The Captaincy: How It Can Be the NHL’s Scarlet Letter

After months of speculation, the San Jose Sharks finally named their new captain last week: nobody. They won’t have one this year, going with four alternates instead.

That’s going to be a little bit awkward for Joe Thornton, who wore the “C” last year before having it taken away after the Sharks’ painful first-round loss to the Kings, and is still on the roster. And then there’s Patrick Marleau, who was San Jose’s captain for five years until he was stripped back in 2009, and is also still on the roster.

But while the Sharks’ situation was unusual, and probably handled about as poorly as it could have been, it wasn’t unprecedented. In fact, lots of star players have had a “C” taken away over the years,1 and many times the whole thing has been handled quite amicably.

But “quite amicably” is boring. We want some bad blood. So for today’s history lesson, let’s look back at five cases of NHL captains who lost their “C” under less-than-ideal circumstances. You’re not alone, Joe — and some of these guys had it even worse.

Rick Vaive Hits the Snooze Button

Being the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs during the Harold Ballard era was a tough job. Ballard was essentially every stereotype of a rotten, greedy sports owner brought to life, except worse. He was a miserable crank, not to mention a convicted fraud, and legend has it that he once shut off the Maple Leaf Gardens drinking fountains and cranked up the thermostat on a hot day to force fans to buy soda (on which, it goes without saying, he’d raised the price).

So it was no surprise that Ballard didn’t get along with his captains — or just about anyone, for that matter. In 1979, Ballard and GM Punch Imlach started a feud with Leafs franchise player and captain Darryl Sittler that culminated in the future Hall of Famer slicing the “C” off his own jersey with a pair of scissors. Sittler was eventually given the captaincy back, and wore it for two more years before finally tiring of Ballard’s sideshow for good and requesting a trade.

Vaive took over the Leafs captaincy during the 1981-82 season, the first of a franchise record three straight in which he’d score 50 goals. He held the honor until a Saturday morning in Minnesota in February 1986. Vaive had gone out with former teammate John Anderson for what he called a “late-night bull session” and overslept the next day. He missed a scheduled practice, and Ballard responded by stripping him of the captaincy. He was traded to Chicago a year later.

After the Sittler and Vaive debacles, the Maple Leafs apparently decided that captains were more trouble than they were worth, going without one for three full seasons. That ended with two years of Rob Ramage, which gave way to the beloved Wendel Clark–Doug Gilmour–Mats Sundin era. With Ballard long gone, these days captains are finally treated with some respect in Toronto. (Until the team loses a few games in a row, in which case we ask Sittler if we can borrow his scissors.)

Shayne Corson Doubles Down

Plenty of good players have been stripped of a captaincy once. But Shayne Corson is one of the few who can say it happened twice. He probably doesn’t say it much, but the point is that he could.

Corson had a long NHL career as a hard-nosed defensive forward who could shut down the opposition’s best players while also contributing some offense of his own. He also had a reputation as being a guy who would wear out his welcome, which helps explains why he played for five different teams over the course of his career. The first of those was Montreal, where he blossomed into a 30-goal scorer but also went through some off-ice troubles that culminated in an altercation at a nightclub in 1992. He was suspended by the team2 and later traded to the Oilers.

After two seasons in Edmonton, Corson was named captain by rookie head coach George Burnett in 1994. That was the peak of the relationship between the two. Corson was accused of having a poor attitude, including an altercation with rookie Jason Arnott over the awarding of an assist. Toward the end of the season, Burnett benched Corson during a blowout loss, and Corson responded by ripping the coach in the media.

That was the last straw for Burnett, who stripped Corson of the “C.” Two days later, the Oilers stripped Burnett of his job, firing him with just a few games left in the season. That summer Corson became a free agent and bolted for St. Louis. When he arrived, he was quickly handed the Blues’ captaincy by coach Mike Keenan, who had stripped it from Brett Hull in a move that did not go over well.

Corson’s second stint as an NHL captain ended just as quickly as his first, as he once again didn’t make it through a full season. He had a slightly better reason this time around, though; in March, the Blues traded for some guy named Wayne Gretzky, who took over the captaincy for the rest of the season.

Corson was traded back to Montreal early the next season, and also played for Toronto and Dallas over the course of what would end up being an 18-year NHL career. He never served as team captain again, though. Which may be for the best, considering how he’s remembered in Edmonton these days.

Trevor Linden Makes Way for Messier

We said that we’d focus on captaincy changes that involved bad blood. There’s some dispute as to just how much animosity was involved when Mark Messier took over the job from Trevor Linden in 1998; some reports suggest Linden had no problem with the move. But if we’re counting fan reactions, no captaincy change has generated more bad feelings than this one, because to this day Canucks fans are livid about how it all went down.

In theory, the Canucks’ signing of Messier during the 1997 offseason should have been a popular move. While the former Ranger was getting up there in years, he was still an effective player, riding a streak of 12 straight years of posting a scoring average of better than a point per game. And he was one of the league’s most popular stars, featuring a reputation as one of the sporting world’s most proven competitors, winners, and leaders.

That last one was where it got tricky, because the Canucks already had a pretty good leader of their own in Linden, who’d been the team’s captain since 1990. That created a bit of an awkward situation – do you hand the “C” over to the new guy with the legendary reputation, or maintain the status quo with the popular incumbent? Behind the scenes, Canucks management nudged Linden to consider handing over the “C,” and days before the season opener, he did.

