The "C" Returns to "C"olumbus
The announcement of a new captain is just a few days away, so it's time to review the meaning of the "C", both locally and in the context of sports.
We now know that the Blue Jackets will announce their new captain on Wednesday, after a 1,030 day interval with no Columbus sweater bearing the "C". (The "A"s will be determined during training camp in September). As the demise of the captain in Columbus coincided with the Rick Nash trade, it has been a somewhat touchy subject. While few objected to the absence of a captain in the immediate aftermath of the Nash deal, as time went on, the fan base became more restive and divided, with some arguing strenuously for the "C" be awarded, while others were willing to go along with the front office mantra that "the captain would reveal himself." With that unveiling now imminent, its appropriate to take a little deeper look at the captaincy in Columbus.
The "who" is not officially known, but I think it's fair to say that it would be an upset if anyone other than Nick Foligno gets the nod. While I have personally advocated his elevation for a long time, he seems to have met the announced criterion of having emerged organically as a team leader. Of course, cases can be made for other guys, such as Brandon Dubinsky and Jack Johnson, who would undoubtedly do more than credible jobs themselves. Other schools of thought have Scott Hartnell serving as captain for a few years until Boone Jenner has enough time and gravitas to assume the role. However, I think the specifics of the who are less important than the why when it comes to this decision. While we can all have opinions as to the "who", I have consistently said that at the end of the day, the fans have no role in the selection of the Captain. That decision correctly belongs exclusively behind the doors of the locker room and the front office. As for the why, I think we need to look briefly at the role itself and its history in Columbus.
Hockey attaches an unusually high level of significance to the Captain role -- a stature that only soccer comes close to sharing. Baseball? Only a few clubs have ever bothered naming a captain, and the role has no officially designated responsibilities. The topic came up in the wake of Derek Jeter's retirement, when Yankee's GM Brian Cashman suggested that the captain role should be retired as well. Recent research suggests that only the New York Mets have an official captain at the moment (David Wright) and that five clubs have never had one. Basketball? Well, most NBA teams do have captains, as it turns out, and most have multiple captains. Quick . . .who is the Captain of the Boston Celtics? (Trick question . . . they don't have one) You get the point, though. Nobody knows who they are, or what they do. Football? Well, they do have captains, who trot out to the center of the field each game for the coin toss. That is the last time you hear about them. In hockey, however, the captain is a central figure. He not only serves the "official" role of primary interface with the game officials, he is sought out as the primary voice and face of the franchise, and is expected to provide the example and leadership for the rest of the squad, on and off the ice. Every true hockey fan can name the Captain of the home club in an instant, and frequently can name the associates as well.
Because of the divergent roles the captain is expected to play, teams have taken a variety of approaches to naming the player to don the "C". Some go with grizzled veterans, expecting their experience and age to provide the necessary wisdom. Others go with young talent, hoping that the respect those players earn for their ability carries them until they can develop the experience and independent leadership. This has been a trend in recent years, with players such as Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, Rick Nash and Alexander Ovechkin assuming those roles early in their careers. While the success of this trend will be determined through historical hindsight, one justification for the approach is to obtain some measure of longevity in the prime leadership role. Steve Yzerman served as captain of the Red Wings for an amazing 19 seasons, and Shane Doan holds the current longevity mark with 11 years as the captain in Arizona.
Whatever approach clubs adopt, it's clear that the captain should have enough skill to spend significant minutes on the ice, enough experience to be credible with his teammates, and the ability to successfully navigate the spectrum of personalities and egos that populate an NHL locker room in today's day and age. Not an easy combination of attributes to find. Some argue that the "C" is unnecessary in this day and age, and its a pointless role, given the egos and money all of the players possess. While I understand the point, I'm inclined to disagree. You can argue all you want that every team has leaders, and that the administrative act of awarding a letter for the sweater is superfluous, but it makes a difference. Every organization of people ultimately needs some form of officially sanctioned leadership to be effective. Sure, things can go fine for a while, particularly when things are going well. But when times get tough, the bickering and divisiveness sets in, and that's when the "C" becomes important. That letter becomes the final arbiter in the argument, the focal point of decisions. Youngsters especially need that focal point -- a person independent of the head coach who they can go to when they are having trouble gaining their footing. Group dynamics are funny things. Is there any logical reason that a player choosing to fight another player should fire up the rest of the roster? Not really. Yet it happens -- all the time. Hockey is a funny game that way, and the Captain carries all of that tradition, responsibility and quirkiness on his shoulders.
The history of the captaincy in Columbus is -- at best -- a checkered one. Lyle Odelein debuted in the role, providing the "grizzled veteran" approach for the first two years of the franchise's existence. Ray Whitney -- representing that combination of veteran presence with consummate skill -- held the role for just one season, cut short by Doug MacLean's decision to not offer an additional year to Whitney's contract proposal. (For the record, Whitney had 194 goals and 374 assists after leaving the Blue Jackets. Just saying'. . . ) In a return to the "grizzled veteran defenseman near the end of his career" approach, Luke Richardson held the post for the better part of two seasons, and was succeeded by Adam Foote -- the franchise's version of Lord Voldemort -- who occupied the role for three years, before the mantle was awarded to Rick Nash. The debates have raged for a long time as to the wisdom/efficacy of that decision, and that's a topic beyond the scope of this piece.
Against this backdrop, it's not hard to envision what the organization has been looking for, and why they have been willing to wait for somebody to emerge. Of all of the captains prior to Nash, only Ray Whitney was not nearing the end of his career. While they engendered respect, they were never going to be long-term locker room presences. Whitney had potential to be a great long-term choice, but the contract discussions foiled that opportunity. While Nash is a great player, and a nice guy, you never had the sense that he was a guy who could rally the troops. He just did not have that kind of personality.
The Blue Jackets are a young club, and have been for some time. As such, they are more emotionally volatile as an organization, and arguably more in need of a stable leadership than other organizations. One could certainly argue that having a captain last season might have helped stem some of those horrific losing streaks, but then others would argue that the season ending winning streak occurred without one. I think that the absence of a Captain had an impact, but in the context of the devastating injuries, it might have seemed almost trivial.
With the turmoil of recent years, I think the Columbus front office desperately wanted a single player to come forward from the locker room with the obvious backing of the roster as a whole. Ideally, that player would have the unique combination of attributes mentioned above, and be young enough to hold the role for a considerable period of time. I think it's fair to say that Foligno has met those criteria more than any other player on the current roster, and performed admirably in his "audition" wearing the "C" for the All Star Game. He has that combination of experience, skill, humor and intensity that seems to have struck a chord with the roster, the fans and the front office. He now holds the long term contract necessary to be an ongoing presence, and at age 27, is neither too young nor too old to be effective. Of course, you can say many of the same things about Dubinsky (29 years old) and Johnson (28).
The point is that this captain -- whoever he is -- will be one that has emerged from the player ranks as a leader, and a guy who has endured the highs of the 2013-14 playoffs, and the lows of the 2014-15 injury fest. It will not be an imported veteran imposed upon an existing locker room structure. That can only be a good thing for the vitality and success of the organization, on and off the ice. The only problem seems to be that Ghost of Nationwide (@NWAGhost) will no longer be able to use his asterisk in lieu of the "C", (as in no *olumbus *aptain), as that "C" will have returned to "C"olumbus. It's time. Stay tuned.