While most players will say it’s just a letter on the chest and nothing more, being named captain of an NHL team is undisputedly a high honor. This game is full of many great leaders, but only the best get to serve as captain of their club.
However, only one player can serve as team captain at any given time, so the possibility remains that an exemplary player and leader could go his entire career without serving as captain for even one season. These men are more victims of circumstance than anything else, and in the end it is just a letter on the chest, so it shouldn’t really matter much.
Today’s list pays homage to the greatest hockey players who were never named captain of any of the NHL teams they played on throughout their careers. The list is full of some of the league’s greatest players, and you’d be surprised to learn that these guys were never team captain. It includes Hall-of-Famers and even a few future Hall-of-Famers, so it really makes you wonder just how important the captaincy actually is.
Here are the 15 best NHL all-time NHL players who never served as team captain throughout their careers:
15. Peter Bondra
Peter Bondra squeaks onto the list at number 15. It’s pretty surprising that the Washington Capitals never named Bondra captain during his entire 14-season stay in the nation’s capital. It’s especially vexing when you consider that he was an offensive leader for the Caps for most of his stay there, scoring 472 goals for the team over that span. He scored at least 20 goals every season in Washington, aside from his rookie campaign. Before Ovechkin, Bondra had just about every Capitals scoring record.
We can understand the Caps naming both Adam Oates and Dale Hunter as captain during Bondra’s career in Washington, but it’s a little perplexing to see that both Brendan Witt and Steve Konowalchuk served time in the role during the last three seasons of Bondra as a Capital.
14. Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin is the only active NHL player to appear on our list, and it’s pretty easy to see how he ended up here. When you are one birth year apart from teammate Sidney Crosby, the only chance you have of ever serving as team captain is if you’re traded or dealt to a different team. And that’s hasn’t happened to Malkin—yet.
Malkin has proven capable of being the leader of the Penguins in Crosby’s absences in the past, however, so if he is ever dealt I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see him don the C in a new city. Until that happens, Malkin is already one of the best all-time NHL players who was never captain of his team. We’ll see if he gets a chance before he retires.
13. Norm Ullman
The Detroit Red Wings legend was another victim of circumstance, and that’s largely why the Provost, Alberta native never donned the C at any point in his career. He had a long one too, playing 12.5 seasons with the Red Wings and another 7.5 with the Maple Leafs.
When he was in Detroit, four different players served as captain. They were Ted Lindsay (just for Ullman’s rookie year), Red Kelly (two seasons), Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio. Tough to argue Ullman deserved the C more than those guys. In Toronto, he served under two captains; first George Armstrong, who was nearing the end of his career upon Ullman’s arrival, and then Dave Keon. It seems Ullman was never captain because he was never in the right place at the right time.
12. Bryan Trottier
There are a few players on this list who were a part of a dynasty team, and one of those dynasties was the New York Islanders. The Islanders won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983, with Bryan Trottier playing one of the key offensive roles for the club throughout the dominant stretch.
Still though, only one player can be team captain, and that title belonged to franchise defenseman Denis Potvin during Trottier’s playing tenure on the Island, ergo Trottier never donned the C. He was often referred to as a the “glue guy” on that dynasty club, so there’s no question he was deserving; it just never fell into place is all. In any other era, Trottier would have easily been the Islanders’ captain.
11. Sergei Fedorov
Perhaps it’s because of the North American bias from North American coaches and management, but there are a handful of European hockey players on this list who never served as captain for whatever reason. Sergei Fedorov is the highest scoring Russian player ever to skate in the NHL, yet he never served as captain of any of the four teams he played for.
This makes perfect sense for when he played in Detroit, as Steve Yzerman had the honor the whole time he was there. An argument could be made for Fedorov in other cities though, as he served under Steve Rucchin in Anaheim, Luke Richardson and Adam Foote in Columbus, and Chris Clark in Washington. I’m pretty sure many would rather take Fedorov as their captain, no offense to those guys.
10. Ryan Smyth
Ryan Smyth was always so ready and willing to answer the call for his country in literally any international competition. Since the Oilers would mostly miss the playoffs or get beat in the first round during Smyth’s career, he had plenty of opportunities to play in the World Championships. He would develop the nickname “Captain Canada” thanks to his dedication. Well, Captain Canada never served as captain of an NHL team.
If you want to be that jerk who points out that he did indeed play one game as captain with the Oilers during his final season, fine then. But you and I both know that’s bogus. He was next in line to become captain in 2007, but GM Kevin Lowe ended up dealing Smyth away for garbage at the trade deadline, and by the time Smyth returned the Oilers were being captained by Shawn Horcoff.
9. Jari Kurri
A few Oilers dynasty legends ended up on this list, with the first one being Finn Jari Kurri. Kurri was of course tethered to Wayne Gretzky throughout much of his career, first in Edmonton and then (to a lesser extent) in Los Angeles. The second-highest scoring Finn of all time was always playing second fiddle to a player who was simply better—and a better leader.
Had Kurri played on some lesser teams with some lesser players, he’d most certainly have served as captain at some point. But when you look at the list of captains he’s served under—Wayne Gretzky (twice), Mark Messier (twice), Paul Kariya in Anaheim and Joe Sakic in Colorado—it’s reasonable to accept the fact that he never wore the letter C. When you get to play with those guys though, chances are you’re not too concerned about a letter on your chest.
