The 20 Best Leaders in NHL History
Leadership in hockey is a very important thing. It is little coincidence that many of the best leaders in hockey history are also among the best players.
Throughout hockey history, some players have set themselves apart by their leadership skills. These are not only great players, they are good enough to inspire their teammates to become better, to pick up their team when they are down and help them give that extra something that often makes the difference between victory and defeat.
Here is a list of the 20 greatest leaders in NHL history.
Feel free to mention any you feel I have missed, but please mention why your pick belongs on the list or why you feel I listed a player too high or too low.
Please enjoy this list of the NHL's greatest leaders.
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Scott Stevens won three Stanley Cups while serving as captain of the New Jersey Devils, and he and Martin Brodeur became the face of the franchise. In 2000, Stevens also won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL's playoff MVP.
In addition, the Kitchener, Ontario native helped develop younger members of the New Jersey blue line corps like Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski, who both went on to become All-Stars in their own right.
The Devils were a mediocre organization before Stevens arrived in 1991-92, but for the rest of his career with them they remained one of the league's elite franchises.
The tough and physical defenseman was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.
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Joe Sakic was named captain of the Quebec Nordiques in 1992-93 at the age of 23 and did not relinquish the position until his retirement from the Colorado Avalanche in 2008-09.
In between, Sakic led the Avs to a pair of Stanley Cup titles and was also elected to serve as the captain of two NHL All-Star teams.
The talented native of Burnaby, BC had his number retired by the Avalanche in 2009, which included a captain's "C" on the jersey to recognize his leadership skills.
Sakic was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.
Pierre Pilote served as captain of the Chicago Blackhawks for most of the 1960s, including the team's championship season in 1960-61. Chicago made the playoffs every year he served as captain.
Pilote won three consecutive Norris Trophies as the league's top defenseman. He was also the recognized leader of a team that included Hall of Famers like Stan Mikita, Glenn Hall and Bobby Hull.
No player has served as captain of the Blackhawks longer than Pilote. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975.
You don't always have to be a captain to be a leader, although most leaders are eventually elevated to the captain's "C."
During the 1972 Summit Series, Phil Esposito was an alternate captain, but he stood in front of a microphone and delivered an impassioned speech on behalf of Team Canada, who were being beaten soundly early in their series against the USSR.
Espo's speech helped rally the nation behind the team and inspire the players on the ice. Team Canada eventually came back and won the series 4-3-1 on Paul Henderson's last-minute goal.
Esposito later served as captain of the Rangers and helped lead a young New York team to an unexpected berth in the Stanley Cup Final in 1979.
He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984.
"Terrible Ted" Lindsay was more than a great leader on the ice. He helped protect the rights of hockey players everywhere by forming the NHL Players Association.
The move enraged Detroit Red Wings management so much they stripped Lindsay of his captaincy, spread false rumors about him and then traded him to Chicago.
While he served as captain of the Red Wings, he helped lead them to two Stanley Cup titles.
In addition to being a leader on the ice, Lindsay helped change the game off the ice with his willingness to stand up to management and the way they abused players back in the 1950s.
He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966.
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Wayne Gretzky captained the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five years between 1984-1988, leading the NHL's last true dynasty.
He was then traded to the Los Angeles Kings and helped transform that franchise, leading it to new heights of popularity in Hollywood and its first ever appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 1993.
By the time "The Great One" retired in 1999, he held nearly every career offensive scoring record in NHL history, most of which still stand today.
To many, he remains the greatest hockey player ever to lace up a pair of skates.
George Armstrong was captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs for more than a decade, from 1958 through 1969.
During that time, Toronto won four Stanley Cups in six seasons, including three straight from 1962-1964.
In 1967, Armstrong led a veteran-laden team to an upset win over the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final. It was the end of the Original Six Era and the last title the Leafs franchise has ever won.
When legendary coach Punch Imlach needed leadership, he turned to Armstrong, his captain. Few leaders served as well or as long as "the Chief."
