When a team doesn't succeed, sports journalists and analysts sit and discuss why. They look at endless statistics, they analyze player by player, they blame the coaching staff. But among the many reasons some teams don't succeed, a lack of leadership is a resounding one. Teams are diverse. It's a group of men ranging from the ages of 18-40 working together to try and achieve greatness and at finish top of the pack. It is a 82-game season long battle, notwithstanding playoffs.
To be successful and make it to the end, teams need leaders; role models the young people can look up to and the older ones can respect. People who can lead by example and show up, every day, with the sole purpose of being successful as a team. They encompass their teams identity within themselves and through their game. Sometimes, a great captain makes all the difference in the world.
Being a captain isn't about being the most talented player on the team. Although many captains may happen to be their team's best player, what's more important is setting the example every day at the rink and picking up your team when they're down. Who can forget such examples as Mark Messier guaranteeing a Game 6 win when the Rangers were facing elimination
Here are the top 20 players in the history of the NHL that know how to put the team on their back.
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20 Dustin Brown, L.A. Kings
Dustin Brown, in recent years, has shown why he has all characteristics to be considered one of the top leaders the NHL has ever seen. Sure, he isn’t the best with his stick, and he doesn’t put up as many points as you would think, but Brown excels as a power forward and a bruiser, and he’ll do anything to see his team win. The 30-year old American has led the Kings to two Stanley Cup Championships in the past four years, doing everything from fighting, slashing, and is deservedly the one to hoist the cup after all is said and done.
Although he’s been called a professional diver by some and referred to as a predator for his vicious hits, I believe that Brown has what it takes to be considered one of the best leaders in NHL history. He’s as natural a leader as they come, and what he lacks in offensive production he really makes up for in sheer leadership on and off the ice.
19 Trevor Linden, Vancouver Canucks
Linden was as impressive a leader on the ice as well as off the ice. He was just 21 years old when he was named captain of the Vancouver Canucks in the 1991-92 season, and would go on to captain the team for seven seasons before being traded. He would come back to Vancouver in 2001 and finish off his career with the Canucks.
Although he was a tremendous player and leader on the ice, his involvement in the city of Vancouver earned much respect in the NHL. Linden was awarded the annual NHL Foundation Player Award, given to those “who applies the core values of hockey – commitment, perseverance and teamwork – to enrich the lives of people in his community." In that sense, his leadership skills were simply on a whole other level.
18 Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche
Alongside Bobby Clarke, Mark Messier, and Wayne Gretzky, Sakic is one of few players that won the Art Ross Trophy in a season along with winning the Stanley Cup itself. Sakic was named captain of the team in 1992 back when they were the Nordiques, and is widely considered as one of the NHL’s greatest leaders. As captain, he led the Avalanche to two Stanley Cups in 1996 and in 2001. He was loyal, opting to stay with the Nordiques/Avalanche franchise his entire career. His leadership extended elsewhere as well, leading Canada to their first goal medal in 50 years during the 2002 Winter Olympics, finishing the campaign as the tournament’s MVP.
17 Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks
Commonly referred to as “Captain Serious” by the media and his teammates, Toews has arguably been the best leader on and off the ice since his entry in the NHL in 2007-08. He made such an impression that he was immediately named captain the following season at the age of 20, and won his first Stanley Cup in 2010 with the Blackhawks, earning the Conn Smythe trophy as well as playoff MVP. He would go on and win the cup again in 2013. A pretty impressive resume thus far if you ask me.
The thing that makes Toews so invaluable though is his ability to do everything on the ice. He scores, passes, hits and makes amazing defensive plays. Toews’s real value as a leader lies in his ability to make big time plays on a regular basis, a huge asset in a league like the NHL. Toews is also the youngest member to be a part of the Triple Gold Club, winning a Stanley Cup, an Olympic Gold Medal, and a World Championship by the age of 22.
16 Scott Stevens, New Jersey Devils
Many do not know that Stevens actually played quite a few years with the Washington Capitals, and also played one season with the St. Louis Blues. But Stevens's sharp turn to legend status began when he joined the Devils in 1991. How he joined the Devils is a little peculiar, arbitrator Edward Houston awarding Stevens to the Devils from the Blues, a team he said he wanted to end his career with. Stevens represented the beginning of the Devils infamous defensive style of play that has been the Devils motto until this day. He hoisted Lord Stanley's cup three times with the Devils in 1995, 2000, and 2003, and his thundering checks quickly became his defining trademark. He finished his career with an incredible 2,785 penalty minutes.