At the time, Linden said all the right things, calling the move “the right thing to do.” Depending on who you believe, he may even have meant it. But the move ended up being a disaster. Messier was an expensive bust in Vancouver, and after a slow start the Canucks cleaned house and brought in his old pal Mike Keenan as coach. Linden never got along with Keenan, and within months had been traded to the Islanders. It was an ugly mess, and Gino Odjick wasn’t shy about blaming the whole thing squarely on Messier.

Odjick wasn’t alone; as the years have gone by, the legend of Messier’s backstabbing Vancouver power grab have only grown. Whether they’re true or not is beside the point; to this day, Canucks fans hate Mark Messier with a passion.

Messier was bought out in 2000 after just three years in Vancouver, and re-signed with the Rangers, with whom he’d play until he was 43. During the season after Messier’s departure, Linden would return to Vancouver in a trade-deadline deal, playing five more seasons before retiring in 2008.3

This summer, Linden was named the Canucks’ president. Vancouver fans have lots of names for Mark Messier, too, but I can’t use any of them on this website.

Vincent Lecavalier: The Young and the Crestless

You’re probably noticing a theme with these stories: Once a team takes away a captaincy, that player’s eventual exit becomes all but inevitable, and the situation almost always deteriorates into something we look back on as a mess. But every now and then, stripping a star works out — and in rare cases, he might even stick around long enough to earn the “C” back one day.

The Lightning took Lecavalier with the first overall pick of the 1998 draft and immediately kicked the hype machine into overdrive; then-owner Art Williams famously declared him “the Michael Jordan of hockey.” So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the team didn’t wait long to hand him the “C,” giving him the honor during his second season. At 19 years old, Lecavalier was the youngest full-time captain in NHL history.4

From a marketing perspective, it was a great move. From a hockey one, not so much, as the young star clashed frequently with Lightning coach John Tortorella. His first full season as captain was a disappointment, as he struggled through a foot injury and lackluster production. That one season was all it took for the team to reverse course; after the 2000-01 season, the Lightning acknowledged that Lecavalier was too young for the honor, stripping him of the “C.”

The move seemed to be a breaking point in the relationship between team and player. Lecavalier missed the 2001 training camp in a contract dispute, and when he returned his clashes with Tortorella became increasingly ugly. Within months, the player wanted out and the team seemed happy to oblige him. Trade rumors swirled, and it was assumed that a deal was imminent.5

But a trade never happened. Lecavalier and Tortorella eventually came to an uneasy truce, and after a year without a captain, the Lightning gave the “C” to veteran Dave Andreychuk. Two years later, Andreychuk would be lifting the Stanley Cup. Lecavlier assisted on the Cup-winning goal.

After the 2007-08 season, the Lightning decided that a then-28-year-old Lecavalier was ready to get his “C” back. This time, he’d hold on to it for a while, serving as captain for five seasons before being bought out in 2013.

Eric Lindros vs. the Flyers: You Can’t Call It a Concussion If We Take Away Your “C”

Now that we got the feel-good story out of the way, let’s close with more ugly stuff. In fact, Eric Lindros and the Flyers may be just about the ugliest divorce any team and its captain have gone through.

Lindros never minded butting heads with his team’s front office. He refused to play for the OHL team that drafted him, and then did the same to the Nordiques when they took him first overall in 1991. That led to the trade a year later that sent him to Philadelphia, where he initially took the league by storm, peeking with a Hart Trophy win in 1995.

But his relationship with the Flyers eventually turned sour. He feuded with GM Bobby Clarke, who questioned his star player’s toughness after Lindros sat out several games due to concussions.6 In 1999, Lindros suffered what he thought was a rib injury, and team doctors instructed him to fly back to Philadelphia. Teammate Keith Jones insisted that he go to the hospital instead, where Lindros was diagnosed with something slightly more serious: a collapsed lung and three liters of blood in his chest cavity.

Not getting on that plane likely saved his life, and the incident created a permanent rift between Lindros and the team’s medical staff. Lindros and his family publicly criticized the organization’s handling of his health; Clarke responded by giving the team’s medical staff contract extensions. When Lindros suggested that the doctors had misdiagnosed another concussion in March 2000, it was the last straw for Clarke, who stripped him of the captaincy. At the time, it seemed like Lindros had played his last game as a Flyer, but he made a dramatic return in Game 6 of the conference finals, scoring Philadelphia’s only goal in a 2-1 loss. Then came Game 7, and we all remember how that ended.

By that point, there was no repairing the relationship between Lindros and Clarke, with the Flyers GM even accusing Lindros’s family of meddling, saying “We don’t want his mom and dad. We’ve had enough of them.” Lindros rejected the team’s qualifying offer and sat out the entire 2000-01 season in hopes of forcing a trade to the Maple Leafs. Clarke refused, and Lindros eventually accepted a deal to the Rangers that ended the long-running saga. Lindros would eventually also play for Toronto and Dallas before retiring in 2007.

Somewhat amazingly, the Flyers have reconciled with Lindros in recent years, including extending an invitation to play in the alumni game at the 2012 Winter Classic. He even had a conversation with Clarke. Not an especially warm one by the sounds of things, but you know, baby steps.

These days, the main topic of conversation when it comes to Lindros and his injury-plagued career is his Hall of Fame chances. He’s been eligible since 2010, but so far hasn’t been inducted, making him one of the only former MVPs excluded. Maybe he’ll make it in someday. After all, I’m sure there must be somebody willing to stick up for him on the selection committee.

Filed Under: NHL, Rick Vaive, Toronto Maple Leafs, Shayne Corson, Montreal Canadiens, Trevor Linden, Mark Messier, Vancouver Canucks, Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay Lightning, Eric Lindros, Philadelphia Flyers

mcindoe-columnist-profile

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

Archive @ DownGoesBrown