At that time Yzerman was the youngest captain in league history, at 21 years and five months, supplanting Dale Hawerchuk, who was a month older when he became the Winnipeg Jets' captain in 1984. (Brian Bellows was 19 when he served as temporary captain of the Minnesota North Stars in '83-84 while teammate Craig Hartsburg was sidelined with an injury. Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who became captain at 19, is the NHL's youngest to be given that honor [page 90].) Fourteen seasons later, with two Cups and the team with the best cumulative regular-season record over the past nine seasons, Yzerman is recognized as one of the NHL's best leaders. His captaincy began the evolution of the C from a reward for sage leadership into a tool for establishing a new dressing-room order.
Of the 10 youngest NHL captains in history, six are active players and only two, Wilf Paiement of the egregiously awful Colorado Rockies of 1977-78 and Ryan Walter of the equally execrable Capitals from '79 to '82, were appointed before '80. Trevor Linden became the Vancouver captain as a 20-year-old before ceding the post to Messier seven seasons later. In '96 the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim turned to hyper-conscientious Paul Kariya, no coward on the ice and unfortunately, given his lack of dressing-room social graces as a 21-year-old, hardly Noel Coward off it.
More prominent Cup aspirants were naming young captains, too. St. Louis, which had rotating captains in 1996-97, passed over veteran Al MacInnis the next season and appointed 23-year-old defenseman Chris Pronger. At that time Pronger was only three years removed from his drinking days as a Hartford Whaler (he had been arrested during a barroom brawl in Buffalo) but, as it turned out, only three years from the Hart and Norris Trophies.
Derian Hatcher was 22 when he became the Stars' captain, picked over other notable—and older—players like Mike Modano. "The first two years Hatcher wasn't the guy I would have put in there," says Carbonneau, who retired in July after playing his final five seasons in Dallas. "He was a great team guy, always looking to organize things. But he didn't know what to do in the room. He got better. Now he's the type of leader they were looking for."
Gainey appointed Hatcher, coming down firmly on the side of autocracy in the debate over the most suitable method for naming a captain: election or selection. "The captain is the player who creates the culture of your club," Gainey says. "You don't want a player who's going to be with you for only three or four months having a say in determining your next 10 years." Wilson, the Capitals coach and also a devotee of the chain-of-command theory, concurs. "In the military," Wilson says, "privates don't elect their sergeants."
The admonition should be heeded in Montreal, the erstwhile model franchise that has had nearly as many captains (seven) in the last 11 years as Italy has had governments. Not surprisingly the Canadiens, winners of a record 24 Stanley Cups, won only one during the captaincy's Gilbert and Sullivan years, which didn't end last season with the election of the NHL's first Finnish captain, Saku Koivu. Last season Shayne Corson, who briefly had worn the C in St. Louis and Edmonton, campaigned for the job and was devastated when he lost what Montreal coach Alain Vigneault says was a close vote. Corson, who bolted for the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent over the summer, told a friend the ballots might have been tampered with, a charge Vigneault denies.
That's not to say it couldn't have happened. Not only has the NHL imported Russians, but, in at least one case, it also imported Soviet-style election techniques. In 1990, the last time, incidentally, that St. Louis players voted for the captaincy, coach Brian Sutter supervised an election to replace Rick Meagher, who was recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. The winner, Sutter announced, was Scott Stevens, who had signed as a free agent in the off-season, a superb choice even if the players never made it. Turns out only one player voted for Stevens. "The vote does have to go a certain way," says Sather, a proponent of democracy to a point. "The ballots have to go to the general manager, and although I've never done it, I can see the manager overruling the choice. You have to end up with the right guy."
If a team doesn't, it's an embossed invitation to chaos. Few incidents are more traumatic to a team and none is more humiliating to a player than when he's stripped of his captaincy. When coach Mike Keenan yanked the C from Brett Hull in St. Louis in 1995-96—Hull had criticized Keenan's decision to scratch Hawerchuk for a game in Buffalo after Hawerchuk's grandmother had made the trip from a Toronto nursing home to see him play—it was the biggest scandal over a letter since Salem gave an A to Hester Prynne. Hull called it "a complete slap in the face."
In other words, it was comparable to the knee in the groin Eric Lindros took from Philadelphia last March. The humiliation of Lindros came with television pictures. Comcast, the cable TV company that owns 66% of the Flyers, got a nifty shot of equipment man Turk Evers stitching the C on Eric Desjardins's sweater after Lindros, who had questioned the diagnosis and treatment of his concussion by Philly medical personnel, was removed in a putsch organized by president Bob Clarke. Lindros had been many things to the Flyers—in particular, their best player and marketing tool—but he'd not been an effective captain since his appointment in 1994 as a 21-year-old by Terry Murray, Philly's coach at the time. Lindros lacked the common touch. His affliction was being bigger, stronger, richer, more handsome and more famous than his teammates. They knew it, and he knew it.
Nor did Lindros shine in moments of crisis. When Murray said the Flyers might be in "a choking situation" after they lost the first three games of the 1997 Stanley Cup finals to the Red Wings, Lindros bolted from the arena without speaking publicly. Captains also are supposed to be a buffer between players and management, an impossibility for Lindros given his well chronicled feud with Clarke. After the Flyers started a franchise-worst 0-5-1 last season, Lindros apologized to teammates for having dragged his spat with Clarke into the dressing room. The gesture was a grand one, albeit belated, but a captain's small gestures often matter most.