A lot of Stevens leadership was voiced through his infamous body checks, that were said to be so brutal that he could psychologically turn a game around with just one hit, a particular example of that being in the 2000 Stanley Cup semifinals, when Stevens absolutely levelled concussion prone Eric Lindros. Stevens encompassed Devils hockey in himself, and will always be remembered as an inspiring teammate, but most of all a champion.
15 Pierre Pilote, Chicago Blackhawks
Pierre Pilote is one of those defencemen that completely changed the game in a Bobby Orr style. He was an offensive catalyst for the Hawks, and was widely believed to have started the move that Bobby Orr perfected. "Pierre changed the game quite a bit. He was even pre-Bobby Orr. With the defence moving in to be part of the offence, he was certainly influential," said Hawks goaltending great Glenn Hall. The Blackhawks won the Cup only once with Pilote on the team, in 1961. He would be named captain the following year.
Pilote, as we said, was ahead of his time and was one of the best defencemen during his time in NHL, known as an amazing puck carrier, but also as an ironman on the ice, playing 376 games in a row at one point in his career. Pilote was essentially a superb leader because he was fearless despite his size, blocking shots and getting tough whenever he needed too, infamously knocking out Henri and Maurice Richard during the same brawl.
14 Ted Lindsay, Detroit Red Wings
Terrible Ted is an interesting case. Although he was a great leader in himself, he also was at the forefront of a lot of controversy, ultimately leading to his trade from the Red Wings to the Chicago Blackhawks. He earned the nickname Terrible Ted for his extremely competitive nature and raw toughness, attributes of a great leader, which is what Lindsay was. His constant elbows and knees when hitting were an enormous reason the NHL adopted penalties for kneeing and elbowing. He would win the Cup with the Red Wings three consecutive times, being the first ever player to lift the Cup and skate around the rink with it, starting what has become an endless tradition.
The controversy around Lindsay stems from the fact that Doug Harvey and himself tried to form the first form of the current National Hockey League Player’s Association (NHLPA). It came at a time when hockey players were making a meagre salary and were forced to work summer jobs, while team owners were filling their pockets with money from sold out arenas. His efforts were widely shunned by the League and team owners, but were a huge factor in why Lindsay was respected and considered a leader by many players around the league. As a result and in his honour, the Ted Lindsay award is the official name of the most valuable player as seen by the NHLPA.
13 Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings
Often referred to as Mr. Perfect or The Perfect Human, Lidstrom played his entire 20-year career with the Detroit Red Wings, leading the team as captain for his last six years with the organization. He won four Stanley Cups with the team, a resounding seven Norris Trophies as the league’s top defenceman, and one Conn Smythe; not a bad resume to retire with.
What made Lidstrom so special, other than his amazing skill and consistency, was his durability. The Swede was known for putting up amazing minutes, and would rarely miss games. He missed only 17 games in his first 12 and a half seasons in the league, and is one of the few people that can boast having made the playoffs every year of his career. He is second on all time playoff appearances with 263, Chelios leading the way at 266.
12 Maurice Richard, Montreal Canadiens
How can you even begin to describe the wonder that is Maurice Richard? The Rocket represents all that is hockey in the city of Montreal. Forming the feared 'Punch Line' with Toe Blake and the recently deceased Elmer Lach, Richard was part of eight Stanley Cup winning Montreal Canadiens, including five straight from 1956-1960. He actually captained the last four. Although Richard was an excellent leader on the ice, it was his voice for French Canadians in the NHL, and his criticism of then NHL President Clarence Campbell, that made him an icon for French Canadians playing in the NHL. One year, Richard struck a linesman in the head and was later suspended for the rest and the playoffs by Campbell, leading to the infamous Richard Riot.
11 George Armstrong, Toronto Maple Leafs
Armstrong played for a Maple Leafs team that was different than the dismal one we’ve come to know today. He played a respected 21 seasons in the NHL, 13 of those seasons as captain, winning four Stanley Cups in a Maple Leaf uniform. Over a 21-year career, he earned himself the reputation as hardworking and consistent, attributes you would want from every captain. Then owner of the Leafs, the infamous Conn Smythe, says “he was the best captain, as a captain, the Leafs have ever had.” Armstrong came to play every night, making him an invaluable asset to his coaches, and according to Paul Henderson, who joined the Leafs in Armstrong 17th season, “He sure came out to play every night and he had no patience for those players who didn’t.”
