Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why Bob Gainey Will Not Appoint a Captain

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.


Howard said...

Wow, how does one follow in the huge footsteps of Saku Koivu? He was a true Captain if there ever was one.
Lamentably, he couldn't speak a word of French and was villified in the Francophone media for it without any consideration for all that he had done for the team and the city of Montreal.
My choice for the C would be Andre Markov. He is a calm influence and clearly the most talented player, but being an allophone, not too comfortable in dealing with the media. Kovalev would have been the logical choice, the man has ego to spare and is easily above any criticism in the media. Sadly he has departed down the road (the way things are going he may talk himself back to Montreal).
I think the team will go with a troika of A's. Perhaps Gomez or Cammalleri to represent the new guys, Markov and maybe Lapierre. Like you said it's up to the guys in the room.

Andrew Berkshire said...

Agreed whole heartedly.

Ted said...

Just a question but would Bob Gainey be the person to appoint a captain? If any one was to do it, wouldn't it be Jacques Martin?

I tend to think that as a unifying approach one would be apt to leave it to the players especially given the comments attributed to Larry Robinson. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them leave it for the season. Find out who surfaces during the course of this year.

DB said...

Gainey could appoint an interim captain, say Markov, and announce the players will vote on a permanent captain in 3 or 4 months. This would let Markov get a taste of being captain while the players get to know each other.

Gainey could also just decide to appoint a captain - what's one more surprise this year. While the team's tradition is for the players to vote on the captain, I'm not sure how ingrained that tradition is with the current players - none of them have ever had to vote on the captain.

Ted said...

JT - Perhaps you could answer this or have contacts who would know. I've read in several places recently that Robert Lang has been invited to attend the Canadiens camp.

Do you know if this is true? If so what are your thoughts on his appearance in camp. I really enjoyed what he brought to the team last year both on and off the ice and I beleive he was sorely missed after he went down.

J.T. said...

@Ted: I haven't heard anything concrete...just rumours the same as you have. I like Lang and I thought he brought a lot of good things to the team last year. But I can't see how Gainey can afford him without making a trade. First of all, there are already five centres competing for four spots, without even considering the prospects standing a chance. Secondly, there's only about 1.5-2 million left under the cap, depending on how you arrange things. The team could stand to lose Metropolit or Laraque to clear up some cap space in favour of a healthy Lang. But the contract would still have to be pretty small in terms of both money and term. We'll know in a couple of weeks, I guess.

glkbij;l said...

I guess the CH will have 3 assistants till Christmas, and then the players will make the choice. This gives a couple of months for everyone to better know each other (specially the new guys).

I think it's a logic solution.

BTW, excellent blog JT. Really, really well written and "posé", as we say in french. Keep it up! ;)