Hockey is a game of instinct and reaction, of vision and sensation. It's a beautiful chaos, which is probably why the rules with which we attempt to harness it are the unspoken ones as often as they are the ones officially recorded in the referee's handbook. Some things, any hockey player will tell you, are just understood. Among those understandings, in Montreal, is that the players choose their own captain.
From the Rocket, through Beliveau, the Pocket Rocket, Cournoyer, Savard, Carbonneau and Koivu, some of the greatest, longest-standing captains in team history were all selected for leadership by their teammates. The fact that that trust was bestowed on them by their own colleagues was important to them. And it was because of that choice on their part that the players trusted, respected and accepted those captains. Bob Gainey knows this better than anyone, not because he was elected captain of the Canadiens by his teammates, but because he wasn't.
Gainey was appointed by coach Bob Berry, and the decision to bypass the players in selecting the captain made Gainey's transition into the role a difficult one for him and for his teammates. Here's how Larry Robinson described the situation in 1988, seven years after Gainey's appointment:
"Truth to be told, it seemed that Berry instinctively got off on the wrong foot with his very first act of authority, appointing Bob Gainey captain of the team after Serge Savard formally announced his retirement in August, 1981. We ourselves couldn't have picked a better man to replace Serge as captain than Bob Gainey but we never were given the chance. The various possible candidates for the job would have included the Flower, Guy Lapointe and myself, but none of us was the type of leader who would wear the C with the distinction of Savard, Yvan Cournoyer, Henri Richard and Jean Beliveau. All of these men had been elected by their peers, as Bob Gainey surely would have been. But that was taken away from us and there was resentment in the room. When the press conference was called to make the announcement, Bo wore a three-piece suit. The rest of his teammates wore jeans and polo shirts in a subtle protest.
The captain of the Montreal Canadiens always has been a players' player. While he may be used for two-way message traffic between players and management, he was always seen as a player first, a management messenger second... I can't say often enough that Bob Gainey turned out to be a magnificent leader and captain, a leader on the ice and off. But the players had the impression that someone in management just didn't trust us to have the good sense to elect him ourselves. Going into the 1981-82 season, there were a few noses out of joint."
Of course, now we can all agree with Robinson that Gainey was the player the team probably would have selected anyway, and he ended up being a great captain on a team with a history of great captains. But the start of his tenure with the C was unnecessarily difficult because of Berry's decision to appoint him. Gainey undoubtedly remembers that.
And that's Bob Gainey we're talking about. When he became captain, he'd already won four Stanley Cups, four Selke trophies and a Conn Smythe. He was recognized around the league for his leadership and dedication, and was acknowledged as the best defensive forward in NHL history. He was a career Hab, starting his ninth season in Montreal, when he became captain. If he experienced resentment from his teammates when he was handed the C, can you imagine what a guy like Mike Cammalleri or Scott Gomez would get if they became captain without even having played a game in the CH?
The captain's role may be largely symbolic when it comes to what happens on the ice these days. Even in the dressing room, players understand everyone has to accept a share of leadership within the team. But when hard times hit, and the emotional side of the game takes over, players...and fans too...still look to the captain for guidance. In Montreal, he has to be the guy who stands there after the game and answers the tough questions. And when things aren't going in the Canadiens' favour on the ice, he's the one who has to take the team by the throat and get a little more out of it. To do that effectively he's got to have the trust of his teammates, and as we know, trust is a gift that must be given freely.
Bob Gainey knows that, and that's why I can't imagine him appointing the captain and putting some other player through a version of what he experienced in his own ascension to the captaincy of the Canadiens.