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Acclamation or appointment: The Canadiens’ captain selection isn’t always unanimous

Shea Weber was recently appointed the 30th captain of the Montreal Canadiens, joining a lineage of players whose legacies are forever tied to the organization. Weber was selected by head coach Claude Julien and general manager Marc Bergevin, saying that the decision from the locker room would have been “unanimous” anyway, even though Brendan Gallagher would have been in the running as well, at least according to several analysts.

After the announcement was made, there was some discussion on the selection process, and whether the captaincy should have been selected by acclamation in the locker room where the players select their leader rather than one being imposed by management.

Turning our gaze to the past shows that sometimes naming a captain is a ‘damned if you, and damned if you don’t’ type of situation.

At the conclusion of the 1980-81 season, Serge Savard decided to retire after a 14-year career with the Canadiens, of which the final two were as undisputed team captain. He began carrying the mantle during the 1978-79 season when Yvan Cournoyer was befallen by various injuries. Cournoyer returned to the Canadiens for the 1979-80 training camp, but it was deemed that he was unable to carry on as a player, and he retired before the season started. Savard’s ascent to captaincy was a mere formality as he was viewed as the locker room leader and was greatly respected.

Selecting Savard’s successor in 1980 broke from a long-standing tradition of selection by player vote, as head coach Bob Berry and general manager Irving Grundman chose the new team captain, Bob Gainey, without much consultation of the team leaders at the time. The last captain to be chosen by management had been Doug Harvey in 1960-61, a mere transitional captain sandwiched between the legendary tenures of Butch Bouchard and Maurice Richard on one end, and Jean Béliveau and Henri Richard on the other.

“I chose [Gainey] because of his style of play,” said head coach Bob Berry to La Presse, as the media hastily gathered around after Berry nonchalantly made the proclamation to anyone within earshot after morning skate. “He is as much a leader on the ice as off of it. And when things go badly, he’s the type of man who will continue to work to his maximum capabilities.

“It’s up to the captain to tell me if a player needs some rest or if he needs something else. A coach can’t know everything and that’s why it’s important to have a very close and constant  relationship between the two.”

Gainey being nominated by management instead of by player vote did not go over well with the locker room, especially certain players who would have been the favourites for the captaincy if a vote were held. Guy Lapointe, Guy Lafleur, and especially Larry Robinson would have led the popular vote if the players had their say.

“Regardless, I would not have made a good management captain,” said Robinson to La Presse with a hint of bitterness. “With a team like the Canadiens, the captain’s post isn’t that important. Several players are leaders without having an official title.”

Lafleur spoke from the heart, as was customary for him. “Am I disappointed? I’m not sure. When you look at the list of the previous Canadiens captains, and you see that they were all great players, you say to yourself that it certainly would be an honour to be named captain. But the clothes don’t make the man. It’s not because you have the “C” on your jersey that you will have a better season, that you will score more goals. Gainey and Bob Berry have a similar style and I’m certain that they will get along. They are two serious guys who constantly think hockey and will work hard to improve our team. I’m certain that Gainey won’t be just the official stool pigeon.”

Gainey approached the appointment serenely and cerebrally. “The captain of the Montreal Canadiens is a prestigious role. To succeed Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau, Serge Savard, and all these great captains of the past brings its share of responsibilities, as much athletic as civic. But you have to be, above all else, the captain of the players. Relay their ideas, their opinions, their complaints to the coaches. And sometimes it goes the other way. There are several definitions of leadership. I believe in leadership by example. When younger players see veterans playing with intensity and sacrifice, they will understand that they must follow in the tradition of excellence of the Canadiens.”

Although the players were initially cold to the idea of a captain being named, Gainey ultimately became one of the more respected captains in Canadiens history, holding the honour for eight seasons before retiring in 1989. He remains the last player to retire as captain with Montreal.

What followed was a decade of uncertainty and revolving-door captaincy to coincide with the darkest time in the organization’s history.

It was decided that Gainey’s successor as captain would indeed be selected by a player vote, held a week into the 1989-90 training camp. The goal was to unite a team still reeling from a Stanley Cup Final loss and dealing with the departure of a significant portion of the veteran leadership.

The conditions in the locker room were very strained, as factions were splintering the team along language lines. The off-season was somewhat acrimonious as well, with various players being accused by others for “campaigning” for the captaincy, aggravated by the fact that the anglophone and francophone press were conducting separate campaigns for their candidates of choice all summer leading up to the vote.

Bobby Smith was accused of trying to win teammate favour for organizing Bob Gainey’s retirement party. Guy Carbonneau was accused of the same for organizing a softball game with players close to his house. The locker room was very much split, and the importance of the player vote could not have been more obvious as three rounds of player voting could not determine a unanimous winner.