Armstrong was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975.
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Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom took over as captain of the club in 2006 and remained in that position until he retired in Spring 2012. During that time, he became the first European-born and -trained player to captain an NHL team to a Stanley Cup title.
The fact is, Lidstrom was a leader on the Red Wings even before he was awarded the captain's "C."
The steady Swede was not one for making "rah-rah" speeches but led by example. He was smart, steady and played at a sustained level of excellence throughout his lengthy NHL career, which included seven Norris Trophies, four Stanley Cup titles and a Conn Smythe Trophy.
The Red Wings now face the challenge of replacing Lidstrom both as a player and as a leader.
It won't be easy.
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Nobody has won more Stanley Cups as a player than Henri Richard. "The Pocket Rocket" lifted hockey's holy grail 11 times during his Hall of Fame career, including once as captain in 1973.
While his brother Maurice played a bolder and more aggressive style, Henri was more of a passer and a set-up man. Twice he led the NHL in assists.
Later in his career Henri was a respected elder statesman, a grey-haired veteran who had seen it all and knew what it took to lead the Habs to victory.
Richard was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979.
Bill Cook was a huge star in the early days of the New York Rangers. He scored the very first goal in the franchise's fabled history and served as captain of the club from 1926-37. Twice he led the NHL in scoring.
He was part of New York's famed "Bread Line" with Frank Boucher and his brother, "Bun" Cook, and led the Rangers to two Stanley Cup victories as a player.
Cook was leading the Rangers on the ice until just after his 40th birthday. He was inducted in to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1952.
It's tough to measure Gordie Howe as a leader. Many experts consider "Mr. Hockey" to be the greatest all-around player to lace up a pair of skates. He played in the NHL until well past the age of 50.
Howe was a tough player, known as much for his physical play and determination as he was for scoring points. He led by example.
Howe only served as captain of the Red Wings for four seasons, but he was always a leader on and off the ice. When he initially retired in 1971, he held nearly every career scoring record in NHL history.
After taking two seasons off, Howe returned to professional hockey with the WHA's Houston Aeros and was able to play on a line with his sons Mark and Marty.
He was a major part of the WHA's legacy and helped promote the rebel league both on and off the ice.
Howe retired in 1980 but was actually inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1971, immediately after his first retirement.
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Mario Lemieux has done more for the Pittsburgh Penguins on and off the ice than any other person in the franchise's 45-plus-year history.
Lemieux has shown leadership on the ice, serving as the Penguins' captain during the team's run to two Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 and leadership off the ice in the way he handled himself by overcoming cancer.
Lemieux returned to the Penguins lineup immediately after radiation treatments were completed and received a standing ovation from fans in Philadelphia, a rare accomplishment for any visiting player.
After his career was over, Lemieux again showed himself to be a leader when he agreed to take over ownership of the struggling franchise in exchange for waiving deferred money the club owed him.
He has gone on to become a model executive, involved in the community while guiding the franchise to another title from the front office.
"Mario the Magnificent" was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1997.
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Denis Potvin took over as captain of the New York Islanders in 1979 and promptly led the club to four straight Stanley Cup titles and won a record 19 straight playoff series before the Oilers defeated the Isles in the 1984 Stanley Cup Final.
Potvin was a well-rounded player. He could put up impressive offensive numbers while still giving legendary hip checks to opposing players who came down his side of the ice in his own zone.
After an undisciplined start to his career, Potvin and Isles coach Al Arbour found a mutual respect that allowed the player to mature and become one of the great leaders in NHL history.
Potvin was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991.
Ted "Teeder" Kennedy served as captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1948 until 1955. Toronto won a pair of Cups while he was captain, and he was a part of five championship-winning teams over the course of his career.
Kennedy led by example and succeeded by doing the little things right. He excelled on faceoffs, played strong positional hockey in all three zones and always seemed to score big goals in clutch situations.
