In hockey, team captains have always been revered in a way that is quite different than any other sport. But are they really that important? For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, and equipment managers would then stitch a “C” on the jersey. And it was always the captain who would hoist the Stanley Cup over their head and skate around the ice. This is still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost 1/3 of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain – and there wouldn’t even be an issue. Why? Well, its a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and it’s certainly not a distinction of the management and coaching staff want to jump into without first giving it a lot of thought.
This is a hot topic in Toronto right now, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf back in early 2016. That’s two full years ago, and they’re in no hurry to designate one now. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each says they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision. Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.
Which makes you wonder if the role of the captain even really matters any more? Sure the role of the captain is to demonstrate leadership qualities and help guide the team, but should that be on the shoulders of just one player? No, I’m not suggesting that more than one person should be captain, but I am wondering if one is even needed at all? What is interesting though, is that no team has ever won a Stanley Cup without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins. This, in itself, might make some superstitious and therefore select a captain, regardless of what that actually means for the team.
Eric Staal of Minnesota, and who was the captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons, had this to say:
“Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”
The idea is that the captain is someone who will make executive decisions, but isn’t that what the role of the coaching staff is? I will echo a point that I made earlier – why is this responsibility on the shoulders of just one person? In theory, there could be more than one person on a team with leadership qualities. I do think that this is more of a tradition than an actual necessity. I can’t see it going away any time soon, but I think its relevancy will wear off in years to come.