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Is the captain role losing its importance in the NHL?

The captaincy of a hockey team has always been considered the highest honor in the sport. Perhaps, even, one of the highest honors in team sports. The NFL copied it in recent years by awarding the captaincy to a player on each team, usually the quarterback. They even get a tiny C sewed on their jersey, while in the NHL the C is large and clearly defined – much like the captain’s role. Captains of hockey teams are supposed to lead by example, they’re supposed to rally the team, speak with the press and be a conduit between the players and the coaching staff.

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The National Hockey League is filled with great captains, such as Jonathan Toews, David Backes, Henrik Zetterberg, Zdeno Chara, and Sidney Crosby. Some newer captains, such as Mike Giordano and Jamie Benn, have pretty big skates to fill, but the team and the player both have approached the appointment with all appropriate gravitas. Some are young heirs to the franchise (John Tavares) and some are grizzled veterans rewarded for long service to their team.

And then there are the teams who award letters on the sweater with questionable intent.

The Buffalo Sabres, in what can only be described at a misguided attempt to get a player to stay/have a fallback for the eventual trade, named Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott co-captains of the team. Vanek is, far and away, the best player on the Buffalo Sabres. He is also a player that nearly everyone figured that the team would trade away for assets in a rebuild that many assume is coming (except for the Sabres’ front office). Somehow or another he remains, bait for the trade deadline.

No team wants to trade their captain – it’s a white flag of surrender. The Calgary Flames organization waived it last season with the departure of Jarome Iginla. The Sabres obviously don’t want to have to do the same thing… or maybe they’d like to entice their star to stay put past this season. Whatever the motivation, they named Steve Ott co-captain. Since the NHL rules specifically state that only one player may wear the C at a time, they’ve split the duties; Vanek will wear the C at home and Ott will wear it away.

I get that Steve Ott is a good team guy and probably excellent in the locker room. What this does, though, is it cheapens the captaincy and makes Thomas Vanek not have the full authority that he deserves as someone who has put up with being on the Sabres for this long.

Is this a sign that the letters on the front of the jersey are losing their meaning?

The Edmonton Oilers just named newcomer (though grizzled vet he may be) Andrew Ferrence as captain. The assistant captains? Oh, there are just six of them. In what is apparently the “participation ribbon” of the Edmonton franchise, Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nick Schultz and Ryan Smyth have all been picked. Gagner and Smyth have been around the block a time or two, while I can only assume that Eberle, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Schultz were given the As to designate them as future leaders of the team and to designate their important involvement in what’s to come.

It’s preemptive lettering. I’m not in the locker room, and I don’t know the team dynamic, but the situation in Edmonton strikes me as overkill, and again, cheapening of the honor of wearing a C or an A.

Thankfully two teams are still putting thought into who they choose. After the departure of Rick Nash, the Columbus Blue Jackets have taken their time in selecting their next captain. The loss of Nash was a huge hole for the organization to fill, and the team has treated the selection with the appropriate gravitas. The Tampa Bay Lightning lost their very long tenured captain this off-season. With the buyout of Vincent Lecavalier, the Bolts had to absolutely do the right thing when it came to replacing their beloved captain. They had a selection to make that came down to their Lady Byng and Art Ross trophy winning forward Martin St. Louis or his sniper partner in crime, Steven Stamkos. Both players lobbied for each other to get the captaincy. From the Tampa Bay Times:

"The way he plays the game," St. Louis said when asked why Stamkos would make a good captain. "Steve can be vocal, and he's developing into a pretty good leader. On top of that he plays the game at a high level. He understands how you play in this league, how you survive, how you dominate. It's a lot of hard work. He gets it."

But Stamkos countered with this about St. Louis: "Whether it's leading by example or in the room being vocal, he does it all. You can't teach that. You either have it or you don't, and Marty has that in him. He's a heart-and-soul type of guy. He's paid his dues a long time in this league. He's definitely deserving."

The Bolts went with the veteran St. Louis in a decision that no one can be displeased with, though if they would have selected Stamkos I’m sure I wouldn’t hear too many objections either.

Maybe the Bolts and the Jackets, two young franchises in the grand scheme of things, offer a hope for the future. They’re taking a matter that has always been one of the highest honors in hockey and putting thought behind it. It’s a shame two of the older franchises, one a Stanley Cup champion five times over, couldn’t treat it the same way.

About Laura Astorian

Laura Astorian is the head editor for the SB Nation blog St. Louis Game Time and has been a Blues fan from childhood. She promises that any anti-Blackhawks bias will be left at the door. Maybe.

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