstones in the Red Wings' rise to perennial contender and three-time Stanley Cup winner during a five-year span.

But Lidstrom put his own stamp on the Red Wings when he took over the captaincy following Yzerman's retirement in 2006. Having earned three Cups from 1997-2002, Lidstrom became the first European-born captain to lead his team to a championship when the Red Wings won in 2008. They came up one win short of another title in '09 despite Lidstrom's 16 points in 21 playoff games.

Lidstrom led by example (he won the Norris Trophy seven times) and by demeanor (his nickname is the Perfect Human). He announced his retirement this summer after a career that will soon earn him a berth in the Hall of Fame.

4. Denis Potvin

The New York Islanders' dynasty of the 1980s was built on four cornerstones -- but only one of them served as captain. That man was Potvin, who wore the "C" throughout the Islanders' four straight Stanley Cup titles and 19 consecutive playoff series wins.

Ironically, Potvin's best offensive seasons came before he was voted by his teammates as captain prior to the 1979-80 season. Though he had the first major injury of his career during the regular season, Potvin returned in time to lead the Islanders to the first of their four consecutive Stanley Cups. They came within one round of a fifth title before losing to the Edmonton Oilers in the 1984 Final.

Like Yzerman, Potvin sacrificed aspects of his own game for the good of his team. The Islanders became a dynasty with Potvin wearing the "C," and they've never been the same since he hung up his skates in 1988.

3. Jean Beliveau

After fiery Maurice Richard retired in 1960 and Doug Harvey was allowed to leave a year later, the Montreal Canadiens turned to Beliveau as their leader. They couldn't have made a better choice.

In his 10 years wearing the "C" before retiring in 1971, Beliveau led the Canadiens to five Stanley Cups -- four in a five-year span from 1965 through '69, then again in his final season, when they upset the record-setting Boston Bruins before winning Game 7 of the Final against the Chicago Blackhawks. In 1965, he became the first player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, and he retired as the longest-serving captain in Canadiens' history, an honor he still holds.

Beliveau did it all with a style and grace that has followed him into retirement, where his name went on the Stanley Cup seven more times as an executive with the Canadiens.

Pavel Datsyuk
Center - DET
G: 692 | A: 1063 | PTS: 1755
2. Steve Yzerman

Yzerman had established himself as one of the NHL's great offensive players by the time the Detroit Red Wings named him captain in 1986 at the age of 21 -- at the time, the youngest player in NHL history to wear the "C." He scored at least 100 points in six straight seasons from 1987-93 -- but the Red Wings' success did not match his own until the arrival of Scotty Bowman as coach in 1993.

Bowman convinced Yzerman there was more to success than putting up points, and he became one of the great two-way players and leaders in NHL history. He put all doubts about his leadership ability to rest when Detroit ended a 42-year championship drought by winning the Stanley Cup in 1997 and repeating in '98. He played through a painful knee injury to help the Red Wings win again in 2002.

Yzerman's 19 seasons and 1,303 games wearing the "C" are the most of any player in NHL history.

1. Mark Messier

Of all the great leaders in NHL history, only one has an award named for him. That would be Messier, whose Mark Messier Leadership Award is presented each year to recognize a player who's a superior leader on his team on and off the ice.

That description fits Messier, who's been recognized for his leadership skills after becoming the only player in NHL history to serve as captain for two Cup-winning franchises. He became captain in Edmonton after the Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky in 1988 and led them to the Stanley Cup in 1990, then wore the "C" (and scored the Cup-winning goal) when the New York Rangers ended their 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1994. Both years were marked by signature performances in which he refused to let his team lose.

Messier's career ledger includes six Stanley Cups, two Hart Trophies and a Conn Smythe Trophy, and he's No. 2 on the NHL's all-time scoring list. But it's his leadership skills that have become his legacy and earned him the honor of being regarded as hockey's greatest leader.

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