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Amidst D.C. sports drama, Caps celebrate Captain Ovechkin

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; 11:26 AM

So there's been an awful lot of talk about sports captains in recent days. Clinton Portis, you'll recall, suggested on Tuesday's John Thompson Show that he should be a captain instead of Jason Campbell, saying the quarterback is "not ready for that situation."

"I think Jason has enough trouble in getting the plays in and worrying about this," Portis said, "compared to controlling the huddle and making sure, 'Oh, we do this and we do that.' But you go and vote Jason Campbell [as captain] -- you know Jason Campbell ain't go and tell the coach, 'Well, we need to do this or we need to do that,' or 'This is how the players want it.' The only person I think would do it is London Fletcher."

Campbell fired back, saying, "There's a reason guys get selected as captains, and there's a reason guys don't get selected as captains," before later tempering his remarks. Meantime, one of the Wizards' tri-captains, Gilbert Arenas, has . . . well, you know. I'm not sure if "leading by example" necessarily applies.

Anyhow, with Alex Ovechkin earning that 'C' Tuesday night even while D.C.'s other teams endured leadership catastrophes, I figured I'd ask some of the Caps' most respected locker room presences what makes a good captain.

"Passion," Brooks Laich said without hesitating. "Desire. I think Ovi's competitive spirit is the greatest thing about him, and I think that's why they named him captain. The players in the room obviously have a great deal of respect for Alex, and he's a leader by example, how hard he plays every single night, never takes a day off. That's contagious to the rest of us, and that's why he's our captain."

(Laich actually has been a captain since he was a kid, since he's rarely stayed in one place for long enough to be considered. I told him that fans had bandied his name about as a possibility, and he just smiled. "Fans talk about whatever they want," he said. "I didn't think about it. It was out of my control. I would have been honored if I got it, but I think the decision that they made was great.)

Just about everyone I spoke with echoed Laich's words: that words aren't the main thing.

"I think just a guy that puts his team before himself and competes every night and will fight for his team," said Mike Green, who was a captain for two years in juniors. "It's the guy that'll do anything for his team basically, it doesn't matter what it is."

Now, I'm sure part of this was my fault for venturing into the land of abstract athlete talk, where "leading by example" is, at worst, a top-10 cliché. But that's what players kept coming back to, when asked about captaincy in general or Ovechkin in particular.

"The best example of Alex's [leadership] is we were down 5-2 in San Jose, there's two minutes left, and he had like four hits on one shift against their biggest player," said Quintin Laing, who was the captain in both Norfolk and Hershey. "I think it's that drive, that just kind of spills over to the team. Guys see that, and they're like, 'Well, I've got to pick my game up. If Alex is playing that hard, I better pick it up.' That kind of influence from a guy like that is big for our team. When he's going, other guys follow. That's what he brings to the table."

"Not only can he lead by his voice, he can lead by example," Tom Poti said. "Knowing that the captain's out there giving 110 percent and doing anything for any guy, going through the wall for us, I think it's just unbelievable."

I was hoping for at least one story of Ovechkin making inspirational speeches in the dressing room, or leading players-only meetings, or singing Italian arias to loosen up the room. Haven't gotten any yet.

"Guys lead different ways; just because you're the captain doesn't mean you have to be the loudest guy," said alternate captain Mike Knuble, who hasn't had a 'C' since high school. "The last thing you want him to do is get too confused about being captain. Just let him play. You know, there'll be guys that'll handle other things behind the scenes too. He doesn't need to handle everything."

"Alex's role isn't going to change on the hockey team because he's got a 'C' on his jersey," Laich said. "He speaks up when he needs to speak up, but there's other leaders in the room that can do the same."

"You don't have to talk a lot," Laing said, "but I think sometimes, something has to be said, and you address the room, and good leaders know when to step up and say that. The less you say, the more it means. I think that's what it takes, and everything else just falls into place."

So no, you probably won't be surprised to hear players praising the dude who makes the most money, earns the most awards, and just got named the captain, but it still felt sort of nice to hear those words after this odd week from D.C.'s other stars.

"We're happy for him, definitely elated," Laich said. " We think he is the captain, and he's a great guy to follow."

"He's young. I think he can learn some things from the older guys," Green said. " But I think he's a great candidate, and it was a great choice by them naming him."

"I think it's a no-brainer," Knuble said. "The organization's made a huge commitment to him, he's the face of the team moving forward, so it's a pretty obvious choice and I think everyone's in complete agreement."

"The way he plays, night in and night out, and what he gives to this city and gives to the franchise, it's unmatched by anyone else," Poti said. "Definitely the right choice."

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