The first round saw Carbonneau and Chris Chelios emerge from a pack that also included votes for Smith, Brian Skrudland, Ryan Walter, and Mats Naslund. A second round of voting was to be held just for the two principle candidates, who agreed to withhold their votes. A spoiled ballot however necessitated a third round, which split the vote 9-9. After seeing that there would be no resolution to the divided locker room that day, Savard declared Carbonneau and Chelios to be co-captains, a first for the Canadiens, in an effort to please everyone.

“We never predicted something like this,” said Savard, “but we respect the players’ message. I thought that after a week of training camp one player would emerge as the consensus pick. But that wasn’t the case.”

The new co-captains said all the right things initially to try to quell any lingering dissenting feelings.

“I never expected to receive such an honour,” said Chelios. “I think it’s wonderful that the players chose both of us.”

“This whole story [of the next captain] didn’t start any wars, but it did create certain animosities between players,” said Carbonneau. “Now everyone is happy of the results, and it’s for the best. Before, if you’d go out for a beer with a guy you would appear like a guy on an election trail. Chris and I want everyone to stick together. I’m not going to be the francophone captain or the forwards captain, and he won’t be the anglophone captain or defenceman captain. It’s not going to work like that. It’s certain that friendships influenced the vote, but I won’t hold it against anyone for voting against me. Far from it. Besides, I always got along with Chris. After the vote the players were all relieved in the locker room. With the departure of Rick Green, Larry Robinson, and Bob Gainey, that’s three big holes in the lineup. We will have to rebuild our confidence all together.”

“Bob Gainey’s shoes will be hard to fill,” said Patrick Roy, “so it’s certainly not a problem having two guys to pick up the challenge. Carbonneau and Chelios were excellent candidates. They are here to unite the team, not to create factions.”

The two players would alternate the captaincy on a month-by-month basis, starting with Chelios in October. This created an air of instability around the team all year. Journalists were wondering, loudly, whether Savard made a mistake to allow a player vote without having truly understood the temperature in the room. However, a player appointment by Savard — most likely Chelios — would have also been destructive.

Over the course of the season, certain appearances began to take shape. Although Chelios was favoured by Savard, Carbonneau was the better diplomat and oftentimes was the public face of the team, especially with the French media. Chelios was a bit more known for his late-night outings, “representing” the team at various bars. Both would equally receive praise and criticism in public as teammates had to defend the co-captaincy situation all season long, distracting everyone from what should be the ultimate goal. The general public was looking for a consensus leader to emerge, as was the long-standing tradition for the Montreal Canadiens.

Things came to a head in March when Carbonneau was made a healthy scratch for missing curfew the night before a game in Minnesota, along with Craig Ludwig, while Chelios was injured. Two captains on paper, but neither was answering the call of becoming the next to add his name to the list of great captains. Ryan Walter served as captain for the game.

In late June of 1991, after completing just one year as captain, Chelios was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for Denis Savard. “On the ice Chris was a player always wanting to win. He’s an All-Star after all. Unfortunately, his college spirit remained with him, and it’s probably what drove him out of Montreal,” said Carbonneau.

The latter remained as sole captain, and grew into the role for another four years. Carbonneau may not have been the most offensively flashy player, but his reputation of being a relentless defensive forward on the ice cemented him as a worthy captain in the mould of Gainey. The unique and challenging Chelios/Carbonneau partnership, which was meant to unite the team in a period of transition, instead began a long, painful tradition of trading away captains.

On the appointment of Kirk Muller, who succeeded Carbonneau, Serge Savard told La Presse that “We didn’t want a repeat of the election campaign of 1989-90 when Red Fisher campaigned for Chelios and Rejean Tremblay campaigned for Carbonneau, creating their factions. It had the effect of dividing the locker room. It’s the last thing that a team needs.”

“You don’t make a mistake with a guy like Kirk.” said head coach Jacques Demers. “He’s a respected guy in the locker room because he works tenaciously on the ice.”

The next four captains were all selected by management including Muller, Mike Keane, Pierre Turgeon, and Vincent Damphousse, with little complaint from the players.

The next player to be named captain by acclamation would be Saku Koivu, who was widely respected in the locker room. Brian Gionta was appointed for the same reasons.

Whether it was Gainey who was appointed, or Carbonneau/Chelios who were co-acclaimed,  the general manager not being aware of the personal relationships among the players led to dissent in the group it was meants to bring together. That waned over time under the strength of character of the player chosen for captain, but it initially created distracting situations to the detriment of the team’s results.

It is unlikely that Marc Bergevin was unaware of the temperature of the locker room when he and Julien appointed Weber as captain. There would not be any dissenting opinions or jealousy, as Weber is widely respected by the players and by management alike, and has the strength of character to persevere through challenging periods. In the end, it’s the player’s ability as a leader that will ultimately make or break him and the team, not how he became captain, which becomes a forgotten footnote.