Europeans break through leadership barrier

Updated: October 18, 2006, 11:38 AM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

We couldn't pronounce their names. That was for sure.

Solodukhin and Tsygankov and Lutchenko and on it went.

So there were the names, and there was so much more about the Soviet Union's national hockey team that seemed strange and unfamiliar when it traveled to North America in August 1972 for what would become the famous Summit Series with Team Canada.

Mats Sundin
AP Photo/Frank Gunn,CPSwedish-born Mats Sundin, right, has been the Maple Leafs' captain since 1997.

The Canadians, from players to fans, were cocky and overconfident, so it was easy to chuckle when the Soviet captain, Boris Mikhailov, skated onto the ice surface at the Montreal Forum for the first game with a large "K" on his chest, just above his heart. To North Americans, "C" meant captain, and it seemed just a matter of time that the Soviets would be taught a lesson in the sport and would surely adopt all the NHL's customs.

They'd have Mikhailov changing his "K" for a "C," that you could be sure.

Well, it was the Soviets who did much of the teaching, and while Canada ultimately prevailed in the series, the hockey world was changed forever.

Mikhailov, meanwhile, earned a reputation in the eight-game set (four in Canada, four in Moscow) as a scowling, nasty piece of work, as single-minded and uncompromising as any hard-nosed Canadian then competing in the 16-team NHL.

He was clearly a leader -- if not necessarily to be admired like a Jean Beliveau, certainly to be feared like an Eddie Shore.

In the wake of the Soviets and Mikhailov, it became clear through world championships and gradual NHL immersion that any number of Europeans -- from Czech star Ivan Hlinka to Swedish star Borje Salming to big West German forward Erich Kuhnhackl -- could easily fit the bill of an NHL captain.

Yet by 1996, a quarter-century after Mikhailov led the Soviets into the Summit Series, there were no captains of European birth among the 26 NHL clubs.

When Mats Sundin became captain of the Maple Leafs in 1997, he was the first non-Canadian to hold the position for the team in 70 years and the only full-time Euro captain in the league.

There had been a few European captains along the way (Winnipeg's Lars-Erik Sjoberg in 1979, Quebec's Peter Stastny in the late 1980s), but by the mid-1990s, they had disappeared from rosters.

Patrik Elias
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesAt the start of this season, Patrik Elias became the seventh captain in New Jersey Devils history.

For the most part, the NHL had, until the 1970s, been a closed shop, with nearly 100 percent Canadian-born players. It was no surprise, then, that NHL captains were almost always Canadian, as well. But it seems unusual the trend continued well into the 1990s for many teams, long after Europeans and Americans had become commonplace on rosters.

The Bruins had only Canadians as captains before giving the honor to Zdeno Chara of Slovakia this season. Edmonton had plenty of European players in the 1980s and 1990s, but Doug Weight, an American, was the first non-Canadian to captain the Oilers when he got the "C" in 1999.

Los Angeles had Canadian captains from 1967 to 2001, when Swedish defenseman Mattias Norstrom took the job. St. Louis, an expansion team in 1967, has had only Canadian-born captains, including Brett Hull, who was born in Belleville, Ontario, but played internationally for the United States.

Why the closed shop? Well, for most of the NHL's history, the GMs and coaches have been Canadians and, as a general rule, still are. Hockey is a conservative sport that adapts to change slowly, and despite the major success of European players, it wasn't that long ago that teams believed they had to carefully monitor the number of Europeans on their roster if they wanted to remain competitive.

With all of its Russians and Swedes, Detroit might have permanently destroyed that mind-set when the Red Wings won the Cup in 2002, and now teams are more willing than ever before to look to their European players for leadership.

Today, there are 13 European captains among 27 teams (Pittsburgh doesn't have a captain, Buffalo has co-captains and Minnesota rotates its captaincy monthly). Meanwhile, the number of Canadian captains has fallen to 13. Even among Canada's six NHL clubs, three teams have Swedes, one has a Finn and two have Canadians as captains.

It seems self-evident that there has been a major revolution among philosophers in terms of what it takes to lead a hockey team.

Just this season, Patrik Elias has succeeded Scott Stevens as captain of the New Jersey Devils, and Jaromir Jagr is carrying the captaincy of the New York Rangers. Nicklas Lidstrom was the natural successor to Steve Yzerman in Detroit, Peter Forsberg is now captain in Philly and Kimmo Timonen is wearing the "C" in Nashville.

Add to that these veteran Euro captains -- Norstrom in L.A., Olli Jokinen in Florida, the Islanders' Alexei Yashin, Saku Koivu of the Montreal Canadiens, Vancouver's Markus Naslund, Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators and Toronto's Sundin -- and you have an entirely new balance of power among players.

For the sport of hockey in North America, this is a major cultural change, yet it has happened quietly, as though it was inevitable given the large number of marquee players from Sweden, Russia, Finland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Holding the captaincy in hockey is largely a ceremonial role, yet it also carries heavy significance. Officially, wearing the "C" gives only that player access to speak to officials, yet for decades it has been viewed as a title that gives that player, whether a scorer or a checker or a defenseman, special responsibility for the success or failure of the team.

What seems clear now is that, for most teams, nationality is no longer a criterion for the job. One hurdle remains: A European-born, European-trained captain has yet to lead a team to the Stanley Cup. (There is an asterisk to that. Back in 1938, the Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup, and their captain was Johnny Gottselig, a left winger born in Odessa, Russia. Gottselig, however, immigrated to Canada in his youth and played his youth and junior hockey in Saskatchewan.)

So, the last barrier for a true Euro captain remains.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.