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Past Habs captains know demands facing Gionta

by Phil Coffey
Brian Gionta joined the ranks of one of the most select groups in NHL history Tuesday when he was named captain of the Montreal Canadiens. Not only is the group distinguished, but it looks like a veritable wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame, sporting names like Jean Beliveau, Sprague Cleghorn, Toe Blake, Rocket Richard, Bob Gainey, Chris Chelios and Saku Koivu.

And the good people of Montreal take their captain seriously. This is not an honorary title, no kissing babies or handing out the key to the city. No way. The Montreal Canadiens' captain is expected to lead his team to the Stanley Cup -- every season. And there is pressure every day along the journey to that lofty goal.

"The expectation here is to win," Gionta told reporters after the Canadiens were booed in a preseason loss to the Boston Bruins on Sept. 23. "Management, players and the fans are pretty passionate and they want to win, too."

Gionta is the second American-born player to be the captain of the Canadiens, following Chelios, a future Hall of Famer.

In the days leading up to the official decision, Gionta's name emerged as the logical choice since he fits the mould of past captains in Montreal.

"I don't think it's any added pressure," Gionta surmised. "You just go out and play. I'm just a quiet guy. I just go about my business. I do things by example, I guess. I'm not the rah-rah guy. I just try to work hard and compete for my teammates."

But as the great Beliveau soon discovered after being named the Habs' leader, the task is daunting.

"As captain of the Canadiens, I felt a lot of tension," Beliveau told back in 2008. "You had the responsibility to live up to the great players of the past, to lead the current generation, your teammates, and to make it better for those to follow."

That trepidation continues into the modern era where Saku Koivu, the last captain before Gionta, remembers a hollow feeling in his stomach after being named captain in September of 1999.

"I remember I was afraid," Koivu told's Larry Wigge. "Scared isn't the right word. I remember not really realizing the importance right away ... but, then, I remember thinking, 'Wow! What just happened?'

"I remember kind of flashing back to my rookie year back in 1993, when I walked into the locker room at the Montreal Forum for the first time and saw all of those pictures of the great players in Montreal Canadiens history," Koivu said. "We didn't see much of the NHL on TV back in Finland. Honestly, I didn't know Montreal from St. Louis or Toronto at that time. But I learned quickly about the tradition and the success of this franchise."

Koivu vividly remembers the closing ceremonies at the Montreal Forum when all the living Canadiens captains returned to pass the torch from that hallowed arena to the new Bell Centre.

"All the Montreal captains, passing the torch. It was really special," Koivu said. "I remember looking up in the crowd. Some fans were pointing their fingers at these legends. Some were crying. Real tears. There was an aura of respect for every one of those legends. I think that night, for me, really underscored what being a captain of this great organization meant to everyone."

Béliveau was elected captain in 1961 and was Montreal's captain for an incredible 10 seasons, the longest tenure of any of the greats to hold the position. The Canadiens won an incredible five Stanley Cups during his tenure. In 1964-65, the NHL introduced a new trophy to be awarded to the top playoff performer. Moments after receiving the Stanley Cup from League President Clarence Campbell, Béliveau was named the inaugural winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy.
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