NHL: Why Captains Are More Important in Hockey Than Any Other Major Sport

Dave Ungar@@DaveUngar68Correspondent IIISeptember 8, 2012

DETROIT - FEBRUARY 8:  Steve Yzerman #19 of the Detroit Red Wings looks on against the Nashville Predators at Joe Louis Arena on February 8, 2006 in Detroit, Michigan. The Red Wings won 6-0. (Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

Most of the major team sports in the world employ the use of team captains. Like diamonds though, not all captains are created equal and not all captains are as important as others. In no sport is this more true than in ice hockey.

Ice hockey captains do not look quite like other captains. In other sports, such as American football, the team captains wear a "C" on their jersey. But with American football, most teams have not one captain but several.

Some teams, like the New York Jets, have no team captains at all. Others, like the Green Bay Packers, appoint their captains on a week-by-week basis (Wikipedia).

In hockey, one player—and one player only—is given the honor of having the "C" placed on his sweater. There may be one or two alternate captains who get to wear the well recognized "A" on their jersey, but the man wearing the "C" is different—and everyone knows it.

This is one of the main reasons the captain of a hockey team is more important than the captain, or captains, of teams in other major sports. In football or basketball, the team captain(s) is quite often the superstar of the team, or the best player or perhaps even the most marketable.

In hockey, the team captain might not be close to being considered the best player on the team. Very frequently in hockey, the team captain is not the best skater, or the best scorer or the toughest guy on the team.

The Most Important Traits

What makes a hockey captain so indispensable to his team? What is he better at, than perhaps the superstar? It is something much more important than raw, pure skill:  leadership.

The single most important trait of a great hockey captain is that he leads. He leads by example on the ice and he leads by example off the ice.

While captains in other sports are certainly leaders in their own right, only in hockey can that leadership be merged directly with the ability to influence a game.

Being the captain of a hockey team is also not a task to be taken on lightly. The captain is usually the one to speak up for his team and defend their actions. This requires a level of confidence that most other players just don't have.

This takes on added importance at the NHL level as the team captain is the only player officially recognized as being able to talk to game officials about rule interpretations (Wikipedia).

More so than in any of the other major sports, the captain of a hockey team is the voice of the team. He is the person the team will look to first, perhaps even more so than the coach, when times get tough.

The captain might not be the best player on the team, but you can bet that he will be the most knowledgeable about the game, the subtle intricacies and nuances and he will know the strengths and weaknesses of his team better than anyone else.

In basketball, the team captain is often considered an on-the-court coach responsible for making sure the chosen play is run correctly. The same can be said for football. So too can that be said about hockey.

But quite often, hockey games can be more fluid and fast-changing than either basketball or football games, and a hockey captain has to adjust on the fly virtually without thought. This is again where leadership is vital, as is familiarity with the team.

A key trait of a good hockey captain is his ability to lead by example. Like other captains, he is the one to implement the overall game plan. But with hockey, the overall game plan is just one aspect of the game. Often, there is a game within the game going on and it is here where the captain has a more significant role than in other sports.

What type of game will the team play? Will it play an up-tempo, faster paced and finesse style of game? Or will they play a grind it out, physical, "don't give an inch" style of game? Whatever style of game is supposed to be played, it is the captain that sets the example and then expects his team to follow his lead. You see this more often with hockey than in really any other sport.

The hockey captain is also the defender of not just his team but his teammates as well. If a bad call is made, the captain has to be the one to get inside the referee's head and let him know exactly why it was a bad call.

If a teammate is getting beaten consistently by an opponent, then it is up to the captain to take matters into his own hands and right the ship. If it is a question of the team's superstar being bullied and harassed, the captain must step in and send a very physical message. If the other team's star is the one doing the damage, then  the captain must do all in his power to disrupt that.

By doing this, the hockey captain earns the respect and admiration of his team: two very valuable assets critical to the success of the team. The captain continues to earn this respect and admiration by being the hardest working player on the team; the one who studies film meticulously; the first one at practice; the last one to leave; and, the one who implements much of what the coach's specific game plan is.

The Weight of His World

More so than in any other sport, it is the captain of the hockey team who may very well determine the success or failure of the team. Granted, it is not solely his burden to bear. But it is his responsibility. He was selected as the captain because of his leadership abilities, his communication skills and his knowledge of the game and team.

It is this tremendous amount of responsibility that separates the hockey captain from the captain of other major sports teams. In so many ways, the team is his team. In virtually every way he is the team.

Even within hockey itself, some captains handle this responsibility and the crushing weight of it better than others. Look at past captains such as Steve Yzerman or Ray Bourque and one can clearly see what makes for a successful hockey captain.

For others though, wearing the "C" can make for a difficult journey. As a Washington Capitals' fan, a good example of this would be Alexander Ovechkin. Ovie is one of the best players in the world and one of the great talents in the NHL.

On January 5, 2010, Ovechkin was named team captain. His production has declined ever since.

At the time, Ovie was named captain he had 26 goals in 33 games. After being named captain, he tallied just 24 goals over the final 39 games of the season. That’s not a huge drop off if one looks at it in isolation. But, then take a close look at the 2010-2011 season.

In Ovie’s first full season as the captain, his production took a major hit. His goals scored dropped to a meager 32. His assists dropped to 53, even though he played in seven more games. This past season, his goals scored went back up as he netted 38. But his assists completely bottomed out as he had only 27. His points total went down to 65, a 20-point drop from the previous season.

Now I may be in the minority on this but I have openly questioned whether being named captain is the reason for Ovie's dip in production. Has the responsibility of being named captain, something that is almost an afterthought in other sports, gotten the better of the Great Eight?

By trying to lead by example and being the man responsible for making sure the team plays the way it is supposed to play caused him to be less of a superstar and less like the player he was meant to be? It is something that can be debated back and forth but the statistics don't lie. Sometimes, having your star player be the captain can actually do more harm than good.

Look at the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sidney Crosby. Crosby was made the captain of the Pens at the beginning of the 2007-2008 season. Unlike Ovechkin, Crosby's production did not waver with the responsibility and he led the Pens to the Stanley Cup Finals twice, winning the Cup in 2009.

But once Crosby suffered his issues with his concussions, and began missing long stretches of playing time, the Pens as a team suffered. Without their captain, they were not the same team. As a Caps' fan, I may not like Crosby, but you have to respect him as the great player and great captain he is. The Pens' relative lack of success since his injury is a testament to how good he is.

In no other major sport is a team captain vested with the same responsibility that is given to a hockey captain. In no other major sport is a team's potential success or failure so directly tied to the abilities and talents of its captain. That is why captains are more important in hockey than in any other major sport. This may become even more evident very shortly.

With another lockout just a week away, the role of the team captain for all NHL clubs will be expanded further. Those captains will now have to try and hold their teams together, organize training activities and team practices without official assistance from the actual team itself and make sure that if and when the lockout ends, the team can hit the ice skating.

The truest measure of what makes a great captain—as opposed to just a good captain—might very well be decided off the ice over the next few months.


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