Commentary

Some of hockey's best leaders tell us what it takes

Updated: November 12, 2007, 9:49 PM ET
By Paul Grant | ESPN.com

TORONTO -- If you look at the Hockey Hall of Fame's induction class of 2007, you notice the four players share two things: Stanley Cup success and, at one time during their careers, they wore the "C" on their sweaters as their team's designated captain.

[+] EnlargeMark Messier
AP Photo/CP, Ryan RemiorzMark Messier captained two different teams to the Stanley Cup, Edmonton and the New York Rangers.

The NHL is anoints its leaders obviously, the "C" acting like an exclamation point calling for attention. Some would say the "C" is a lightning rod in cities such as Toronto, Montreal and New York. Others would say it's the same as wearing an "S" that stands for "star."

During Hockey Hall of Fame weekend, ESPN.com solicited opinions from some of the game's retired leaders to get their perspective on wearing the "C."

Question from ESPN.com: What is it like to be a captain in the NHL?

Mark Messier (Class of 2007): I think the biggest thing, if you had to pick just one, would be trust. Your players have to trust you. They have to be able to look at you and know that you're consistent in your approach and your philosophy and what you believe in. Establishing a relationship where they can trust you is very important.

Scott Stevens (Class of 2007): Lead by example, that's the biggest thing. It's more about work ethic, coming to play every night, working hard in practice, showing up for practice, showing up for games, and what you do off the ice, how you carry yourself, because everyone is watching you. All the players are watching you -- how you handle yourself, how you prepare yourself -- and I think that's the most important thing.

Al MacInnis (Class of 2007): Well, I think the first thing is you want to lead by example. If your teammates see the work ethic that you put in, the consistency that you put in, not only games but in practices, I think your teammates will follow. You don't always have to be a yeller or a screamer. I think it's important that if you lead by example, the rest will follow.

Ron Francis (Class of 2007): Everybody's different in that. I was given the "C" at a very young age and, quite honestly, probably wasn't ready for it at that point. I think it's a process you learn through experience; you learn through some of your teammates that have been around the league more times than not. Eventually, you learn more as you get traded. I went to Pittsburgh and learned different things, then in Carolina. So, for me, it was more of a process of how it worked. Everybody has a different style; some guys are talkers and yellers, other guys [lead] by action. It's being comfortable in your own skin and finding what works for you.

Pat Quinn (former NHL player and coach): There are certain leadership qualities that are very important. The biggest thing I think is you have to have the respect of your teammates, and that starts with showing them respect. I think you're a liaison between coaches and players, so you have to be able to work that relationship well. You have to have empathy for your teammates. You have to be the rock around which they look to for support. On the ice, you've got to be the best worker at practice, you have to lead that way. You have to have humility. There's lots of qualities that good captains have; and we here in Toronto have been very fortunate to have some great captains over the years.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Sittler
Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images In his first season as captain with the Maple Leafs in 1976, Darryl Sittler set the NHL record for most points in one game (10 points).

Darryl Sittler (former Toronto Maple Leafs captain): I always tried to believe that you lead by example. You've got to walk the talk, so to speak. If you do that, it's all you can do. Just be who you are. I was fortunate to have guys who had a lot of leadership qualities around me, guys like Lanny McDonald, Tiger Williams and other players. To me, as a captain, it's nice when you have that support from quality teammates.

Wendel Clark (former Maple Leafs captain): If you can show up on time all the time, work hard day or night and get along with everybody, that's pretty much your qualities right there. You don't have to be the best player or the best anything, but you have to know how to get all the guys to get along, going in the same direction and just play the game. You can't control everything; you're just one guy. It's all about winning as a team and you try to get everybody to play as a team.

Q: Who influenced your leadership style?

Messier: I took a lot things from a lot of different people and then combined it with some practical experiences, [some] not always being the best choices. Teddy Green was an amazing leader; Glen Sather was a mentor of mine; my father, obviously; Wayne [Gretzky], in his own regard, other players. It's like a little garbage bag and you just keep getting little bits of information and putting it in there. And, pretty soon, it's full and then you kind of take and put it into your own personality and the things that you believe in and your own philosophies, and you've got this whole bag of knowledge to help you along the way. That's kind of what I did. I wasn't a leader when I first came into the National Hockey League, so you can see that through experience and being thrust into the position to make decisions, it prepares you for when you actually do become the leader.

Q: How much does a captain interact with management?

Sittler: Communication is important. The coach and general manager want to have a pulse of the team and vice versa. To me, we're all in it with the same goals -- to play to your potential and get the most out of everybody and be successful; so, communication is important. And there's different ways of doing that. Some coaches try to motivate through intimidation and fear; and, to me, that type of motivation is short-lived than the guy who has a game plan and sticks to it. Roger Neilson is a prime example of a coach I was a captain under and really enjoyed working with him. To me, that's what it's all about.

Clark: They always say there's a lot of communication. The coach coaches, the GM GMs and the players play hockey. You don't sit down and have these big office meetings, as much as everybody thinks there's a tie-in between players and management, and you have a cozy meeting all the time. It's not like that. Your captain is the voice of the dressing room, but he isn't sitting tight with the management, either. Management's got to do what they do best and the players have got to do what they do best.

[+] EnlargeRon Francis
Getty ImagesAt age 22, Ron Francis became one of the game's youngest captains with the Hartford Whalers.

Q: What has been the evolution of the captain since your playing days?

Sittler: The difference now compared to a number of years ago is the number of Europeans in the league now, and the language thing is more of an issue now than before. And the other thing is, there's not the same loyalty on either side. A lot now depends on player movement and contracts and money, and not so much on the character, the quality of the player, on both sides. Generally speaking, those years of being a captain are probably shorter now than they were before, unless you're a Stevie Yzerman or Joe Sakic or someone like that. There's been a lot of change that way.

Clark: I think it's a little bit different now. It's a huge thing to do with stars and marketing ... the game sometimes supersedes the players because sometimes, if you make a guy a captain too young, he hasn't seen a lot of situations; he may run into some stumbling blocks. You're asking him to have more pressure than he has to have right away. But that has a lot to do with the way the game is marketed and what goes on, and that's not right or wrong, that's just what is.

Q: Statistics aside, what personal qualities do you need to be considered worthy of the Hockey Hall of Fame?

Messier: You have to have had success, hopefully team success, individual success. I think you've had to have had longevity. It's important to have an understanding of the game and a respect for the game, and conduct yourself off the ice like a professional. ... Those are basically the requirements. And, on top of that, you've still got to perform out on the ice.

MacInnis: Love and passion for the game go a long way. Obviously, ability is a big part of it, but you see a number of players that you grow up with, whether it's youth hockey, whether it's Junior, even in pro, there are guys that have a lot of ability and some have a lot more ability than yourself. But I think the difference maker is what you want to get out of the game -- your love and passion and commitment bring you a long way. If you look around the Hall of Fame today, all of those guys have those characteristics.

Francis: Well, that's a tough question. You have to have a passion for the game. You have to be willing, especially at this point, especially with this honor, to promote our game and market our game for generations to come. I think you look at this group of guys, and the one word that sticks out for me, is they're all classy individuals and men of integrity.

Stevens: Other than stats ... I would say longevity, leadership and Stanley Cups.

Paul Grant is a senior coordinating editor for ESPN.com.