For the die-hards who know and truly love the game, hockey can be boiled down to just a letter or two in many cases. If you play F, your job is to get GWGs and set up your linemates with As. If you’re a G, you concentrate on your GAA. If you’re a versatile LW, you can also play D in a pinch.
And above all of those is a letter so important that they sew it right onto the front of your hockey sweater. Coaches look for different things in picking one to lead their team, but every group of hockey players at the high school level and higher has one: the player who wears the C.
Generally, the team captain is picked for leadership, whether it is leading by example or being vocal and letting players know their roles in getting the team to succeed. And many coaches agree that the perfect captain gives their team, in essence, an extra coach in the locker room and on the ice.
Long before he was a media personality familiar to college hockey fans, Dave Starman was an assistant and head coach on the Junior level and the minor league professional level. He found the most important job the captain had was to reinforce the coaches’ work and wishes when the locker room door closed.
“You’re looking for someone who, when you walk out of the dressing room, is going to facilitate your message and who is going to be respected enough by the guys in that room to adhere to it,” said Starman, who also provides color commentary of Team USA broadcasts at the World Junior Championships.
“There’s an old saying in the coaching world that the three most important minutes in your week are the three minutes after you address your team between periods. Because after you give your message, if your captains don’t pick up on what you’re trying to get to and continue to pump that message into the team, then why have them?”
Starman’s favorite example of a team captain from his Junior hockey days was Mike Brennan, a rangy defenseman from Long Island. Boston College’s Jerry York was looking for one more rearguard to add to his recruiting list, and Starman advocated for Brennan, telling the Eagles coach that by the time he was a senior, Brennan would be his captain.
After a stint with the National Team Development Program, Brennan played four seasons at BC, wearing the C his final year and helping the Eagles win the 2008 NCAA title.
“When they beat Minnesota in a NCAA regional that year, [Gophers coach] Don Lucia said that Brennan was like having another coach on the ice,” Starman recalled. “He represented everything you wanted in a captain.”
According to others who coach on the college level, you often see qualities that would make for a good captain when you’re recruiting a player, but you wait and see how they adjust to being away from home and playing with new teammates before knowing if you truly have a leader on your hands.
The biggest test for many young players is transitioning from their final year of high school or Juniors, where they were often a team’s top scorer, to the first year of college, where there’s usually a tough adjustment on and off the ice.
“A lot of these kids are coming from programs where they were the cat’s meow and the leading point-getter, and sometimes they’re not able to do that right away at this level,” said University of Maine men’s assistant coach Bob Corkum.
“It’s a good test to see how the player responds to that adversity. Can he find something else to contribute to the team while he hones his goal-scoring ability at this level?”
On youth hockey teams, when the players pick the captain, the leadership role tends to gravitate to players who are physically bigger than the others and those who dominate on the ice. The higher up the ranks of hockey one goes, it seems that what a player does in the locker room, in practice and on the bench is as important as anything they do once the puck drops in a game.
“You look for leadership in the way they carry themselves away from the rink and on the ice,” said Jeff Giesen, head women’s hockey coach at St. Cloud State University.
“If they’re a very good player on the ice, and work hard, naturally people will respect them, and they don’t necessarily need to be very vocal.”
Starman takes it one step further, saying that the person wearing the C should always be the first on the ice for practice, should be the one delegating responsibilities to teammates to ensure that necessities like water bottles and pucks make it to the bench, and should lead the drills and demonstrate how they’re done correctly. All of that feeds into establishing a culture of leadership and accountability, which can serve a team well in a tight game, when players are naturally looking for someone to lead the way.
Corkum, who played four years at Maine and skated for seven different teams in a 12-season NHL career, recalls having Scott Stevens as a captain with the New Jersey Devils during their run to the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals. Known for bone-crunching hits on the ice, Stevens was the kind of captain who let his actions provide the leadership and garnered universal respect from teammates.
“When he said something, you listened,” Corkum said. “He wasn’t one of those guys who was ‘rah, rah, rah’ in the locker room all the time. He was more the kind to say ‘this is the way we do things, just follow my lead.’ But when he did pipe up in the locker room it was certainly worth hearing.”
And while the expectations of a captain differ from team to team and coach to coach, so do the methods of determining who wears the C. Some purists have the players vote, so the captaincy is a direct product of those they will be leading. Other coaches pick the captain themselves or rotate the position on a monthly or even game-by-game basis. Giesen even puts a little schoolwork into the selection process occasionally, having his Huskies write a one-paragraph explanation of who they think should be captain, and why.
No matter how they arrive at the decision, in this game of significant letters, coaches and players alike have come to realize that a key to collecting Ws at a regular clip is having the right person, with the right traits, wearing the C.