SAN JOSE, Calif. aEU" The letter is just a thin piece of embroidered fabric, a couple of inches long. It doesnaEU(tm)t look like anything special when pulled out of an equipment-room drawer.
But when stitched onto the uniform of a designated Shark, the aEUoeCaEU will be positioned on the upper left chest, right over the heart aEU" fitting because a hockey captain is expected to have a huge one.
No sport has created a greater mythology around the role of captain. In other leagues, the position is a mostly honorary title like the players who handle the pre-game coin flip duties in football.
In hockey, it means something.
aEUoeItaEU(tm)s always been that way and it always will be because our sport is different,aEU said Sharks defenseman Rob Blake, who was a longtime captain with the Los Angeles Kings. aEUoeThere needs to be an ultimate voice in the room that everyone else responds to, and it belongs to the captain.aEU
The importance of the SharksaEU(tm) captaincy was magnified this summer when Patrick Marleau lost the aEUoeCaEU aEU" a decision that made headlines not only in San Jose, but throughout Canada aEU" in the wake of the SharksaEU(tm) embarrassing first-round playoff exit.
Now, perhaps the question of the preseason is who will get the letter.
All-Star defenseman Dan Boyle is considered the most likely candidate, although Blake is another possibility. General manager Doug Wilson, the captain of the original Sharks team, said he has an open mind and coach Todd McLellan indicated that a decision might not be made until the eve of the Oct. 1 opener in Colorado.
Whoever is named captain will be expected to uphold a time-honored tradition. He must show leadership, courage and emotional stability aEU" qualities that engender teammates to rally around him and follow.
aEUoeIn hockey, you need that guy who is the catalyst for your team and sets the tone, night in and night out,aEU said center Joe Pavelski, another emerging Sharks leader. aEUoeYou need someone to set the standards and lead by example.aEU
But while the aEUoeCaEU is hockeyaEU(tm)s badge of honor, it carries a profound weight for such a small piece of material.
And a price is paid for a teamaEU(tm)s failure. Just ask Marleau.
Hockey players themselves wonder why the job of captain isnaEU(tm)t as important in other sports.
aEUoeIt is something IaEU(tm)ve thought about,aEU Pavelski said. aEUoeWhy donaEU(tm)t you know who the captains are in baseball?aEU
Pavelski only could list BostonaEU(tm)s Jason Varitek and the New York YankeesaEU(tm) Derek Jeter. ThereaEU(tm)s a reason for that. Just three Major League Baseball teams have a captain with Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox being the third.
McLellan believe the focus on hockey captains stems from the fact that the aEUoeCaEU stands out on jerseys. But itaEU(tm)s not the letteraEU(tm)s visibility to fans that causes the captainaEU(tm)s role to sometimes be inflated.
aEUoeIt can be over-magnified in the room,aEU he said. aEUoeThe other players can avoid some things because they believe itaEU(tm)s the captainaEU(tm)s job. But thataEU(tm)s not how it works. Everybody needs to take responsibility.aEU
Captains have come in all ages, positions and demeanors. They have been like Mark Messier, whose fiery approach came to personify leadership. They also can be like Steve Yzerman, whose record 20-year captaincy with Detroit was defined by quiet confidence.
But Blake said regardless of style, all captains share common traits. They need to be stand-up men; ones who address officials on the ice, call out teammates when necessary and face every media question after a game aEU" especially following a loss.
aEUoeThe captainaEU(tm)s real work is done in the room, behind closed doors,aEU Blake added. aEUoeHe needs to be even-keeled through it all. ThataEU(tm)s always been the mark of a captain.aEU
Boyle added that a captain must be something of a team social director and serve as the link between coaches and players.
aEUoeItaEU(tm)s not that easy for a young guy to talk to the coach, to just walk into his office or understand whataEU(tm)s going on,aEU Boyle said. aEUoeYet he can talk to the captain.aEU
But count Joe Thornton among those who are mystified by this whole deification of the captaincy. He was named BostonaEU(tm)s captain at just 21, and each year as the Bruins struggled in the playoffs, criticism increased that the easygoing aEUoeJumbo JoeaEU would be better off without the burden of the aEUoeC.aEU
aEUoeThereaEU(tm)s so much emphasis on it, and I never understood why,aEU Thornton said. aEUoeI guess I really didnaEU(tm)t care. I just played, scored goals, made points, and got into fights. I was going to play the way I always did, and having a aEU(tm)CaEU(tm) was not going to change any of that.aEU
Getting stripped of the letter by a team is akin to a battlefield demotion. ThataEU(tm)s why there were questions about just how awkward it would be for Marleau now that he has lost the captaincy.
But Marleau, who again organized the informal team skates this summer, maintains he will be the same leader he has always been.
aEUoeItaEU(tm)s not going to change anything,aEU said Marleau, who, as captain, took the brunt of criticism for last springaEU(tm)s playoff meltdown. aEUoeIaEU(tm)m still going to do that other stuff whether I have a letter or not.aEU
Marleau might become an example of a player who thrives without the official leadership role.
aEUoeI see that Patty is having a little bit more fun,aEU Wilson added.
Wilson emphasized that aEUoea letter doesnaEU(tm)t make a leaderaEU and that changing the teamaEU(tm)s reputation as talented underachievers will require the help of everyone, not just the players who get the aEUoeCaEU or aEUoeAaEU insignia. (Players who wear an aEUoeAaEU traditionally were called alternate captains, but increasingly theyaEU(tm)re called assistant captains in the NHL.)
That sentiment from Wilson was echoed by Yzerman, who now is DetroitaEU(tm)s vice president.
aEUoeThe more I went along in my career, wearing the aEU(tm)CaEU(tm) wasnaEU(tm)t as important as having a group of guys who were strong, positive leaders with me,aEU Yzerman said.
No one will be surprised if the SharksaEU(tm) letter goes to Boyle.
aEUoeOf course itaEU(tm)s a compliment,aEU Boyle said. aEUoeI guess it means people have respect for what I bring to the rink. WeaEU(tm)ll see what happens. Obviously I want whatever is best for the team, but it would be an honor.aEU
And a huge responsibility.