European captains in the NHL
by Andrew Podnieks|25 FEB 2021
Swiss forward Nico Hischier during the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
On 20 February 2021, Nico Hischier was named captain of the New Jersey Devils. At 22 years and 44 days of age, he immediately became the youngest active captain in the NHL this season. The Devils had gone a year without a C-man since they traded Andy Greene to the New York Islanders. 

Hischier’s naming is historic on two fronts and presents an opportunity to look back at the most notable moments in NHL history for European captains.

Incredibly, Hischier is one of only four European first-overall draft choices to become captain of an NHL team. There have been eight Euros to go first overall since Mats Sundin made history in 1989 as the first. Of those eight, only Sundin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Alexander Ovechkin have become captains besides Hischier. 

But Hischier is part of an even rarer group. Consider that only 38 Swiss players have ever made it to the NHL, including two this young season (Pius Suter and Philipp Kurashev). Of that number, seven were goalies (who can’t be captain), leaving 31 Swiss skaters. And yet of that small number, three have gone on to captain NHL teams! Mark Streit was the first, with the New York Islanders (2011-13), and Roman Josi has been captain in Nashville since 2017. Pretty impressive C-stats from a small nation compared to the giants of the game.

Only one pair of European brothers have ever both been captain, and for that we look to Saku and the recently-retired Mikko Koivu. Both had very long runs wearing the C. Saku was one of the longest-serving captains in Montreal Canadiens history, from 1999-2009, while Mikko wore the C for the Minnesota Wild for 12 years (2008-20, the first year on a rotation basis, after which he alone wore it).

Of the 45 European captains in NHL history, only two have captained two teams. Jaromir Jagr wore the C for both Pittsburgh (1998-2001) and the Rangers (2006-08). Alexei Yashin was captain in Ottawa for one year (1998-99) and later with the Islanders (2005-07).

Of those 45 captains, 15 have been Swedish, seven from Russia, six from Finland, five each from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, three from Switzerland, and one each from Austria, Germany, Latvia and Slovenia.

The crown for the longest-serving European captain goes to Zdeno Chara (Slovakia), who was captain in Boston for 14 years, 2006-20. Second is Daniel Alfredsson, who was captain in Ottawa for 14 years (1999-2013).
Although Hischier is the youngest captain right now, he is not the youngest from Europe ever. That distinction goes to Sweden’s Gabriel Landeskog. When he was named C-man for the Colorado Avalanche, he was only 19 years, 286 days old, the youngest in NHL history. Landeskog was eleven days younger than Sidney Crosby when he claimed the title in 2012, but four years later he, in turn, was usurped by another Canadian, Connor McDavid. McDavid was only 19 years, 266 days old when he assumed the captain’s duties, but Landeskog, now into his ninth season wearing the C for the Avs, remains the youngest European captain ever.

Several teams have yet to have even one European captain, but the Buffalo Sabres have had six European captains at one time or another. The Minnesota Wild have had five. Interestingly, of the Original Six teams, all have had exactly one captain except Detroit, which had Nicklas Lidstrom and then Henrik Zetterberg.

Of course, the greatest accomplishment for any captain is to win the Stanley Cup, and only three Europeans have captained their team to ultimate glory. Lidstrom was the first, with Detroit in 2007/08, followed soon after by Chara with Boston in 2010/11 and most recently Alexander Ovechkin in Washington in 2017/18.

And of all European captains, only four are members of the IIHF’s most exclusive group, the Triple Gold Club – Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Jagr, and Peter Forsberg, who was captain in Philadelphia for one season (2006/07).

The historic distinction of first ever European captain goes to Sweden’s Lars-Erik Sjoberg. He wore the C for the Winnipeg Jets in 1979/80, their first NHL season, after having been captain of the team in the WHA from 1975 to 1978.

And so, as Nico Hischier begins his time as captain of the Devils, he can look to those who came before him and see if there are any records to break. Can he wear the C longer than Chara? Possible. Can he captain the Devils to the Cup? Time will tell. Will he captain a second NHL team? Let’s see where his career goes. Will he join the Triple Gold Club? Difficult as Switzerland has yet to win World Championship or Olympic gold, but who knows? 

What we do know is that Hischier is one of only 45 Europeans ever to wear the C in the NHL, and one of an amazing three Swiss to do so. He's already made history. The rest is bonus.