The Captain’s C: The Heaviest Letter to Wear in Sports.
So the “C” has officially been removed from Roberto Luongo’s che… err, chin.
“Lu” cited that carrying the title of team captain was a “precarious position to be in”, and perhaps “a little bit of distraction”; which are not exactly traits a person with the job description of stopping 100mph slap-shots needs to be worrying about while trying to catch a glimpse of the next slap-bomb coming from the point off of a wound-up one-timer through the 8 pairs of legs in front of him. That plus an entire hockey culture scrutinizing his selection as captain, and nit-picking all the pros and cons of it every night, maybe he’s better off without it.
Here’s the thing about being the captain of a team. Though the only literal privilege that comes with wearing it is being able to converse with the referees, it is a constant mental distraction.
In my minor hockey days, I had the “C” voted on my jersey for three consecutive seasons, and an “A” in my senior year at college. Every team has their own similar-but-different criteria for a captain to meet – skill, dedication, respect, inspiration, and plenty of other admirable traits. Sometimes it’s done by a team vote, sometimes it’s appointed by the coaching staff, and sometimes it’s a mix of both. Our college team had a neat tradition of having the current team’s captain choose a successor for the following season at the conclusion of the current one. Personally, I prefer the team vote – I think in the end, those are the guys that the captain is really leading, and I think that the players should be able to select who does that the best, in their opinion. I don’t like having the coaches pick the captain – I think that can create an unnecessary divide between team and coaches. Obviously there is a natural divide there already as coaches don’t compete on the ice (they just yell and tell players what to do), but when the captain is selected by them, and the assistants by the team, a we-chose-them-but-not-you mentality can develop, which can threaten the integrity of the captain, who may then be viewed as being a bit of a coaches puppet and remove some of the team’s respect that he desperately needs. But then again, none of that can happen as well, and everyone can get along just fine. It’s just a precarious selection process is all I’m saying.
There’s something very empowering about that letter “C” when it’s stitched on your jersey; it just makes you feel a cut-above – not in a pompous way, but in a humble way, as you know you’ve been entrusted with a very deep responsibility. You now have the task of not only being (and being expected to be) the best player you can be individually, but also getting the best out of your teammates every night in hopes of success. And you also have the duty of carrying yourself with class and respect off the ice. While you do your best to emulate the leadership characteristics of great captains like Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, Messier (while you know you’re not as good as them, it’s cool to consider that you do share one thing in common with them), and perhaps former captain teammates as well, everyone else is busy scrutinizing your leadership style, and how effective (or not) it is. People who know me (or knew me during those days) know that I’m a pretty mild-mannered guy; so especially when I was younger, I constantly heard things like I was “too quiet” as a captain, and I took my share of heat. In the end I didn’t care what they said too much. I just did my best to do my job, which was mainly to produce on the ice and hope my teammates would follow by example, which I believe I did well.
After my third consecutive run as team captain, I didn’t receive another letter until my 4th year in college. To be honest, it hurt not having it, and my jersey always felt just a little naked without something sewn on the front left shoulder; it made me a little jealous of the guys who did get it instead. I spent a lot of time over the following years wondering what changed, what I had done wrong, and what I would have to do to get it back someday, some year. I heard a lot of the same “you don’t need a letter to be a leader” rhetoric over the years, which is true. I was always hopeful that my teammates would see me as a leader when it came to team voting time again though. At some point, I did just say “the hell with it” and tried to focus on my game, though it never really left the back of my mind. I think not having a letter and not caring about it did afford me the opportunity to focus on simple, individual tasks as a player, instead of a broad spectrum of responsibility that comes with worrying about leading everyone else as well. By my third year at college, and 8th year without a letter, I was my team’s leading scorer,
and probably playing the best hockey I ever had. By my fourth, I had an “A” voted onto my jersey, which meant a lot more to me than surely any of my teammates realized. To me, their scribbles of my name on a torn-off piece of paper pulled out of a hat, was them saying, “yeah, we do want you to lead us, we do think you’re worthy of it,” which, although it wasn’t the “C”, it was the recognition I know I had been looking for for such a long time. Our captain that year did a great job, but when I looked back on it, I much prefer being voted a leader by the boys than having it as an appointment. I always had the romantic idea of wearing that “C” just one more time in my career, and perhaps having that team be the last I would play for; but alas that opportunity hasn’t come yet.
So whether you’re 15 years old, or an Olympic gold medalist; if you don’t have thick enough skin to separate the mental battle from the actual game, then being a captain may not be for you. It’s something that can really mess with your head, if you allow it to. It’s not a responsibility that just any player can handle either. Franchise players like Mike Modano and Brett Hull were given the “C” for only a few seasons until they were replaced by other players in the role, as their coaches felt their leadership style didn’t “jive”, let’s say, which the coaches expectations (click the links to read the rabbit hole stories about them). I played with one player (who is probably the most skilled player I ever played with) who outright requested not to be given a letter at all. As much as I hate the Vancouver Canucks, I do respect and empathize with Luongo for enduring as long as he did, and all the other great captains who take their share of abuse for not leading their team to the Stanley Cup every year. Roberto did what was best for the team, which may be the best move he made as captain. Like most scenarios, critics seem to know exactly what a captain is doing wrong and all the things he should be doing in order to be a better captain; without a doubt, putting those same people in that same role would yield further incompetence in the eyes of other critics. Everyone seems to know how to do something better than the person they’re criticizing, and that’s just a fact of life. The best leaders find a way to lead despite all the negativity. Unless you’ve had a “C” on your jersey, there’s a lot more to it than you likely realize, so keep that in mind next time you think it’s such an easy job!