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VanNuck

Greatest Captains in NHL history

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Earlier, I had composed a list of the greatest leaders in the sport’s history. Since then, I had learned more about these great captains and had made changes to the list.

A RE to people who have commented against listing people you haven’t seen, I am assessing leadership ability; you assess them based on their influence on the team, from players to fans, even management, and the outcome of those teams. When I composed this list, I asked these questions: how have these guys influenced their team? Did they win? What was going on in the hockey world? (Was it a competitive era? Were there anything else going on in society making their victories more significant?) How were the captains’ relationship with their teammates and fans? How difficult was it to win the Cup?

1. Wayne Gretzky

Class, skill, effortless domination. These are but a few adjectives to describe the greatest player in NHL history.

Far from being a complete player – most critics attempt to use this knock to discredit him – Gretzky was the ultimate team player. Competitive, passionate, and yet personable, players comfortably united behind him and were compelled to raise their game to the next level. Fans likewise took to him like no other star because he connected with them personally. This quality made him a natural ambassador who knew how to represent his sport, his team, and his country. More than the Cups he’s won or the goals he’d scored, his image sold tickets and sold the game, even in the southern United States.

Gretzky had the skills to beat opponents one-on-one, but more often than not, he used his teammates, pushing them to perform at a higher level. That was evident in Los Angeles, when Bernie Nichols elevated his point totals after Gretzky’s arrival. His teammates relied on his knowledge of the game and intelligent intuition to know what will happen and what they must do.

At the end of the day, Gretzky was an instant HHOF inductee. He holds 61 records – including most career goals, assists, and points overall – as well as four Stanley Cups. He will likely go down as the most respected NHL player of all time.

2. Jean Beliveau

The Montreal Canadiens are by far the most successful franchise in history, having won 24 Stanley Cups to date. It has a rich, storied history. But without Jean Beliveau, it probably would not have lived to see such success.

As an amateur, Beliveau had been hounded relentlessly by the Montreal Canadiens in the early 50s. At the time, the Detroit Red Wings reigned supreme and all the other teams iced competitive teams. The Habs, needing new talent to stay competitive, as well as to find someone to succeed the aging Toe Blake, were set on signing Beliveau. When the young star seemed set on spending his career with his Quebec Aces amateur club, the frustrated Habs bought out the entire league, turned it into a professional league, and forced Beliveau to play for them. It was arguably the single-largest investment for a player – equivalently bigger than the Ovechkin signing or the Lindros trade. But it was worth every penny, for they now had the best player in the league, except for perhaps Gordie Howe.

Classy, dignified, and competent, Beliveau was, like Gretzky, a model player who gave the Habs a respected image. On the ice, he was a natural leader behind whom his teammates readily united, and he consistently led his team to victory. Together with Maurice Richard, Beliveau launched the Canadiens as the league’s eminent powerhouse, ultimately winning five consecutive Cups. After Maurice Richard retired, Beliveau succeeded him as captain, and led the Habs through the intense 1960s, winning five more Stanley Cups before retiring, with 10 Cups to his name.

Beliveau immediately moved to a front-office role with the Habs, winning seven more Cups with the club for a record 17 wins – an individual record, and more wins than any other franchise. He had been inducted to the Order of Canada and had even been offered the post of Governor General, which he turned down.

3. Mario Lemieux

Victory was Mario Lemieux’s legacy. On top of winning two Cups, and three Art Ross Trophies, Lemieux had his personal battles with health problems and if that were not enough, he had to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins in its battle to survive. Lemieux answered the call, stood up to the fight, and won every battle.

Drafted in 1984 by an also-ran Pittsburgh Penguins on the verge of bankruptcy, Lemieux was tasked with reviving the franchise and leading it back to respectability. He played well for the Penguins, but it wasn’t until after the 1989 Canada Cup – where he scored the tournament-winning goal – when Lemieux matured fully as a team leader. He returned to lead the Penguins to a playoff berth, and two seasons later, he led them to their first Stanley Cup.

Injuries forced him to retire early in 1997. But not long afterward, the Penguins, despite their on-ice successes, were seriously in debt, on the verge of going into bankruptcy. Lemieux, who stood to lose millions in that event, purchased the team in 1999 and engineered a successful plan to repay all of its debt and return it to profitability. In 2000, he returned to play once again.

In the 2002 Winter Olympics, Team Canada iced a star-studded hockey team. Who would captain this mighty team? Mario Lemieux, and he successfully melded the all-star cast into a national powerhouse that, despite an early slow start, surged its way to an Olympic gold medal, Canada’s first in 50 years.

Today, Lemieux still owns the Penguins, who have emerged as one of the league’s more successful franchises and won the Stanley Cup in 2009.