8. Paul Coffey
The second-highest scoring defenseman of all-time, Paul Coffey, never wore the C at the NHL level. That’s shocking when you hear it, but when you take a closer look he was just another victim of circumstance. In Edmonton he was behind Gretzky, in Pittsburgh behind Mario Lemieux, and in Detroit he was behind Steve Yzerman. Heavy hitters. While Coffey got to wear the C for parts of the 1990-91 season, that hardly counts. He split the captaincy at the time with John Cullen and Randy Hillier.
He spent a few other seasons at the tail end of his career with a handful of other teams (Hartford, Philadelphia, Chicago, Carolina, and Boston), but he was never in any of those cities long enough to establish himself as the true leader, and a few of them had pretty established captains at the time anyway.
7. Mark Recchi
Mark Recchi is the player who has scored the most points in the NHL yet never held the title of captain throughout his career, which spanned 1,652 games (4th most all-time). Part of the reason he never held the title was that he played for so many different teams throughout his career.
That being said, there was one decent opportunity for Recchi to take the leadership reins. He was in Philly when Eric Lindros departed, vacating the captaincy; the club elected to hand the title to Eric Desjardins instead. That would stand as his best chance though, as the rest of the teams he played for from that point all had established leaders already wearing the C. He was a very popular trade deadline acquisition throughout his career.
6. Pavel Datsyuk
Pavel Datsyuk is (according to my foolproof list) the best Russian hockey player who never captained an NHL team. Sure, there are some arguments to be made for players not even appearing on this list (Viacheslav Fetisov comes to mind). In his case it was truly a miracle he was even in the NHL, and by the time he was a legitimate leader of the North American game, Steve Yzerman was his captain.
Datsyuk basically must have lost the coin toss when Nicklas Lidstrom retired and the Red Wings had to pick either Datysuk or Swede Henrik Zetterberg as his successor. The management team in Detroit chose to go with Zetterberg, and now that Datsyuk’s decided to play out his days in the Motherland, he becomes one of the best NHLers to never wear a C.
5. Frank Mahovlich
There’s no doubt that Frank Mahovlich was a great hockey player. He scored over 1,110 points in the NHL over a career that spanned nearly 20 years. He played for three different teams throughout his days, those being Toronto, Detroit, and Montreal. There was never an opportunity for Mahovlich to don the C in any of those cities, because the seat was already taken.
He started his career in Toronto, right around the time George Armstrong was handed the reins and he held the title until 1969. Mahovlich was in Detroit by then, which is where Alex Delvecchio was holding down the fort. Then, he was off to Montreal. Sure, Jean Beliveau retired shortly after his arrival, vacating the captaincy; but of course it was then Henri Richard’s turn to don the C in Montreal.
4. Larry Robinson
Larry Robinson is legitimately one of the best defensemen in the history of the game. He played 1,384 games from 1972 to 1992, winning six Stanley Cups as the anchor of the Montreal Canadiens blue line. Amazingly, he never wore the C as a member of the Montreal Canadiens, and nor did he get the honor during his final three pro season, which he spent in L.A.
The captaincy changed hands quite a few times when he was in Montreal, so it’s sort of surprising it was never given to Robinson. Henri Richard was the leader when he started his career; then, the C went to Yvan Cournoyer in 1975; to Serge Savard in 1979; and then finally to Bob Gainey in 1981. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be for Robinson.
3. Mike Bossy
When you’re a key member of a dynasty clan, there is always a chance that you won’t get to wear the C simply because the title is already owned by another player. That was the case with Mike Bossy and the New York Islanders dynasty of the early ‘80s.
When Bossy arrived as a fresh-face teen, the captaincy belonged to Clark Gillies. That was soon transferred to Denis Potvin, who had established himself as the team’s leader by then and would lead the franchise to its four straight championships. Although he was four years younger than Potvin, Bossy actually retired one season before Potvin did due to injury, thus never holding the title of captain. If he ever got to establish himself somewhere else though, Bossy would have definitely been captain material.
2. Guy Lafleur
Believe it or not, Guy Lafleur never served as captain of the Montreal Canadiens (or the Quebec Nordiques, for that matter). Despite being arguably the most popular Habs player ever, he was on a dynasty team filled with leaders. His trajectory looks similar to that of Larry Robinson; he arrived in Montreal around the same time as the defender, when Henri Richard was just taking the reins.
Then, much like Robinson, Lafleur watched as Cournoyer, Savard, and Gainey were all given the C instead of him. In hindsight the decision to give the C to these players instead of both Lafleur and Robinson seems a little weird. Lafleur leads the Montreal Canadiens franchise in career points, but never wore the C for the Habs. Maybe they just wanted The Flower to focus on scoring goals.
1. Bobby Orr
Who else would it be? Bobby Orr is often listed as one of the top three players of all time, and if he’s not in your top three then he’s in your top five. If he’s not in your top five, then your opinion really doesn’t hold much weight. Orr of course had a short career, playing only nine full seasons (in addition to a few bits and pieces of three other seasons).
Perhaps it was because of Orr’s ailing knees that he was never given the honor. Oddly enough, the Boston Bruins didn’t even have a captain for much of Orr’s tenure in Beantown, going without a captain from ’67 to ’73. When they finally did name a captain, forward Johnny Bucyk got the honor over Orr.
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