Kennedy is the youngest player ever to score the Stanley Cup-winning goal, which he accomplished at the age of 19.
His intensity and leadership qualities made him respected by both his teammates and opposing players throughout the league.
Kennedy was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966.
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Bobby Clarke overcame diabetes and went on to become one of the greatest captains in NHL history. Clarke was not the most talented player on the ice, but he succeeded through hard work and his unending desire to be the best.
The Philadelphia Flyers won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, becoming the first expansion team to capture a championship.
"The Broad Street Bullies" were the toughest team in all of sports, and Clarke was their unquestioned ringleader. Any player who attempted to hit Clarke would face the wrath of several of his brother bullies.
Clarke centered the LCB line with wingers Reg Leach and Bill Barber creating one of the deadliest combinations in the league in the mid-70s.
He was also a big part of Team Canada's win over the USSR in the 1972 Summit Series and the 1976 Canada Cup.
After retiring as a player, Clarke went on to serve as GM of both the North Stars and Flyers and led both teams to the Stanley Cup Final.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987.
Syl Apps spent seven seasons as captain of the Maple Leafs, interrupted by two seasons that he missed because of World War II.
The Maple Leafs won three Stanley Cups with Apps as their captain, including a pair after he returned from military service.
Apps was a great all-around athlete and represented Canada in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin while competing in the pole vault.
He retired from hockey at the age of 33 but is still considered by many to be the greatest player in Maple Leafs history.
He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975.
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Classy Jean Beliveau served as captain of the Canadiens for a decade and helped lead Montreal to five championships during that time. Over the course of his NHL career, "Le Gross Bill" won 10 Stanley Cups and later got his name on the Cup seven more times as an executive.
Beliveau was soft-spoken but determined and led by example.
The teams Beliveau played on were stocked with Hall of Fame players, but there was no doubt as to who the leader of the team was.
Beliveau was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972.
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Steve Yzerman was named captain of the Detroit Red Wings in 1986 at the age of 21 and kept that position until he retired in 2006. That makes Detroit's star the longest-tenured captain in NHL history.
When Yzerman took over as captain, Detroit was one of the laughing stocks of the league and fans called the team "The Dead Things." By the time Yzerman retired, 29 other franchises wanted to model themselves after the Red Wings.
"The Captain" wore the "C" for three Stanley Cup championship teams and also won a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
He had a knack for coming up with clutch goals, especially in the postseason.
Since his playing career has ended, Yzerman has gone into management and now serves as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Yzerman was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.
Maurice "Rocket" Richard was the captain of the Montreal Canadiens when they won four straight Stanley Cups from 1956-60. He won eight championships overall as a player and was the driving force behind the only team in NHL history to win five straight titles.
Richard was not just the leader of the Canadiens; he was also the symbol of French-speaking Canadians, as the Richard Riot of 1955 proved.
"The Rocket" was considered one of the most dangerous goal scorers of all time. He played on the famous "Punch Line" with Elmer Lach and "Toe" Blake.
Richard was the first player to score 50 goals in a season, which he accomplished in 1944-45. Today the leading goal scorer in the NHL receives the Rocket Richard Trophy.
Richard was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961.
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Mark Messier won six Stanley Cups during his Hall of Fame career and remains the only player to captain two different franchises to a title.
After Wayne Gretzky was traded from the Oilers, most critics left Edmonton for dead. But Messier was able to lead the team to one more title in 1990, practically by the force of his will.
Then in 1994, he did something nobody had been able to do in 54 years: lead the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup title, something Hall of Famers like Boom-Boom Geoffrion, Rod Gilbert, Marcel Dionne, Guy Lafleur, Phil Esposito and Andy Bathgate had all failed to do.
In Edmonton, Messier was nicknamed "Moose" for his size and physical style of play. In New York, he was known as "The Messiah" for delivering a title to the Rangers.
Messier retired in 2004 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007, his first year of eligibility.