10 Henri Richard, Montreal Canadiens
Brother of the late Maurice Richard, also on this list, I should start this by telling you that Henri Richard won the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens a record 11 times during his career. Almost no one in competitive sports can boast that feat. He overcame a lot of adversity in his younger years that made him into the leader he became. Always playing in his brother's shadow and being dismissed for being too small for hockey, the Pocket Rocket’s statistics are actually slightly more impressive than his brother’s, tallying more points, assists, and game played than Maurice. While the Rocket was known for striking fear into the opposition, Henri was considered a more complete and diverse player, but also a very intelligent player and a relentless forechecker.
Jean Beliveau perhaps said it best when he described Henri Richard like this: "Henri was definitely a leader, even before he became captain. His leadership came from his determination on the ice and the fact that he was a team player." Frank Selke went as far as saying that Richard “may have been the greatest player I’ve ever had.”
9 Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers
I don’t think I need to speak about what Wayne Gretzky meant to the teams he played for; all of that is already marked in NHL history until the end of time. The Great One was called this for a reason, because he is, without a doubt, the greatest player to ever play the game of hockey. With him as captain, the Oilers won four Stanley Cups in five years. Number 99 holds a resounding 61 NHL records, that he amassed over a great career with the Oilers, the Kings, the Blues, and the Rangers. He was captain or alternate captain for all of these teams, expect for the Rangers.
It was perhaps Gretzky’s intelligence on the ice that made him such an exceptional leader. Considered the “Einstein” of hockey, Gretzky's talents were voiced through his father’s words, who told him to “skate where the puck is going, not where it has been.”
8 Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings
To better understand the impact Yzerman had in Detroit, you need to understand Detroit when Yzerman was drafted in 1983. This wasn’t the 24 straight Stanley Cup appearances Detroit the NHL has come to know and love. Detroit had only made the playoffs twice in 17 years at that point, and selling tickets was difficult. But when Yzerman was drafted 4th overall in 1983, things started to change for the Red Wings. Yzerman would be named captain just three years later at 21 years old, then youngest captain in franchise history, an honor he would only pass on at the end of his career.
The next few years were great for the captain, but it wasn’t until 1993, when the Red Wings hired legend Scotty Bowman that they became the infamous Red Wings we’ve come to know today. He led the Wings to their first Cup in 42 years, winning another two after that. He’s one of the best players in franchise history along with the infamous Gordie Howe. Yzerman went from a one man scoring show in the beginning of his career to a leader in every area on the ice, becoming one of the best complete players the NHL has ever seen.
7 Denis Potvin, New York Islanders
Potvin entered the league in 1973-74 and made an immediate impact, winning the Calder Trophy for best rookie in an NHL season. Until he earned captaincy of the Islanders in 1979, Potvin had already won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman three times. He was the one that was to take the Isles into the glory of a Stanley Cup Championship. After losing to the Rangers in six games in 1979, Potvin returned next season as captain for the first time in his career. The rest, as we commonly say, is history. Upon being named captain, Potvin led the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cup Championships. In his eight years as captain, New York never failed to make the playoffs.
As a player, Potvin was particularly articulate and outspoken, and used that to his advantage as he matured as a player and was captain. A very intelligent player, Potvin goes down in history as a top NHL defenceman along the lines of Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey, averaging just under a point per game for his entire NHL career.
6 Ted Kennedy, Toronto Maple Leafs
Ted Kennedy played his entire 15-year career with Toronto, wearing the C on is shirt for eight seasons. He’s also the last Toronto Maple Leaf to win the Hart Trophy for most valuable player. He was the first player to ever win five cups at the time and was a huge contributor in building what many consider to be the NHL’s first ever dynasty team. Although Kennedy was not the best skater, he was skilled on the puck and a tremendous playmaker. He compensated for his faults because he worked harder than anyone and was very determined. His linemate Howie Meeker once said that "He went from A to B just as fast I could because he went through people". Most importantly, Kennedy was clutch. He would excel in the playoffs, make big plays in big moments, and would seldom lose an important faceoff.
