These are always the most exciting days of the World Championship. Teams are arriving to the venues. Players are being added to the rosters. The anticipation of world-class hockey is upon us. As each of the 16 teams prepare to take to the ice, they each have different goals in mind, different mindsets, different ambitions. But they all have one thing in common — their dreams will more likely be fulfilled if they have a great captain.
In the NHL there is often little imagination in naming a captain. He is almost always the best player on the team, the one with the most points, the one on whom victory is most dependent. In international hockey, that is not always the case. If there is any pattern, the captain is usually the one who has played the longest for his national program, the one who has demonstrated a commitment and loyalty to his country through years of participation. That’s why Ville Peltonen, Ryan Smyth, and Robert Reichel were captains for their respective countries so often.
Why is a captain so important? First, on ice, he commands the respect of the officiating crew. A good captain knows how to talk to the referees and linesmen, establishes a rapport with the whistle blowers to ensure his team will be treated well and fairly during the game. There are dozens of small comments and discussions during a game which speak to this skill, and good communication can mean a timely call or non-call as a result.
A captain is also the player who attracts the most attention off ice from media. He deflects the criticism and puts the praise in context. He is the buffer between the outside world and the dressing room, the calm voice amid turmoil, the optimistic voice amid tough times, the voice of reason during a winning streak. A good team is a well-oiled machine — quiet, efficient, reliable. The captain is a catalyst to its running smoothly.
In the old days of the Original Six, a captain was also the buffer and negotiating agent between the players and coach or general manager. Although things are not so dictatorial any more, the captain is still the first player a coach looks to for advice, help, or discussion about anything related to the team. In a short tournament like the World Championship, this relationship is all the more critical. If something isn’t working or isn’t right, the coach and captain have to discuss the matter immediately. Team chemistry is vital to victory, and dissent is often the key to failure.
The captain must also contribute something special on ice, as a player. Perhaps he is, indeed, the team’s top scorer, or perhaps he is a great faceoff man, penalty killer, passer, or simply an overall reliable player who rarely makes a costly mistake or takes a bad penalty. Part of his leadership, though, has to be his play. This is perhaps obvious, but he must be able to exert a force on the game to turn defeat into victory, to ensure the players play up to their potential and not get bogged down by nerves or pressure. As such, experience is critical. There are no 22-year-old captains in the international game as there are in the NHL.
And so, as the players “bond” and “gel”, practice and get to know each other, the coach is trying to figure out who his captain will be. It’s not a complicated decision, but it is an important one. In the next few days, 16 “C” men will take to the ice hoping to lead their team to victory. One will succeed, and 15 will die trying.