Being named captain of an NHL team is an amazing honor. During my career, I was extremely proud to wear the captain's jersey for the Atlanta Thrashers. To me, it meant that my general manager and coach had faith in my abilities both on and off the ice. It also meant that they respected what I had accomplished throughout my career, as well as my ability to influence our young players.
Along with the captain role, comes significant responsibility. When issues arise, the rest of the team looks to you to rectify the situation and somehow lead them out of it, because unlike other sports, captainship isn't necessarily bestowed on the best player on the team. NHL tradition has dictated that it's captains be a presence and bring all sorts of intangibles to the table, and to the ice.
While it's not likely that a fourth-line player who gets little ice time would be named a captain, there are certainly cases where leadership is assumed by a role player. Calgary Flames forward Dave Lowry, and Florida Panthers center Brian Skrudland come to mind as a captains who don't necessarily bask in the limelight, but who are certainly acknowledged as team leaders.
In the past, teams voted for their captain. Nowadays, most often the captain is appointed or he simply emerges. And teams better be darn sure to get it right, because if you're not sure, you should assign three assistants. Because if a player gets stripped of his captaincy, you generally lose him as a player as well.
Surprisingly, the most difficult aspect of being a captain is maintaining a sense of self. You have to remember that you were named captain for a reason, so, as you can imagine, it's an inopportune time to start being someone you're not. Every leader has his own style. Some guys lead by example, while others are more vocal and prefer to motivate with a lot of yelling and screaming. So, it's important to stay true to yourself and your techniques.
Longtime captains Ron Francis and Scott Stevens lead by example. They're not stand up in the middle of the room, get in your face-type guys. But I remember playing with the Hartford Whalers back in 1985 when Ron was initially named captain. At only 22-year-olds and in his fifth year in the league, Ron tried to be more vocal than what was natural for him. It took him a little while to settle in and grow into the role. But once he became the Ronny we knew, he reestablished the reason he was named captain in the first place.
Then, there are more vocal captains like Mark Messier. I remember I was 31-years old when I was traded to the Rangers, and had never met Mark. I'll admit I was a little intimidated by him and his legend. But let's face it, you want to have a leader who sets parameters and can evoke emotions from the rest of the team, not some one who simply floats around.
The captain can't be the social coordinator (that's actually a whole different role), but he's got to have a feel for what's going on in the room. He's got to know what's going on around him and when and when not to intervene. Usually, those tend to be innate traits, so the guys selected want and relish the responsibility. And anyone who wouldn't embrace the role, wouldn't make a good captain anyway.
Anyone can be a leader when the team is zipping along nicely through the season. Just like everyone was a stock broker in the late 90's because everyone was making money -- it's easy to coast along. A true captain knows how to establish the balance of guiding without hand-holding, and pressing without smothering.
Ray Ferraro is a hockey analyst for ESPN. He retired from an 18-year NHL career after the 2001-02 season.