Who will get to don the Captain Canada cape in Sochi? The invitee list is as chock full of big names and resumes as a Hall of Fame grab bag.
With the Captain of the 2010 team, recent Hall of Fame inductee Scott Niedermayer, retired from active play and parked behind the bench in Anaheim and several team veterans not invited to the camp this year, the choice for Captain is going to be a tough one. Not only tough, but contentious. With two of the primary candidates being Jonathon Toews and Sidney Crosby you can expect a furor amongst the fan camps, whomever is chosen.
While Toews and Crosby do not quite inspire the sort of rampant, name-calling, stats-challenging, hysterical comparisons as did Gretzky and Lemieux back in the day, they're more likely to create a "my guy is better than your guy, you !&^@%#'n idiot" fan response than any other choice pair.
I am sure we will see many permutations of this nominee list between now and when the roster is announced in late December. Although I have narrowed my own list down to three players who I think could all make the grade, any one of them would be a good captain. Notably Joe Thornton and Martin St.Louis were my honorable mentions but I discarded them at the last minute because I decided that they did not possess the demonstrated leadership skills which are the core necessity of the position. Both are Alternate Captains in the NHL and Thornton has been a Captain (Bruins 2002-2005) but neither are currently in leadership roles. Ironically, had Jarome Iginla been selected to attend the camp, I would have likely had him as my preferred candidate for the Captain's job.
The question is, will the people who make the decision go for out and out skill and sentimentality, accomplishments or leadership? My three candidates might be considered the top runners in each of those interconnected but disparate categories.
Eric Staal - Leadership Guy
Maybe they'll select Eric Staal as the least divisive option. As one of only four players who is a veteran of both the 2006 and 2010 Olympics (the others are Nash, Thornton and Luongo, none of whom should be considered for Captaincy) and one of only three players on the camp roster (Toews and Bergeron are the other two) who are a member of the Triple Gold Club (Olympic Gold, Stanley Cup and World Championship), the Carolina Hurricanes Captain would not be a bad choice and might be the right one at the end of the day.
He is the only one of the three with experience in captaining a senior Canadian team on the international scene. Staal captained the 2013 World Championship team that was eliminated in the quarterfinals, taking a disappointing fifth place overall. Staal suffered a serious knee injury during the quarterfinal with Sweden who went on to claim Gold. According to Hurricane officials, Staal is expected to be fully recovered and ready to play by the start of the 2013-2014 NHL season.
Canada has gotten so used to faring poorly in international play over the years that no one really considers it an outright failure. Despite many of Canada's best players being unavailable, including Crosby and Toews, due to playing on teams that were busy with the Stanley Cup playoffs, they still boasted a roster that was excellent, just not excellent enough. Fully half of the camp roster for Sochi were unavailable for the 2013 World Championships, including the other two Captain nominees.
Ironically, it was the failure of the Vancouver Canucks to advance deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs that enabled the Sedin brothers to suit up for Sweden and lead them to the gold. One team's bust is another team's boon, it seems. It is a recurring irony for Canada's international hockey teams, unfortunately, and the team performance at the 2013 World Championships cannot be attributed to a lack of leadership, in my opinion.
At 28, Staal is the eldest of the three and .5 years older than the roster average age which is 27.5.
Like all three nominees he has led his NHL team to a Stanley Cup but otherwise doesn't have a trophy case full of awards and notable achievements. He's a producer, always falling into the 70-80 points per season range and always in the top end of the NHL scoring stats, but, much like Toews, has never really been in the scoring trophy race in any sort of sustained fashion. Considered a two way player, he is well respected in the locker room and his Captaincy of the World Championship team indicates that the powers-that-be in the Canadian Hockey establishment consider the essential Captain ingredients to be present in Staal: temperament, skill and leadership ability.
He wouldn't be the fan choice, one presumes, if a poll were taken - but perhaps that is what best qualifies him for the job. That there would be no extreme response, one way or the other, to his being named and many people might adopt the "well, if it can't be my guy, he's a good choice" attitude. While the players may do their best to avoid being affected by public uproar, this isn't the NHL, this isn't pay for play hockey, this is the national team, and we don't want our Captain going into the thing with the unnecessary burden of fan displeasure at his appointment.
