What it takes to be an NHL Captain

An NHL captain’s importance to a hockey team is a commonly disputed subject; there are many tangibles and intangibles to consider when giving an evaluation. Fans will often question why a certain player is captain, when another player is more suited for the job; the response is always “they are good in the change room”. Obviously, it is hard for us as fans to get a view into that aspect of it to give a proper evaluation, however in this article, I am going to review what I think it takes to be a good NHL captain.

I got the inspiration to write this article after attending the Philadelphia Flyers vs. Buffalo Sabres game that I went to on Saturday January 17th, 2014 with my three brothers and father. We did what we do every year and we went and got pizza and wings at Pearl Street Grill & Brewery in Buffalo, and to the surprise of anyone who knows our family personally, we actually arrived early to the game. We thought, “Wow, we can actually go see a warm up for once!” So we did just that.

“You know you can use it for peeing too, Wayne?” – Colin’s hockey coach when he found out my mom was pregnant with me, the 4th boy.

Warm-ups are a fairly lackluster event in the sport, but Claude Giroux was making the best of it. The first thing that I noticed is that he would give a hit on each player on his team, harder ones for those who were chatting too much and didn’t seem focused, he ran a drill where he would have all the pucks in the corner, and have his team go in a line at the net and he would set them all up, he smiled and waved at the fans vying for his attention. Giroux was involved in every facet of his current situation, and is a textbook case of how an NHL captain should behave. I am sure that this is a practice many other captains participate in, but it just got me thinking as to what a true captain of a team should be.

Edmonton Oilers v Philadelphia Flyers
Showing them how it’s done. (Elsa/Getty Images)

An ideal leader is someone that their peers him can model themselves after and respect, making good performance a very important trait. How can one expect their lower ranking peers to perform when they themselves don’t give the results? If you as a leader can’t show someone who is struggling how it is done, what use are you to the team? None. In terms of hockey, this does not have to come in the form of point production, you just have to be good and reliable at the job that you do. If fans and critics think that a team would be making a huge mistake if they ever lost their current captain, then you are doing a job well done.

My coaches would always tell my teammates and I growing up that “A team is like a well-oiled machine. If one cog is broken, the whole machine is broken.” Although cheesy, it does speak a lot of truth about where communication and morale come into play with a team. My father asked a seemingly basic question at the game on Saturday, “How many players can be on the ice at one time?” “Well, if you count a goalie as a player, 12.” “Nope, wrong!” “Dad, the rulebook says…” “The actual answer is 22.” He went on to explain that due to the little graces given by the refs regarding line changes, sometimes too many players will be on the ice. 22 players, individual people capable of free thought, who are all required to perform a proper set of actions in less than a few seconds or else they will get a penalty. That’s a lot that needs to be accounted for. This is just one of the examples where communication comes into play. Hockey is a fast, team-based sport that requires everyone to work together to achieve goals. Given the nature of human beings, people aren’t always going to like each other. In these situations, you need someone who can speak easily to anyone and is likeable to keeps things together and keep morale. If you can get everyone on a team to subscribe to a similar idea, the better chance your team has to perform well.

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A rare moment of excitement for “Captain Serious”. (Getty Images) 

A truth that many old time hockey fans need to embrace is that hockey is now the 4th most popular sport in North America and is more of a product than it ever was. With a sport of this magnitude, there are going to be millions of fans out there wanting to meet their favourite hero. Without the time in their already busy schedules, a team’s public presence is very important. Having the complete roster of 20-23 players talking to the media after every game would be impractical, so having only a few select individuals represent the team makes the most sense. These individuals need to be able to communicate and present themselves well because this is the only connection that most fans get with the team outside of watching the games on TV. Unfortunately, the NHL is a product, and having a team that is likeable is great for an NHL team’s bottom line. It’s hard to build a fan base when you have a player representing the team with the personality of a wet towel.

The captain of an NHL team should be an individual that defines the team’s character. This character can vary in many different ways, but the basic structure of a leader in the NHL is still the same. The captain needs to be able to be good at what they do for their team, communicate with their team, and have a good public presence. With these characteristics, a captain will be ideal to satisfy every aspect of hockey and gain the respect of their peers as well as their fans.

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Cover Photo by: USATIS

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