If you have ever been to or watched a hockey game, you may have noticed one player wearing the letter “C” on their jersey, with two or three other players wearing an “A”. These letters aren’t just for decoration, but rather to designate the captain and alternate captains of the team. With the NHL season starting in just a few weeks, teams have started announcing their leadership changes amongst the players, whether it be new alternate captains or a new captain in general. Being chosen as a captain is one of the biggest honors for a player to receive while playing in the NHL, and while having a captain isn’t required, teams are encouraged to select one player to be the voice of the team. Let’s take a look into the process of selecting a captain, what that role entails, and some examples of what makes a good team captain.
How is a captain chosen?
Captains have been selected in several different ways in the history of the NHL. In the past, some teams have held votes between the players and coaching staff to determine who everyone collectively wants to be the captain, but more recently, it is the team’s management that ends up making the executive decision. The head coach and general manager usually take a look at the players’ interactions with each other and the leadership qualities they may exhibit during games and in practices during the previous season when making their decision.
More often than not, captains had previously served as alternate captains, although this is not always the case and it is not uncommon for a captain to be selected without having served as an alternate. There are no set qualifications for a player to be selected as a captain, but these players are usually veterans that have played for that franchise for a prolonged period of time and know how that particular franchise runs and operates. Again, this is not necessarily a requirement, as the NHL has had many players selected as captain when they were very young and had only played on that team for a year or two. These “franchise players” are usually chosen as captains because of their skill and ability, and end up leading the team as an example of work ethic and standard on the ice. A great example of a franchise player being selected as a captain is Connor McDavid, captain of the Edmonton Oilers and youngest player to ever be selected as a captain in NHL history.
McDavid was only 19 years old when he accepted the role, and has served as the team's captain ever since. After being drafted 1st overall in 2015, McDavid scored 48 points in 45 games during his rookie season, and has seen his point production increase year after year, scoring 153 points, his career high, in the 2022-23 season. Although McDavid was chosen as a captain because of his very important role of scoring for the team, he also has the ability to be the spokesperson for the team. We know how captains like McDavid are chosen, but what is the all-important role of the captain for these franchises?
The role of the captain
NHL captains have a much bigger role as captains than in any other sport. They have several different roles on and off the ice, and each one is just as important as the other. The main job the captain has is to lead by example both on and off the ice. It is their job to set the standard as to what the franchise’s expectations are for the players in the game and in their everyday lives. The captain also represents the team’s values off the ice and how they want to act in the community, and will be the spokesperson at events around their hometown, whether it be through team-run events or events scheduled by the city.
Not only are these players invaluable to the team when it comes to speaking to the community, but they are also the first person the players will go to when they have concerns or questions about the team. The captain acts as the player’s representative to the coaches and administrative staff, so the players need to feel comfortable going to their captain when they have an issue that they feel needs to be addressed. The players should also feel like they can go to them when they are having personal issues as well.
An example of a captain who is a great spokesperson for their team is Nashville Predators captain Roman Josi. Josi is only the second Swiss captain in NHL history, and is about to start his sixth year as captain. Throughout his captaincy, he has represented the team at many events in the Nashville community. He attended the Pride parade in downtown Nashville this past year, and has spoken out about the team’s support of the LGBTQ+ community several times. When Nashville was in shock after the Covenant school shooting, Josi stepped up and spoke to both the team separately in their locker room and to the community in general voicing their concern and sympathies to those affected. As the Predators’ all time leading point scorer with 601 points in 827 games, Josi also plays a leadership role on the ice. When the team was plagued with injuries late in this season, they were forced to call up several young players from their AHL team, and it was Josi’s job to make them feel welcome and comfortable and to make the transition as easy as possible for them. Several of these young players stated in their post-game interviews that Josi was a great role model for them and helped them adjust to life in the NHL as quickly as possible.
During games, it is the captain’s job to speak up for the players and defend their actions. If there is a penalty against a player that the team doesn’t agree with, it is the captain’s job to go to the officials and voice the team’s concerns. The captain and alternate captains are the only players who are officially recognized as being able to talk and debate with these officials throughout the game. The captain also plays the role of setting the tone and pace of the game. Players will follow the captain’s example when it comes to physicality and speed of the game. For example, if their opponent makes a bad hit to one of their teammates, the captain will usually step in and confront the opposing team about it and will do something to defend his teammates. If the captain is playing a fast and aggressive game, the rest of the team will follow suit, and if the captain is playing a more intricate and calculated game, the players will do the same.