Wildcard Factor: Staal is the captain of a team on which two of his brothers, Jared and Jordan, also play. If anyone has brothers or knows a family with brothers, this is a not insignificant factor as it indicates that his younger siblings, both talented players, are willing to play under his leadership. As competitive, elite athletes who are also siblings, this is an indicator, of sorts, that Eric is a bona fide leader by temperament and respected by those who know him best. It speaks volumes about his character.
Jonathon Toews - Accomplishment Guy
Toews has won two Stanley Cups since the last Olympics. He won one the same year he won gold with Canada and he won another this past season. That makes him the only nominee to have two Stanley Cup rings. As a member of the Triple Gold Club, he has had extensive international experience, most of it coming at the Junior and under 20 level. Even so, he has done very well internationally, being named the best forward overall at the 2010 Olympics. With a Selke, a Conn Smythe, two Stanley Cups and a Gold Medal, his list of awards and accomplishments is not as long as Crosby's, but it has all the big guns on it.
While Toews is not usually in the running for scoring based awards, he is a consistent contender for the Selke which many consider to be the most important of the NHL awards given to forwards. His point production is not low or disappointing, it is just not the most important component of his game. Advanced stats like Corsi or Fenwick often place Toews in the very top tier, if not at the top, of effective forwards in terms of what he brings to the game when he is on the ice but the Captaincy is not a contest on who is the better player, it is a contest of leadership.
Toews, like Crosby, has a wide fan following and is considered by many to be the best two-way player in the game. Also like Crosby, his leadership skills have come under scrutiny by both fans and the press. In the last Stanley Cup playoffs, during the series with Detroit, Toews suffered what can only be described as a composure meltdown which led him to taking a series of retaliatory penalties and which required a calming visit from teammate Brent Seabrook (also invited to the team Canada camp). Although they won the series, Toews' took a lot of flack from the public over what was perceived as an immature response to pressure.
That said, he did overcome his frustration, the Hawks went on to beat Detroit and then, two series later, won the Stanley Cup. It is thought that Toews leads by example, by playing a full 200 foot game, being defensively responsible while maintaining offensive production. The few reports to appear in the media seem to lead to the conclusion that he is not a speech-making captain, given to inspirational outbursts but rather a quiet captain who does his job and expects everyone to do theirs. Called Captain Serious by the press, Toews is a quiet but well spoken individual.
Wildcard Factor: Although they won the 2012-13 cup, Toews himself was outscored by four of his teammates through the playoffs, contributing only 3 goals. In itself this is not an important factor but it does represent such a departure from his regular season performance that it leads to the obvious questions regarding his ability to perform, personally, under pressure. This is mitigated by the fact that when the Hawks won the cup in 2009-2010 Toews led all Hawks in playoff scoring and was second behind Danny Briere (by one point) for the top ranking. Maybe Toews would make a more significant contribution, which will be needed, without the heavy mantle of the C.
Sidney Crosby - Skill Guy
Crosby has only the one Stanley Cup and no Conn Smythe or Selke awards but he has a slew of others including a Hart (MVP), Pearson (MOP), Richard (Goals), Ross (Scoring) and Messier (Leadership) as well as, like Toews, record setting and award winning performances on the Junior international stage.
While it is arguable as these things always are, Crosby, more than either Toews or Staal, is a skill player, capable of a much higher point production that either of the other two nominees. In a highlight reel contest between the three, Crosby wins by a considerable margin. He is capable, moreso than the others, of making the plays that leave you slack jawed and gaping for air in a "did he really just do that" way. No other active player has the ability to rouse a crowd to their feet in joyous celebration of a feat of supreme athleticism as Sidney Crosby. In itself, that is inspiring.
But like Toews, Crosby has come under scrutiny for his ability to lead a team in pressure situations, sometimes succumbing to frustration induced penalties and on-ice actions that, in turn, frustrate fans and teammates. Although Toews had some concussion issues in 2011 and Staal was injured at the last World Championships, neither has the injury history of Crosby and it is hard to say whether the automatic flinching that happens when Crosby is hit or falls down will be cured by the time of the Sochi games and harder yet to decide whether this is a factor or not. A team's natural instinct to protect their Captain combined with a Captain who is seen as physically vulnerable may, in fact, be a detriment. A Captain that goes down and out at the Olympics will either deflate the team entirely or rise them up in defiance ... but do we want to find out which the Canadian team would do?
