Monday, March 15, 2010

The Captain of Our Soul

With things (pending the condition of Tomas Plekanec) looking pretty good in Habs World right now, it might seem greedy to wish some loose ends were tied up before the playoffs. Still, at the risk of appearing ungrateful to the hockey gods who have so generously bestowed their sacred Ws in recent weeks, I think if there's going to be a captain at all this year, it would be a good idea to name him before the real season starts.

It's all well and good to lark through a regular season without an officially acknowleged leader. There are certainly important games and difficult situations along the way in the 82-game schedule, but if one night the team doesn't show up for some reason, there's always another game just ahead. The playoffs are a different beast. Not only do the players ratchet up their levels of speed and desperation, but second chances are in short supply. You might blow Game One of a series, but if you blow Game Two as well, you've got one foot on the golf course and the other on a banana peel.

The playoffs make legends, and it's there that captains become heroes. Who can forget the iconic images of the greatest playoff leaders? Maurice Richard, bloodied and bowed, shaking the hand of a vanquished foe. Jean Beliveau skating off the ice with the Cup in his last game. A bleeding, smiling Bob Gainey hoisted onto his teammates' shoulders in victory. Mark Messier howling in triumph after leading the Gretzky-less Oilers to his first Cup as captain. There's no doubt a great captain can drive a team to a championship. The question is, does a team need a captain to win?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I have to think in a situation as volatile and passionate as the playoffs, a team needs an emotional touchstone. When the team is uncertain and overexcited before Game One, it needs someone to be calm and set a direction. When things are going to crap in the vital Game Three, someone's got to stand up and inspire the room to be better. When the players are jittery and scared before a huge Game Seven, someone has to be able to harness their energy into a positive channel. As a friend of mine likes to say, someone in that room has to be able to give The Look. Picture the Rocket's Red Glare, Messier's ferocious glower or the quiet, implacable fire in Yzerman's eyes and you'll know what he means.

The Habs have been playing a good team game with a leadership-by-committee approach this year. One could argue they're playing with more heart than they did when under the leadership of a very good captain in Saku Koivu. My concern about that in the playoffs is whether the committee members will all be on the same page in crunch time. If they are, then maybe it's okay to share the rallying, prodding and inspirational duties among three or four veterans. I can't help thinking, though, that if the playoffs are a war on ice, then men need a general. It's fine to have your colonels and lieutenants, but they should all have to answer to a single leader. Otherwise there's potential for chaos.

Napoleon once said, "A leader is a dealer in hope." That's what the playoffs are all about. If a team has hope, it believes in itself. And a team that believes is a dangerous team. If the coaching staff buys into the idea that a team needs a dealer in hope during the playoffs, there's a handful of candidates from which to choose, including Markov, Gionta, Cammalleri and Plekanec. What it comes down to is whether any of them can successfully give The Look. That's for the players and coaches to determine.

As a fan, though, I think I'd like the team to have a captain for the playoffs, if only to lend it sense of unity and identity. I'd like the gaggle of "As" to not have to play rock/paper/scissors to see who gets to accept the Cup. (Hey...I can dream!) I think appointing a captain now, especially if the players vote for him themselves, would lend the team an added sense of direction and purpose at a time of year when every little advantage is important.

But hey, the Habs are winning for now, and if the hockey gods are listening, I don't want to be greedy.


redbaron said...

What you're saying makes sense, but they'd look silly if they named someone captain at this stage of the season, and ended up dealing him in the off-season to bring some cap relief (or being unable to re-sign him). At this stage of the year, the players know who the leaders are, who delivers the stony glare when it's needed in the locker room and who doesn't, and they'll look to those leaders for direction whether there's a "C" on their chest or not. If the Habs have been suffering from a lack of leadership this year, they sure haven't shown it.

Anonymous said...

With the movement of players the way the league is now, voting by players is not as meaningful as it used to be. The captain will have to be marketable as well as well-spoken. I like to think of a rah-rah captain that everyone looks up to in the room but, unfortunately, I think those days are over. It will be whoever looks better on the cover of the program. Messier cried when he got traded and Stevie Wonder refused to even entertain the idea. Would any of our guys cry if traded?