5 Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh Penguins
It is an impossible task to write just a simple paragraph about why Mario Lemieux is considered one of the all time greatest leaders and players of the NHL. One of the most productive players in most offensive categories, Mario Lemieux led the Penguins to two Stanley Cups, and also once as owner of the club in 2009. Lemieux was considered one of best to play the game even though his career was plagued by serious injuries, playing 915 games out of a possible 1,428 games. Despite this, he still ranks seventh all time in scoring in the NHL. Lemieux was a leader in the sense that he was considered the savior of the Penguins, taking them out of near bankruptcy when he started playing and continuing to watch the team strive to this day as owner. His leadership and tenacity was also displayed when he made his famous comeback in 2000, after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease that forced him into early retirement in 1997. Let’s take a second and fathom at what Lemieux could’ve achieved if he wasn’t victim of so many injuries.
4 Bobby Clarke, Philadelphia Flyers
Robert Earle Clarke, commonly known as the infamous Bobby Clarke, played his entire 15-year career with the Philadelphia Flyers, leading the team as captain from 1973-1979, and then again from 1982-1984 before ultimately hanging up his skates. He was named captain at the age of 23, the youngest ever player to lead a team at that point in history. Under his captaincy, the Flyers won two cups back to back in 1974 and 1975. Now you may be asking yourselves, if Clarke was such a good leader, why did he lose his captaincy for three years. Well truth is after their loss to the Rangers in the 1989 playoffs, Clarke was actually named assistant coach while still a player, and under NHL rules he had to give up his captaincy in order to do so.
Clarke will always be considered one of the NHL’s greatest ever players and leaders. Clarke’s tenure as General Manager was a little more controversial than his NHL career, particularly a rift between Eric Lindros when Clarke was managing the team, but that story is better left for another article.
3 Ray Bourque, Boston Bruins
Bourque may arguably be the best defenceman the NHL has ever seen. Of course, there are so many that can be considered for the honour, but Bourque has the numbers and the career to be at the top of that list. He holds the record for most career goals, assists, and points by a defenceman in the NHL. In his time with the Bruins, he got sole possession of the captain’s honour in 1988 after having shared for three years, and became the longest standing captain in Bruins franchise history. Bourque was a great offensive defenceman and also had an incredibly accurate shot. Bourque was a great leader for the Bruins, helping them maintain a record 26 consecutive appearances in the postseason.
He would never actually win the cup with the Bruins, but it was his loyalty to the club that made him so beloved by fans and teammates. Despite having the chance to sign somewhere else for more money in a time where the NHL was seeing increased players salaries, Bourque would always opt for Boston. He would play his two final seasons with the Avalanche, requesting to be traded only to get one more shot at the Cup. He would get that Cup, in his final game of his career. When NHL comissioner Gary Bettman handed the cup to Sakic, the captain did not even lift, opting to give it straight to Bourque for the first victory lap. This moment shows that Bourque was perhaps one of the most respected players in the NHL.
2 Jean Beliveau, Montreal Canadiens
Jean Beliveau played with the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge in a time the team could do nothing wrong. Beliveau was part of a Montreal team that won the Stanley Cup an astounding 10 times during his full 18 seasons. He was captain of the team for the last 10 years. What made him such a good captain and leader was his striking confidence on and off the ice. But what gave him the right to be on this list is the respect he’s earned in the hockey world, which was on display just a few months ago when the Quebec icon passed away, prompting millions of Canadians and hockey fans around the world to mourn his death. Beliveau leaves an amazing legacy behind, and it was his efforts and his leadership that pushed the Canadiens to win 10 Stanley Cups while he was wearing a Habs Jersey.
1 Mark Messier, Edmonton Oilers – New York Rangers
What made Messier such a threat on the ice is that he played the game a la Gordie Howe, meaning he could pretty much do anything; skate, hit, pass, score in big moments, fight, and play such a competitive game that it was too difficult to handle for opposing teams. Messier was simply explosive, and had the hockey intelligence to make plays that perhaps only Gretzky and Lemieux could have pulled off. There’s no denying that Messier was a special player, and playing on an unstoppable Oilers team for so many years helped cement him as one of the best leaders in NHL history. He won an astounding five Cups with the Oilers, and one with the Rangers in 1994. He’s the only man to ever captain two NHL teams to Stanley Cup Championships, and is widely considered one of the best leaders the NHL has ever seen.
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