When Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford approached Eric Staal about becoming the team’s captain nine years ago, Staal’s immediate reaction was blunt.
“I didn’t want to do that,” Staal said.
The added responsibility or attention wasn’t what bothered Staal. That he’d be taking the letter from Rod Brind’Amour did. Brind’Amour had been captain for most of Staal’s tenure at Carolina and led the team to a Stanley Cup in 2006.
After many discussions between the three parties, the Hurricanes made the switch about halfway through the 2009-10 season. Staal said Brind’Amour’s character and leadership were “the only reason” that changeover worked.
Staal learned how to be a good captain from Brind’Amour. And little did he know at the time, he’d also eventually take cues on how to be a good ex-captain. The Wild center is one of 21 former NHL captains still playing in the league and navigating the potentially uncomfortable environment of being on a team without the ‘C’ stitched on his jersey.
Former captains say, like many aspects of life, the situation is only awkward if they make it so.
“It’s not really part of our personalities for ex-leaders to come into a new locker room and think that they own the room, or they’re above anyone else,” Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn said. “We’re all here for the same reason. It’s a team-first attitude.”
Benn has Jason Spezza as an alternate captain. Spezza reportedly asked for a trade after his single season as Ottawa’s captain, landing in Dallas in 2014. Former New York Islanders captain John Tavares left in free agency this past summer for Toronto.
Ryan Callahan wasn’t so in control. The New York native was part of a captain-for-captain trade with Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis in 2014 after eight seasons with the Rangers.
“It was tough, very tough to leave,” Callahan said. “You have that ‘C’ on your chest. Everybody looks up to you. You know you’re a huge part of that team. And a phone call or a meeting later, and you’re completely gone.”
After a string of losing seasons with Staal as captain, Carolina traded him to the Rangers in 2016 before he signed with the Wild as a free agent. He still carries the weight of those lackluster years with the Hurricanes and cares about the well-being of his former team.
But the fresh start on the Wild invigorated Staal to a 40-goal season last year, his first since 2008-09. Having captain Mikko Koivu and one-time New Jersey captain Zach Parise around helped Staal feel like just “a piece of the puzzle” instead of the whole picture, easing the pressure.
“Coming here was just the right opportunity for me and fit to play with these guys,” Staal said. “Enjoy just relaxing and playing.”
Jason Pominville found similar positives to his 2013 trade from Buffalo to the Wild, swapping his captaincy for the postseason.
“We were kind of going through a tougher stretch [in Buffalo],” said Pominville, who was later traded back to the Sabres. “The team was taking a different direction. I was going to a team here that was trying to win and trying to get to — obviously, the playoffs — but trying to get to that next level.
“So, selfishly, it was probably a good thing.”
When former captains come into a locker room where someone else is the leader, they have to recalibrate from being the main voice to part of the ensemble.
Former Rangers captain and Minnesota native Ryan McDonagh said Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos encouraged him to speak up whenever he wanted. But McDonagh started mostly with helping his fellow defensemen in their meetings.
Pominville recalled Koivu telling him to “feel free, go in there and talk, and do what you need to do, and help out in any way you can.” Pominville is now regifting that advice as a sounding board for Buffalo’s young, first-time captain Jack Eichel. Spezza’s done likewise with Benn in Dallas.
With more captains skewing younger when they take the ‘C’ — as opposed to the experienced veterans of yore — leadership groups have become more commonplace. Seven or eight players meet with each other, collaborate with the coaches and rally the squad. This might have spurred the current trend of 15 of the 31 teams naming three to five alternate captains instead of the traditional two. Six of those teams have multiple alternate captains to compensate for the currently vacant captaincy.
Having so much input only works in a “no egos” environment, something coach Peter DeBoer credited former San Jose and Boston captain Joe Thornton with creating throughout 14 seasons in San Jose. The Sharks stripped his captaincy in 2014, as Los Angeles did with Dustin Brown in 2016.
“Any team that’s been successful hasn’t done it with one or two guys. It’s usually by committee,” current San Jose captain Joe Pavelski said.
“Everyone always wants to talk about the leadership, this guy did that or that. But at the end of the year, if you’ve been successful, and you have a winning team, it runs pretty deep throughout the room.”
Tavares never looked at his role as Islanders captain as a burden. And yet, he had many responsibilities beyond just his play, from doling out advice to acting as the face of the franchise.
Benn mentioned the captain being the first person the media points to when things go wrong. Koivu said there’s a certain pressure of having to be accountable and professional every day. Then there’s tasks such as shepherding rookies, making sure players tip the trainers or shopping for a watch with team funds for a teammate’s 1,000th game.
“Your job is to not just think about yourself,” Spezza said. “You’ve got to be able to pick guys up when they’re struggling. You’ve got to be able to make sure that things are arranged to have Halloween parties and Christmas parties and stuff. They’re important to get the wives together, to get everybody on the same page.
“I don’t think the captain always has to be the guy. It’s not a one-man show where the captain should be running all that all the time. But it’s the captain’s job to make sure that somebody’s running it.”
That’s where these former captains have the best of both worlds: staying useful and assisting without the harsh spotlight of being The Man. And it’s easy not to butt heads or feel weird when shifting from captain back to regular player, as long as they act like the same person who earned the letter in the first place.
“I sometimes think it’s overanalyzed or overhyped,” Staal said of the captaincy. “At the end of the day, it’s not one guy. Whether you have a ‘C,’ or you don’t have a ‘C,’ [it takes] the team to win.
“And that’s just how it works.”