We’ve explored the main role of a captain, but what traits make a captain great?
What makes a good captain?
There are many traits that make a good captain, but a necessity for all captains is having extreme passion for both the game and their team. The captain has to spend countless hours studying his team and the game, so it is vital that they really love what they are doing and who they are doing it for. He must understand the strengths and weaknesses of the team and make the team aware of changes that need to be made while also praising and encouraging his teammates when they are doing a good job. A captain must also be very mentally and emotionally strong and disciplined, as his teammates will look to him to make decisions and lead the team through hard times. They must be able to mentally handle the pressure of leading an entire team through the good and the bad, and to take accountability when the team isn’t doing as well. The captain also needs to be able to keep the players disciplined when they are losing, but also when they are winning, as it is easy for things to derail quickly with the high emotions of both falling short and being successful.
An example of a player who has had to captain his team through both the good and the bad is Nico Hischier, captain of the New Jersey Devils. Hischier was the Devils’ first overall draft pick in 2017, and was only 22 years old when he accepted the position as captain. At 24, Nico is the youngest captain currently serving in the NHL. During the 2023 playoffs, the Devils went through a lot of adversity as a team. After several gutsy wins and tough losses, they made it past the first round by defeating the New York Rangers in seven games. However, when playing the Hurricanes in round two, the Devils struggled with point production and did not play their best games. After their game two loss to the Canes, Nico stated, “We need more offense (and) it starts with me. Obviously disappointed in myself in (not) helping the team offensively. I’m trying my best.” This post-game interview was one of many disappointing ones for the young captain, but he handled it with grace. He held himself and his team accountable when he needed to and was able to lead his team to the biggest season-to-season point turnaround in franchise history. Even though they didn’t get as far as they would have wanted, Hischier got valuable experience in leading his young team through the good and the bad, and certainly earned the respect from his teammates after their playoff experience.
Although the captain is not necessarily the best player on the team, they need to have immense knowledge of the rules of the game, especially since it is their job to talk to the referee when there are penalties that the team doesn’t necessarily agree with.
A captain who is well known for his knowledge of the game is Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Crosby became captain in 2007 at just 19 years old and has been serving in that role ever since. His high hockey IQ has allowed him to make plays that no one else can see and has helped him lead his team to a total of three Stanley Cups throughout his time as captain. It would be easy to just list the record number of points he has put up over his time in the NHL, but it is important to also note that he has been a great captain and example for his team and has ensured that they are in the best possible position to be successful. Even though he is well known for his ability to score an insane amount of points, his knowledge of the game is what really makes him unique.
The last trait that is invaluable for a great captain to have is work ethic. The captain is more often than not the hardest working player in the room, and must hold his team to the same work ethic that he has. It is important for the captain to be one of the first people in the arena during practices and game days and one of the last to leave. The players on the team will take note of this work ethic and will most likely try to replicate it.
Someone who just recently stated that he wants to have this type of leadership was Quinn Hughes, newly appointed captain of the Vancouver Canucks. Hughes was named captain just a few weeks ago and fans have had nothing but good things to say about the decision. Hughes served as an alternate captain in the 2022-23 season in which he scored 76 points in 78 games with the team. Team leadership stated in their press conference announcing the captaincy that Hughes mixes well with everyone on the team and is able to have the much-needed uncomfortable conversations that are had when the team has tough losses. Hughes also made it clear that he wanted to be a captain who is “a leader through his work ethic.” He certainly isn’t one of the louder and more outspoken members of the team, but he leads through the way he works and through his high standards for himself and his team. According to him, this opportunity is just the beginning for him and he wants to use this opportunity to continue to learn from his teammates. As a new captain, he will continue to look to his alternate captains and teammates for guidance, but will certainly be looking forward to starting his new role with the team.
Captains are an essential role to any NHL team, as they are someone who is more often than not considered the rock of the team. They play several important roles and are looked to by the players during the good and the bad, and are constantly looking to create a stronger and more consistent team for their franchises.