Having an effective on-ice leader can’t be understated, perhaps in the fast-paced NHL more so than other leagues. The following 10 captains took their teams on their backs when needed, motivated those around them, and did so throughout their playing careers. NOTE: Only retired players were considered. The list is in no particular order.
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The 10 Best NHL Captains in History
Scott Stevens – New Jersey Devils
The epitome of what it means to be a team leader is the long-time New Jersey Devils captain Scott Stevens. Since his early days in Washington and St. Louis, Stevens emerged as not only a stalwart on the d-line, but also a gifted leader on the bench and on the ice. While others set the tone with their skill, Stevens did so with his physical play. Known for his nasty open-ice bodychecks, he struck fear into opponents while also keeping his own linemates feeling just a bit safer.
With a Devils team built around him, the team emerged as a perennial contender through much of the mid to late 90s. With his leadership, New Jersey hoisted three Stanley Cups, and several more division and conference titles.
Mark Messier – New York Rangers
Carving his name during his time in Edmonton in the 80s, Mark Messier became synonymous with “leader”. The Moose, as he became affectionately known, was a no-nonsense player, raising expectations of his teammates. But his real breakout came after the shadow of Wayne Gretzky was lifted. Winning a Stanley Cup post-Gretzky in both Edmonton and then more impressively with the New York Rangers, Messier was thrusted into hockey elite for more than just his physical gifts. Giving Broadway its first Stanley Cup in 40 years, Messier led his team throughout his time in New York.
Steve Yzerman – Detroit Red Wings
The unassuming, mild-mannered yet tenacious Steve Yzerman, led the Detroit Red Wings through a remarkable stretch of hockey in the 90s and into the new millenium. Known to leave everything on the ice, Stevie Y led by example. Many former Red Wings note the pain he went through night in, night out, in the latter half of his career as being paritculary motivating.
Steve Yzerman retired having played with just one team, and the game’s longest serving captain. When the Red Wings needed him, he was there. When Canada needed him, he was there.
“Steve likes to lead by example. He plays with his heart and with his soul. He lays it all on the line. When I think of Steve Yzerman, I like to think about 2002 when we won the Stanley Cup. He was basically playing on one leg. He couldn’t practise for two months and he even had a difficult time taking part in the 15-minute warmup. But when the puck was dropped, he was there and he performed. He’s tough as nails.”
Ray Bourque – Boston Bruins
For 15 of his 21 years in Boston, Ray Bourque was the team’s captain and leader. Known for being just as gifted offensively as he was for his stalwart defense, Bourque added consistency to each Bruins team he captained. While the Bruins failed to win a Stanely Cup during his time, he found hockey’s top prize when he moved to play for Colorado Avalanche in 2001.
He may not be the best defenceman in Bruins history—losing out to arguably the greatest player who ever put on skates, Bobby Orr—he will certainly go down as the best captain in the team’s long history. While he never captained a team to a Stanley Cup—Joe Sakic was firmly set as the Avs’ captain—he still is a deserving inclusion to this list.
Joe Sakic – Colorado Avalanche
Much like one-time rival Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic was a soft-spoken leader. The long-time captain of the Quebec Nordiques and Colorado Avalanche was not always seen as an effective leader. It wasn’t until 1996 when he led the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup, scoring 34 playoff points that he his leadership abilities were recognized. But after that playoff, his legacy grew, and today we remember him as one of the game’s greatest captains, not only for the Avalanche, but also on the international stage for Canada.
Jean Beliveau – Montreal Canadiens
“Legend” is probably the best adjective to describe Jean Beliveau, but “leader” may come right after. One of the greatest to ever play for the Blue, Blanc et Rouge, Jean Beliveau led arguably the greatest dynasties in league history. With him at the helm, the Habs won five Stanley Cups, which is good enough for the record for the most won by one captain. Standing out among the Hall of Famers who have played in Montreal is no easy feat, but Beliveau does just that. He led by example. He led with his words.
George Armstrong – Toronto Maple Leafs
Being the last captain to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup for the Toronto Maple Leafs might be just enough to give the nod by George Armstrong. But it wasn’t just his triumph with the Leafs in 1967 that lands him on this list. With his leadership, Toronto three-peated, winning consecutive Stanley Cups from 1962-64. He was far from the most talented in franchise history—he may not have even been the most talented on those Cup-winning teams—he will go down as the team’s greatest captain, ahead of even Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin.
Mario Lemieux – Pittsburgh Penguins
Anyone old enough will remember the press conference when, in January of 1993, “Super Mario” revealed he was going to be receiving treatment for Hodgkins lymphoma. The hockey world was at a standstill, no one really knowing what this would mean for his career—and life. But what came after is one of the greatest stories in sports history.
On the very last day of his radiation treatment, he flew to Philadelphia where he received a standing ovation. Pittsburgh went on to win 17-straight games, capturing the Presidents’ Trophy. Not only that, but despite missing two months, he still caught Pat LaFontaine and won the league scoring title.
Mario Lemieux captained the Penguins from 1987-1994 and 1995-97. He made a comeback and resumed his captaincy from 2001-06.
Bobby Clarke – Philadelphia Flyers
While Mario Lemieux was a gifted goal-scorer, Bobby Clarke is more remembered for what he did in the physical department. A hard-working, blue collar player, Clarke was known to be the first player into the corner, unafraid of mixing it up and dishing out punishment to his opponents. He captained a very tough Flyers team through the ‘Broad Street Bullies’ years in the 1970s. He led the team to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975. Fans will surely remember his participation in the iconic 1972 Summit Series when he took out Soviet standout Valeri Kharlamov with a two-hander, but that does not take away from his legacy as the greatest Flyers captain in team history.
Maurice Richard – Montreal Canadiens
The iconic Maurice “Rocket” Richard was the leader of the Montreal Canadiens for the latter part of his 17 seasons with the team. The first 50-goal scorer in history led the famed “Punch Line”, joined by Elmer Lach and former long-time captain Toe Blake. Finding the back of the net with such regularity, he was a captain who led by example. He raised the bar for everyone on the team, creating a new standard the league hadn’t seen. After officially taking over as captain in 1956 from Butch Bouchard, he led his team to four straight Stanley Cups before stepping away from the game in 1960, handing the “C” to Doug Harvey. Though his years as captain were far from his most productive, he was a strong leader nonetheless.
Honourable Mentions: Wayne Gretzky, Denis Potvin, Daniel Alfredsson, Ted Kennedy, Ted Lindsay, Nicklas Lidstrom, Henri Richard, Gordie Howe, Shane Doan
Of course arguments can be made for the inclusion of some and the omission of others—after all, it’s difficult to quantify a subjective list. Who would make your ‘Top 10 Captains’ list? Reply in the comment section below.
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