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No captain, my captain: Tradition-rich NHL teams are no longer giving players the ‘C’

Henrik and Daniel Sedin were Vancouver mainstays for 18 years, and while it was Henrik who wore the "C" on his chest as the team’s captain for eight seasons, the pair shared the privilege and the burden of being the twin faces of the Canucks. In this, their first season without them, Vancouver General Manager Jim Benning didn’t think his young, rebuilding team was completely ready to replace them, and he didn’t feel it was right to make one player the public voice of the dressing room. Rather than award one player the "C" so soon after the Sedins’ retirement, four players — Alex Edler, Bo Horvat, Brandon Sutter and Chris Tanev — are wearing an "A" as assistant captains, sharing a leadership responsibility that often is too heavy for one player to handle alone.

“Being a Canadian team in a Canadian marketplace, I feel that there’s a lot of extra responsibility on a captain,” Benning said. “We have a lot of good veteran leadership in our group, and we felt like we’re going to just go with the assistant captains this year and let Bo keep developing as a player so he doesn’t have to bear that responsibility all on his own."

There has always been a mystique around the captaincy in the NHL. Practically, it’s the captain who typically converses with the referees in-game, but it’s also the captain who often faces the brunt of the media scrutiny, a pressure that’s magnified if he or the team is not performing well. A handful of players might have a "C" on their jerseys in the NFL, the NBA did away with the uniform distinction in 2011, and most MLB teams don’t designate a captain. But traditionally in hockey, just one player is considered the captain, while others might wear an "A" denoting an assistant or alternate captain. The post is sacred to some, but more and more NHL teams are opting not to name a captain — or at least take their time doing so.

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Six teams — Detroit, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Vegas and the New York Rangers — are currently without one. Last season, four teams didn’t have a captain; the Carolina Hurricanes had co-captains, a practice they ended this offseason in favor of awarding veteran Justin Williams the "C" despite him approaching unrestricted free agency at the end of this season.

With three tradition-rich teams from the NHL’s Original Six among the group embracing a captain-less season, could the sport one day go the way of others and do away with awarding one player the "C"?

Vegas, the upstart of the group, may be the best example of why having a captain can be overrated. The Golden Knights didn’t want to force one person into the captaincy during last year’s inaugural season, when players were still getting to know one another after the expansion draft. Following a surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals, the philosophy in their second season is that they have “23 captains.”

“Last year, it was a different situation than any of us had ever been in before, so we needed 23 different leaders to be able to come together and build as a team," forward Reilly Smith said. "I think we kind of just roll that over into this year and try to work in a similar attitude and a similar mind-set where it takes all of us. Right now, on NHL teams, there’s not one guy in the locker rooms who makes all of the rules anyway.”

To Smith’s point, most NHL teams have some sort of leadership council, and that helps alleviate some of the burden from a lone captain. But speaking to his role as the Hurricanes' captain, Williams referenced the importance of having a clear representative of the dressing room.

“People want your opinion on a lot of things because you’re essentially the voice of the players within the dressing room,” Williams said. “And nowadays, the players’ voices mean a lot more than they did 10 years ago. Usually, it was just, ‘We’re doing it this way,’ without any advice. Now it’s a little bit different. The players’ voices matter, and coaches and management, they listen to that. . . .

"If anything, I think other sports will come toward us. I think it’s a very solid foundation. It’s something that people really essentially work for. People aspire to be leaders. It’s an awesome thing, and I don’t see that going away anytime ever.”

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Some teams award the "C" to their best player, the face of the franchise, as the Washington Capitals did with Alex Ovechkin in 2010 and the Edmonton Oilers did with Connor McDavid in 2016, when he was just 19. Among the most popular topics in Toronto this summer was who of the Maple Leafs' two best players would be named the captain: Auston Matthews or newcomer John Tavares? The answer was neither. The team is punting for now, choosing to go without a captain this season. Such a move figures to alleviate some of the weight for those players in a pressure-packed, championship-starved market.

“Of course, there’s pressure,” Ovechkin said. "You try to be a leader on the ice and off the ice. But I think I learned a lot from previous leaders. The team has to help you a lot as well because I’m pretty sure lots of young guys became captains on their teams, and experienced guys helped them a lot. I had the same thing. . . . Through all those years, I had help from more experienced guys. The first year, it was totally different than now. Obviously, my [English] language was not that good, and sometimes if I wanted to say something, it was hard to do that. But through all those years, I learned a lot.”

Two years ago, the Florida Panthers made Derek MacKenzie, a fourth-line forward who had never scored more than nine goals in a season, their captain because he set a good example in the dressing room. But Florida took the unusual step of having MacKenzie pass the torch to talented center Aleksander Barkov before this season, even though MacKenzie remains on the team. Asked how the transition to the new role is going, the 23 year-old Barkov said it’s “nothing special," crediting a group of veterans for helping guide the team’s younger players.

Benning is hopeful the same thing is happening in Vancouver’s dressing room — just without the "C" stitched onto anyone’s jersey for the time being.

“We want our young players to concentrate on playing and doing the things that they need to do to be successful in the league and not having to worry about talking to the media every day about the team,” Benning said. "It distracts them from developing as players, and we don’t want to do that.”

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