A Rebuttal: Let Management Pick the Captain

We’ve probably spent the better part of the summer arguing over who’s going to be the 28th captain of the Montreal Canadiens. After going an entire season without an official, captain, GM Pierre Gauthier and head coach Jacques Martin have ensured everyone that the Habs will not be going into another season without a captain, and that one will be announced before the start of the regular season on October 7th in Toronto, likely, even, before the end of training camp at the end of September.

We’ve gone through the candidates time and time again. The list includes Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Andrei Markov and others, but no two candidates have resonated more with the fans than veteran, hard working winger Brian Gionta, and stud, ironman defenseman Josh Gorges.

Gorges may seem like a “flavour of the month” candidate, and many of the arguments against him have been age, a role on the team that may not be as front-and-center as, say, a top defenseman or forward, and, surprise, surprise, his contract situation (which could easily remedied, but anyway). On the other hand, Gorges is a hard working character guy with a “never give up” attitude and a dedication to this team that is more than evident. He’s risen from the shadows and played the underdog role all his life, a role which he continues to occupy with the Montreal Canadiens, and a role that really represents what this team is.

Gionta comes to Montreal with over ten years of pro experience, a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2003, scoring touch, and lots of leadership qualities. He, too, is an underdog, thanks to his size, but has found ways to succeed despite being one of the smallest players in the league. There really isn’t much to go against him in the decision, unlike Gorges, but as most of you know, Gorges remains my pick, mainly because he has to fight through adversity in order to even be considered for the role, and for that, he has earned my respect.

In any case, no matter if you’re with Team Gorges or Team Gionta (t-shirts forthcoming, I heard Allan Walsh has already ordered a dozen), I think it’s fair to say that most, if not all Habs fans, agree that these two are likely the best candidates for the job.

What Red Fisher, long time writer with the Montreal Gazette and one of the elder statesmen of sports journalism thinks, is anyone’s guess. The one thing he seems to be certain of, however, is that the choice should be made by the players of the team, and not management.

Unfortunately, I have to disagree with Mr. Fisher.

In his most recent article with the Gazette, Fisher implies that being the captain of the Montreal Canadiens is probably one of the most important roles a professional athlete could take on in his career. And with that, I agree with him. He also states that the players know each other, and who they want to be led by, better than anyone else, and that is why they should be the ones choosing the captain, not management. That is where Mr. Fisher and I split off into different paths.

Mere lines after stating that the captaincy of the Montreal Canadiens should be decided by the players themselves, in his headline, Mr. Fisher goes on to bash one of those very players. Fisher suggests that Gomez was “dead wrong” in saying that who ever is named captain of the team in the coming weeks would have an “easy job”, since the leadership in the dressing room has been somewhat scattered across several players, a matter that was even stressed by Pierre Gauthier in his most recent press conference, saying that the Canadiens were blessed with an exceptionally large and qualified leadership group.

I tend to lean towards Gomez’s reasoning here. While I would have probably used the word “easier” rather than “easy”, the shear number of good leaders that have found their way to the Bell Centre over the last couple of years can only be a good thing for the eventual captain of the team. If Josh Gorges is named captain, I doubt Scott Gomez would be jealous or upset. If Brian Gionta is named captain, Hal Gill and Mike Cammalleri aren’t going to lose any sleep over it. And if Andrei Markov is the guy, I’m certain that Tomas Plekanec and Carey Price will be fine with the most veteran member of the organization occupying the spot.

To be fair, Mr. Fisher does raise a few good points. He brings up Jean Beliveau’s years with the Canadiens, and how his most memorably moment, to this very day, is not the 10 Stanley cups he won with the team, but the faithful day in 1961 where he was voted to replace Doug Harvey as the team’s captain. No doubt, being named captain of the Canadiens will be an important moment for who ever ends up occupying the role, one that may stay with them for their entire career. But while the Canadiens’ leadership group in 1961 may have been just as deep as it is today, from Fisher’s and Beliveau’s stories, the players in 1961 seemed to care a lot more about the letter on their chest than the players in 2010.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is hard to say. Frankly, from my perspective, I interpret it not as a disregard for the prestige and honour it is to be the captain of the Montreal Canadiens, but as a testament to privilege it is to even play for the most storied franchise in sports history. Thanks to players such as Beliveau, the players who come through this organization don’t need a letter on their chest to know they’re part of something special.

Frankly, players who care more about the letters on their jerseys than the crest on their chest are exactly the types of players this team didn’t need anymore. It is one of the main reasons players such as Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu find themselves playing for different teams these days.

Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges, Mike Cammalleri and all the rest would certainly be thrilled to be named or voted captain. But I am just as certain about that as I am that each one of them is just as proud to be able to wear the jersey that the Boom Booms and the Beliveaus and the Dickie Moores immortalized over the last hundred years, each and every night, and to be able to play in front of some of the best hockey fans in the world, regardless of whether there’s an extra little “C” on their jersey or not.

As I’ve already said, I respect everything that Red Fisher represents, and everything that he stands for and has accomplished, following the Canadiens for so many decades. And to say that I respect the history and former legends of the Montreal Canadiens would be a great understatement. But this is no longer 1961. It’s 2010. And the realities of the NHL are much different than what they were in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the 90s and the earlier part of the last decade.

The reality of the salary cap ensures that seeing players stay with a stay with a single team for his entire career is a much rarer occurrence. Even over the course of a season, a player could find himself shipped out of town, and half the team could be out with injuries while more than a handful of minor leaguers or replacements could find themselves playing with the team.

With that being said, is it fair to ask 22 players to choose a captain, when they clearly don’t know each other as well as the Canadiens’ of the 50s and 60s knew each other when they voted Jean Beliveau as captain on that faithful night in 1961? Is it fair to ask these players, who are more and more shielded from the media and from the city itself with each passing year, to choose the player that is supposed to represent this city? Most of these players haven’t even known each other for more than a year, and with a few more contracts coming up at the end of 2010-11, any vote held by the players today could be rendered invalid next July. Moreover, not nearly as many of these players are from Montreal, or even Canada, for that matter. And while I don’t mean this as a language issue, or one of nationality, you kind of have to have a grasp of Montreal to know what Montreal wants, and while the players themselves are the ones who are going to be led by the eventual captain, we’ve already established that the captain of this team is more than just wearing the C during games.

In today’s NHL, the status of a player on a specific team is just as much decided by his contract situation as it is decided by his play on the ice. We saw it with Ilya Kovalchuk this past season, being traded from the Atlanta Thrashers to the New Jersey Devils, and then taking both the Devils and the NHL to Hell and back in order to sign a new contract. Closer to home, some fans are already clamouring for a contract extension for Andrei Markov. And if he can’t be signed by February, some are even saying that Pierre Gauthier should trade him, so the Canadiens don’t lose him for nothing in free agency. We’re talking about one of your top candidates for the captaincy, folks.

Even Hal Gill said it yesterday, a player on a one year deal – presumably, also, a player with only a year remaining on his contract – should not be named captain if he isn’t guaranteed to remain with the team for the foreseeable future.

All of this would not have been an issue in 1961.

While I do believe that the players should at least have input in the decision, and that they should may even be panelled, I completely disagree with handing over the decision to them without prejudice. A lot of them may not understand what it means to be the captain of any team, yet alone the Montreal Canadiens. A lot of them may not understand that being the captain supersedes the responsibilities of the player on the ice, and even in the dressing room, and extends to the community in Montreal and beyond.

If the players decide to vote Andrei Markov the captain, because they like and respect him the most, only to realize a few months later that his commitment to Montreal and the organization may not have been what they expected, what can be done of it then?

I hate to say it this way, but what Scott Gomez said is pretty much proof that this is not a decision that should be in the hands of the players. The Canadiens have an excellent leadership group, that transcends even most of the candidates we’ve mentioned in our numerous captaincy debates. Hal Gill, as mentioned above, is a prime example of that. No one is going to name him captain of the team, as his career is winding down, he occupies a secondary role with the team, and may not even be a member of the group after next season, but everyone agrees that he’s an excellent leader, and if contracts and career situations, not to mention age, weren’t issues, he would be just as much a candidate for the job as anyone else.

In this case, in this NHL, in this day and age, there isn’t anyone better to choose the next captain of the Montreal Canadiens than the people who hired those players – Jacques Martin and Pierre Gauthier. They know the direction of this team better than anyone else. More than the players, they know who may or may not be on the team in 2011-12 and beyond, and they know where they want to take this team going into the future. In an NHL where teams and the players that compose them are dictated by a maximum number of dollars a GM can spend to make up said team, it really wouldn’t be fair to put that decision into the hands of the players.

But when you consider, for a moment, this specific team, and the specific players that make up the Montreal Canadiens, no matter if they choose Josh Gorges, Brian Gionta, or Scott Gomez, there really won’t be much of an issue. As we’ve already said, on and off the ice, all three, and others, will be just as much of a leader and a representative for the Habs as the one who will be “officially” wearing the C.

And no matter who Jacques Martin and Pierre Gauthier name as the 28th captain in Montreal Canadiens history, the team will be in good hands, and that new captain will have the support of all the other leaders in the dressing room.

But just for the record, it’s going to be Josh Gorges ;)