Crosby is known for making players on his team better (Chris Kunitz being asked to attend the camp is an example of this - his stats would not have qualified him in his pre-Crosby line years) and for having the ability to elevate those around him to a higher octane performance but I doubt that is linked to his status as a Captain as much as it is about his skill as a player.
Wildcard Factor: Crosby scored the overtime game winning goal at the last Olympics and nothing, not even the recent series against the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, has likely removed the sense that Canadians have that Crosby will come up big when it counts. He's the reigning golden boy. The sentimental favourite. He has all the right resume pieces to get the job without the golden goal, but ... well, there is the fact of the golden goal.
If you're of the school that a Captain is a highly honorary title, that the vocal inspiration comes from the coaches and the Captain leads by example on the ice by his performance as a player then any of the three will do because all three will perform well, if past performance is any indication. All are considered talented, hard working, determined and able to elevate their game when required. There is no clear choice amongst the three in strict terms. It will come down to the philosophy of the management and coaching staff of the team. What are they after? What do they see as the role of the Captain for the Canadian Olympic team?
The last team, which had the same staff in place, selected Scott Niedermayer to captain the team. A long and legendary career trailed behind him and he was a consensus good choice. He brought veteran leadership skills, a strong following amongst Canadian hockey fans and a respect from the other players that transcended his team affiliation. Even as an elite player, considered one of the best defensemen in the game, he was neither superstar-ish nor controversial enough to garner much by way of objection or fan backlash and he had all the correct skills and resume entries.
With the loss of Iginla to the candidate list, there is no one except Eric Staal with these particular qualities, except maybe Joe Thornton, at 34, or Martin St. Louis at 38, and neither of them are currently Captains of their teams, Staal might be the front runner. Thornton captained the Bruins for five years but was traded, while he was Captain, and has not worn the C since. St. Louis has never held a Captain's position.
If the powers that be hold true to course and are looking for an established leader without too much fan "baggage", a strong on ice presence and a personality that will hold up to the intense scrutiny he will face then Eric Staal is the logical choice. This is the choice of least-resistance and while it might not be cheered or booed in the streets like a Toews or Crosby choice might, maybe that's what's important here. Compromise is a very Canadian trait and in this case might well work out best for everyone.
If the desire is to have a perceived "proven winner" in a team accomplishment context, one with recent credentials, leadership experience, a high results-based profile and a large fan following then Jonathon Toews is the logical choice. He's got the Stanley Cup in his cupboard this year and captained the team that won it the hard way, with near misses and story-book come backs.
If the desire is to have the player considered the best in the world who would be the sentimental choice, particularly amongst the non-rabid fan component of the Canadian populace, who inspires mostly by spectacular on ice performance and an ability to elevate other players, has a clear advantage in terms of media experience and has the requisite leadership experience, including the winning kind, then Crosby is the logical choice.
I would be happy with any of the choices, frankly. But if I take off my hockey-nut hat and just put on my Canadian hat, I want Crosby to Captain the team. Why? Because some illogical part of me, despite ample evidence to the contrary, believes that Sidney Crosby has that extra thing other people don't have, that thing that allows him to score overtime, gold medal winning goals. It's sentimental, not logical.
He is, if my analysis is correct, the first amongst equals. It's not about thinking he would be a better Captain because I believe either Staal or Toews would be equally excellent captains. Each of them would represent Canada with all the skill, leadership and character that have embodied the Canadian spirit in international tournaments since we began to attend them. There is no pejorative shadow cast by my sentimental choice of Crosby.
I can't say if it's because it seems "right" in an "he deserves this" way, whether it's because somewhere deep inside me even though I know the Captain's job isn't about scoring goals, I want the best player we have to wear the C on his jersey or whether it's just because I want Canada to flaunt their riches a little and Crosby is the jewel in the hockey crown. It could be any one of those completely irrational and emotional reasons. There's something poetic, I suppose I believe, in icing a Canadian hockey team where the player who seems to be more or less universally acclaimed as "the best" is the Captain. Especially when we are going to Russia. You know ... the nemesis.
We're a hockey nation, to be sure, but not every individual is infected with the hockey bug. Many, probably most, love hockey but not everyone is the rabid sort of fan that scours the news daily, knows what Corsi and Fenwick are, analyzes stats and reads op-ed pieces on their favourite teams and players as a matter of course. In a country of 33 million, there are a lot of Canadians who have a more general interest in the game, a less informed appreciation of the sport and a once-every four years dedication to it.
And they'll think Crosby should be Captain.