4. Maurice Richard

If he isn’t the greatest Hab, he is arguably the most beloved. Having played during a time when English-French tensions were running deep in the province of Quebec, Richard, with his talent and fighting spirit, personified the French Canadians’ fight for freedom and emerged as a hero, much like Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights Movement or the Miracle on Ice team during the Civil War.

His career defining moment came in 1954 when he was suspended for the remainder of the season for attacking an official during a melee. The suspension, which would cost him the scoring title and kept the Habs from winning the Cup, triggered the famous Richard Riots. This riot was considered a French-Canadian revolt against the “oppressive” English Canadian elite. But Richard returned to lead them to a Stanley Cup the next season. Upon being named captain the following season, he played four more seasons, all of which ended with a Stanley Cup win. He retired, a French victor over the oppression he’d faced and inspired an entire ethnicity of French Canadians.

5. Syl Apps

Considered an early-day Joe Sakic, Apps was the core of the Leafs dynasty of the 40s. A model clean-cut citizen and a talented all-round player, Apps was a player the franchise wanted to model its team after and build the whole roster around him.

Having gone a decade falling short of winning the Stanley Cup, Apps had been tasked with reviving the franchise and push it over the hump. He helped achieve their breakthrough in 1942, when they erased a 3-0 deficit against the Red Wings in the Finals to win their first Cup since 1933.

Apps temporarily left the NHL to serve in WWII from 1943-45, and was reportedly to participate in an invasion of Japan had they not surrendered in the summer of 1945. He returned to the Leafs, winning two more Cups in 1947 and 48 before retiring.

6. George Armstrong

Probably the most underrated captain in history, Armstrong ranks alongside Apps as the most important Maple Leafs in history. Far from being a Hall of Famer like many of his Toronto peers, Armstrong was a Maple Leafs mainstay who holds their franchise record for most games played and longest serving captain.

Armstrong captained the team during its most intense period, the 60s dynasty. Competition was intense throughout the league, and the Leafs’ regular season performance was relatively unspectacular, compared to most NHL dynasties. But his steady leadership melded a superstar cast that included Red Kelly, Tim Horton, Dave Keon, and Frank Malkovich, equipping them to rise to the challenge in the playoffs as they captured three consecutive championships from 1962-64, and then in 1967, staged an upset over a much younger and more talented Canadiens team.

7. Denis Potvin/Mark Messier

Both these guys tie for the number seven spot. Essentially, both captains are cut from the same mold: intense, relentlessly competitive, boundlessly self-confident. Both players had begun their careers as a coach’s discipline challenge. Both were strong personalities who thrived in the face of hostility, and often caused much controversy and conflict from time to time. Both played the same kind of game: fast, physical, two-way hockey. Both were especially dominant during the playoffs.

A defenseman drafted first overall by the New York Islanders, Denis Potvin was often compared to Bobby Orr with his two-way prowess. He once drew great ire when he claimed he outplayed Orr in the 1976 Canada Cup, but had been passed over for MVP honours in favour of Orr. But he matured into a great leader, and captained the Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980-83 before they bowed out to Gretzky, Messier and the Edmonton Oilers.

An emotional two-way power forward, often compared to Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard, Mark Messier captained the Edmonton Oilers and then the New York Rangers to Stanley Cup championships in 1990 and 94 respectively, the only captain to win championships with two franchises. Unfortunately, his career tanked when he signed with the Vancouver Canucks, his victims of the 1994 Finals. A locker room power struggle led to the trading of longtime captain Trevor Linden, his 1994 counterpart. Unable to gain the respect of the players and fans, who never forgave him for beating them for the Cup and then running Linden out of town, his time there was marked with contention and derision. Damaged by the contention and age, he returned to the Rangers in 2000, but by then was out of gas and never again made the playoffs.

8. Scott Neidermayer

When Team Canada assembled another star-studded Olympic team in 2010, it needed a captain who has won it all. That man was Scott Neidermayer, the only hockey player to have won every major North American championship. Neidermayer had a history of winning, and naturally, when he plays, his teams are driven to win. That’s what happened to Team Canada, who took home another gold medal in 2010, in Neidermayer’s home province, nonetheless.

Given his victory-stacked resume, it was no surprise that when the Anaheim Ducks signed the talented two-way blueliner off free agency in 2005, they named him captain and he immediately transformed the unassuming team into a league powerhouse. In 2007, he led them to a Stanley Cup victory.

9. Steve Yzerman/Joe Sakic

Despite playing for rival franchises, both guys are arguably captains of the same mold: talented players and leaders by example. Both had led their teams from the league cellar to league supremacy. Both participated in the 2002 Canadian Olympic hockey team that won gold.

At 20 years, Yzerman is the longest serving captain of any franchise. One of the best two-way forwards in the game, he was the core of an emerging Red Wings powerhouse that soon became a regular Stanley Cup contender, winning in 1997, 1998, and 2002.

Joe Sakic led a Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche franchise that likewise starred as a league powerhouse and just about the only team who could compete with Yzerman’s Red Wings. He won the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001.

