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NHL captains like Lightning's Stamkos carry heavy weight of tradition

“It’s a great honor,” the Lightning’s Steven Stamkos says of being a captain in the NHL. He got his “C” in March 2014.
“It’s a great honor,” the Lightning’s Steven Stamkos says of being a captain in the NHL. He got his “C” in March 2014.
Published Oct. 24, 2016

Steven Stamkos plopped himself down at his stall along the middle of the back wall of the Lightning dressing room 15 minutes after a dispiriting loss that ended the first homestand of the season. Still in full uniform, with sweat running off his face, Stamkos, as he does after every game, faced the TV cameras, microphones and notepads. That's part of being a captain in the NHL.

"When you have that 'C' on your jersey, there's a lot of responsibility and accountability, and you have to make sure you're doing those things yourself if you want to hold everyone else accountable," Stamkos said.

No other pro sports league in North America holds the captaincy in as high regard as the NHL.

"It's a great honor," Stamkos said. "The fact that you're in the NHL is pretty special, but (you are) a leader of not only a team, you represent the organization, the city that you play in."

When Dave Andreychuk was named captain of the Lightning in 2002, he thought of one his boyhood heroes, Darryl Sittler, who captained the Maple Leafs. When Denis Potvin was made captain of the Islanders on the eve of their 1980-83 run of Stanley Cup titles, he thought about his childhood hero, Jean Beliveau, who wore the C in Montreal from 1961-71 and captained five Cup winners.

"It's a tradition in our sport," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. "It goes all the way back. I don't know where it started or how it came to be."

Yzerman was 21 when Red Wings coach Jacques Demers named him captain because, Demers said at the time, he "wanted a guy with the Red Wings crest tattooed on his chest." Yzerman held the title for 20 years, making him the longest continuous captain of a team in NHL history.

"After a while, I realized it's how you go about things on a regular basis," Yzerman said. "These players are of varying ages, but they're all professionals. They're intelligent guys, confident guys, and they're all driven guys. Your captain has to be at the top of that and set the example on a daily basis."

Potvin won the Calder Trophy (top rookie) and three Norris Trophies (top defenseman) before he became a captain. Those awards paled in comparison to wearing the C.

"(To) have success as a team becomes the most important thing in your life," Potvin said. "The individual awards were not there anymore when we were winning Stanley Cups, and I can see where my game changed. It was more of a team game. I think most captains find that that is the most important thing."

By rule — there is actually one in the NHL rule book — the captain is the only player on the ice allowed to discuss the interpretation of rules with the referee.

The rest of this work is done mostly behind the scenes.

"You're the middle man," said Ryan Callahan, who captained the Rangers before his 2014 trade to the Lightning. "You try to relay the coach's message throughout the room. You're definitely the spokesman for the players, whether that is we need a day of rest or we need to come in and work a little bit harder."

Andreychuk remembered addressing his teammates after they were eliminated by the Devils in 2003 playoffs. "We're not ready to win," he told them.

The message was this: Go home and work hard in the offseason. There is a lot of talent in the dressing room but too much unrealized potential.

You may recall the Lightning won it all the following year.

Accountability, Andreychuk said, is the first building block to a championship.

After a 6-2 loss to the Islanders late in the 2001-2002 season, Andreychuk called a players-only meeting and told all his teammates to remain at their stalls — including goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who didn't even play — and then told the reporters they could talk to any player and ask any question.

Everyone — players and reporters — did as they were told.