There was a trickle down that Easter Island statue of a face, tears that illuminated Mark Messier more than any smile could. The block letters RANGERS ran diagonally across the sweater that Brian Leetch handed to him, but it was the red C in the top left corner that made one of the fiercest hockey players of his generation weep. "Maybe it was great theater," New York Rangers president Glen Sather said of Messier's tears, "but it was no act."
The day before the July 13 press conference to announce the 39-year-old Messier's return to New York, Leetch volunteered to turn over the Rangers' captaincy and not, as he would joke during the press conference, because he was concerned Messier would be a problem in the dressing room if he didn't. Leetch, a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman and Messier's teammate on the 1994 Stanley Cup champion Rangers, New York's first such championship in 54 years, would not presume to deny a title to a man for whom it's not an honorific as much as a birthright.
The Rangers didn't sign the Messier whose Vancouver Canucks missed the playoffs each of the past three years, the Messier who averaged only .78 points per game in his three seasons away from New York, the Messier who had a team-worst-15 rating last year. They signed the Messier who rearranged some furniture in the New York dressing room when he arrived in a trade in '91 so that nothing would obscure his teammates' view of his eyes, the Messier who guaranteed a win against the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 of the '94 Eastern Conference finals and delivered a hat trick in the 4-2 victory. The Rangers coveted Messier, a six-time Stanley Cup winner, because he might be the only player strong enough to blend the disparate elements of a slovenly team and restore its pride. NHL leadership, symbolized by the C, is supposed to be an intangible, a commodity with no price tag. The Rangers paid retail—$11 million for two years.
"The captaincy in hockey is so important because of the history of it," Sather says. "It's like knighting someone. The captain is the one who carries the team crest, the leader on and off the ice, the one who has the respect of the players, the one on whom the performance of a team might rest, the one who has as much, or more influence, than the coach."
Every team has one captain and two alternates, each of whom wears an A. If no other sport requires such a well-defined leadership structure, maybe it's because no other sport is so dependent on individual displays of physical courage and channeled emotion, the pillars of leadership since the last ice age. The most talented team in hockey wins championships only some of the time: The best regular-season team in the NHL has won the Stanley Cup twice in the last 11 years, compared with six in the NBA and five in the NFL in that same span. Unless a team can rally around a totem the way the 2000 champion Devils did captain Scott Stevens, a granite block of a defense-man who physically dominated the playoffs, it's likely to falter. "It's the collective nature of hockey," says Dallas Stars general manager Bob Gainey, a former Cup-winning captain with the Montreal Canadiens. "You have to create a certain mentality to be successful, and you need a leader to do that. There's no stop to hockey—you can't pause and recharge your courage."
In an era when teams are a Babel of nationalities and the vast disparity in salaries has created a class structure in the dressing room, an NHL captain must be blessed with a keen sense of inclusive-ness. He must also be a social director, a liaison between coach and players, a link between rookies and veterans, a prod, a problem solver, a fulcrum, the public face of the team and an effective communicator with referees, the only formal on-ice function he has. He must do all this while being his team's best (or second-, third-or fourth-best) player and almost certainly its most dedicated. As Philadelphia Flyers right wing Keith Jones says, "It's not easy to get in someone's face, challenge him to bring his game to a new level, while keeping your game on a level where he can't say, 'What about you?' "
Though different captains have different styles—from the paint-blistering of a Messier to the muffled approach of the Colorado Avalanche's Joe Sakic, a man so quiet he might have been raised by deer—they possess one nonnegotiable quality: integrity. "Be honest, be yourself," says Guy Carbonneau, another former Canadiens captain who is Montreal's supervisor of prospect development. "Not many people will be like Messier and guarantee a win. You hear a captain say that and you know he's putting his neck on the line. Yet the test is not a captain saying it, but how his teammates respond to it. That will tell you if he's a real captain or a phony captain."
"To me a captain is like a father figure," says the Washington Capitals' 38-year-old captain, Adam Oates. "You don't do the Knute Rockne speech. It's like being a good parent, and you do that by giving examples every day, by showing yourself as a solid citizen. Anyway, what do you say to a guy making $5 million a year?"
Oates's softly-in-your-ear approach is a nice fit for the Capitals, a usually reserved team that often leaves the oral pyrotechnics to coach Ron Wilson. In another telling way, however, Oates is a hopelessly old-time, and old, captain. He didn't become a captain until he was in his 30s, just as Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe did in the 1950s, when the C was passed on not to the callow but to the mature and committed. Oates is beginning his second season as captain, having studied for a little more than two years in Washington under Dale Hunter. Before that he had apprenticed under the venerable Raymond Bourque with the Boston Bruins.
Oates's first captain might have been the most historically significant. Oates began his NHL career in Detroit with Steve Yzerman, who was barely of drinking age in 1986 when the Red Wings named him captain. Not that Yzerman's newly acquired right to legally guzzle champagne from the Stanley Cup was a factor—Detroit was mired in its Dead Things era and Yzerman wasn't given the captaincy as much as he had it foisted upon him. General manager Jim Devellano realized Yzerman was a player capable of regenerating the Wings. The job might not have fit him at first, but like a sport coat for a 12-year-old, you buy it a size too large and let him grow into it.