10. Scott Stevens

In the late 90s and into the new millenium, the NHL was dominated by a three-way battle between Colorado, Detroit, and New Jersey. At the helm in New Jersey was Scott Stevens.

An intense, but relatively clean competitor, Stevens was a model player for his team. Similar to Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman, Stevens led by example and melded his teammates to perform. Consequently, their team won the Stanley Cup in 1995, 2000, and 2003. Of these wins, the first was especially impressive, because on top of a mediocre regular season, they had suffered a morale blow following their loss to the New York Rangers last season in the conference finals. Despite that setback, Stevens and his team staged an impressive upset, blowing past Lindros-led Flyers and the Yzerman-led Wings – both Stanley Cup favourites – to win the first of three Cups.

So here are the top ten captains, twelve actually by virtue of two two-way ties. Some of you may debate over the position over the rankings, and I know many will comment on my listing players none of us have ever seen, but again, when assessing a leader, you don’t need to see them in action – their legacy will speak for themselves.

Feel free to debate or discuss, but if you come up with other lists, please don’t just spit out names. Talk about each of the names, think things out, and discuss what makes so-and-so so great a captain.

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You're going to get a few fools here that don't realize that while Messier was the worst captain in Canucks history, he is one of the best all time.

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I don't really think Gretzky can be called the best captain, while he was arguably the best player of all time he didn't inspire the team as much as some of the other players on the list, but to be honest he didn't really need too.

I think Sakic and Yzerman should both be further up, Yzerman was arguably the best of all-time, he should be top 3.

I wouldn't be 100% sure of who to remove but Bobby Orr definitely belongs to be on the list as well

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I wouldn't be 100% sure of who to remove but Bobby Orr definitely belongs to be on the list as well,

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wow, very detailed, actually quite educating, especially the older facts. good read, thanks OP.

i dont think id give the great one the top spot though, he was unarguably the greatest player, but given the long history of the NHL, theres a couple better ones. I think Beliveau and gretzky should switch, 5 CONSECUTIVE cups, not even gretzky accomplished that. Winning the cup takes a good captain, its a team effort, and the team needs a good captain to rally around and draw inspiration from. Though Gretzky accomplished every individual accomplishment, record, and trophy(goals, assists, points) he didn't accomplish as many team records. If were speaking strictly of best CAPTAINS here, Beliveau is the man.

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<br />I don't really think Gretzky can be called the best captain, while he was arguably the best player of all time he didn't inspire the team as much as some of the other players on the list, but to be honest he didn't really need too.<br /><br />I think Sakic and Yzerman should both be further up, Yzerman was arguably the best of all-time, he should be top 3.<br /><br /><strike>I wouldn't be 100% sure of who to remove but Bobby Orr definitely belongs to be on the list as well</strike><br />

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<br />wow, very detailed, actually quite educating, especially the older facts. good read, thanks OP.<br /><br /> i dont think id give the great one the top spot though, he was unarguably the greatest player, but given the long history of the NHL, theres a couple better ones. I think Beliveau and gretzky should switch, 5 CONSECUTIVE cups, not even gretzky accomplished that. Winning the cup takes a good captain, its a team effort, and the team needs a good captain to rally around and draw inspiration from. Though Gretzky accomplished every individual accomplishment, record, and trophy(goals, assists, points) he didn't accomplish as many team records. If were speaking strictly of best CAPTAINS here, Beliveau is the man.<br />

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Exactly, I was going to make another post sometime on the greatest captains that never actually were. Orr would be on that list.

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I think Trevor deserves a spot on there. He was a leader on and off the ice, and everybody in the dressing room and outside of it loved him.

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Linden would be my favorite of all time but he unfortunately doesn't belong on this list.

Gretzky came to my mind first. He did his talking on the ice and if you don't think that inspired or motivated his team as much as any of the other captains mentioned, I'd have to call you crazy. That guy inspired me and I absolutely hated the Oilers growing up. We were always trying to mimic the moves Gretzky made.

Honorable mention goes to the rest listed. Thanks OP!

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I think Gretzky gets underrated as a captain because he was so skilled. Maybe he wasn't the type of guy that would give a big inspirational speech but he was a great teammate. One thing that is always said about him is that he made every player feel like they were the most important guy on the team. He made sure everyone checked their ego at the door. He had time for every person on the team...that even included the team staff.

...and in the end, the 80s Oilers had five other future HOFers on it and he lead all of them onto the ice every night.

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You're going to get a few fools here that don't realize that while Messier was the worst captain in Canucks history, he is one of the best all time.

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It's hard for me to accept Messier as a top 10 leader due to the state he left the Canucks in after his.... horrendous leadership here. Not to mention his forcing of the unretirement of #11 still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

But he is a great leader, vancouver aside, there's no doubt

Honorable mentions to Linden, Modano off the top of my head.

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