Canadians’ captaincy carries unique weight of history, responsibility

It is here, the game-night gathering place of former players, coaches and general managers, where you’ll see framed portraits of the 30 team captains in the 112-year history of the NHL’s oldest and most successful franchise.

It is felt in the Canadiens dressing room, past a showcase of the 24 Stanley Cup miniatures that represent the team’s winnings, where the portraits of 48 Hall of Famers — 17 of them former captains — gaze down at the players benches, their collective unblinking stare one of pride and expectation.

The Montreal captaincy is reinforced by the iconic words of First World War Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, whose 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” is excerpted in the dressing room as it has been for seven decades, when the passage was placed in 1952 by then-GM Frank J. Selke Sr. and coach Dick Irvin Sr.:

“To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high,” and in French,

With the trade to the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday of captain Shea Weber for forward Evgenii Dadonov, the torch is passed once more. The yet-to-be-named 31st captain of the Canadians will instantly learn the captaincy of this franchise is unlike any other.

There is history, legend and demand that comes with having the “C” stitched above their crest. The captain ceremonially sits front row center in the team photo and is his face during feel-good public events. But so too is he the lightning rod for fans and media during lean times in a unique bilingual market for which the Canadians are an all-consuming passion/obsession.

The captaincy is threaded from Jack Laviolette, the team’s first captain when it played in the pre-NHL National Hockey Association, through Weber, the defenseman who played not a game in 2021-22, his final of six seasons which began with his ground- shaking trade to Montreal on June 29, 2016 for defenseman PK Subban.

Every living captain of the Montreal Canadiens except Henri Richard, who was in fragile health, and Max Pacioretty, who was in action for the Vegas Golden Knights, gathered at center ice of Bell Center on Dec. 3, 2019 to mark the team’s 110th birthday. From left: Saku Koivu, Vincent Damphousse, Guy Carbonneau, Chris Chelios, Serge Savard, Yvan Cournoyer, Bob Gainey, Kirk Muller, Keith Acton, Pierre Turgeon, Brian Gionta and Shea Weber.

It was clear from the beginning of this season that a foot/ankle and perhaps other injuries would keep Weber from playing in 2021-22, and perhaps ever again.

On Thursday, announcing the trade, Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes spoke of having a new captain installed for next season.

“I think our locker room was starting to figure that out just because he (Weber) wasn’t there,” Hughes said. “But certainly there’s a certain finality, I guess, that comes with this trade. I think I was asked early on when I first took the job if I had thought that there would be a captain in place and I do.

“It’s not something that I’m going to decide on unilaterally. It’s something that we’re going to talk to the coaching staff about. But we had a period of time where we were able to look and evaluate and speak to the players on the team about who was stepping up and who has the leadership qualities and the maturity of taking that type of role on in a market like Montreal.”

Jean Beliveau, the greatest captain in Canadiens history, in his favorite team portrait and after having won the inaugural Conn Smythe Trophy in 1965, voted as most valuable player of the postseason.

Early candidates for the captaincy would seem to be center Nick Suzuki and forwards Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron.

The gravitas that comes with wearing the “C” in Montreal is a fact that has been known, or learned, by every man who has worn it, either voted the leadership by teammates or handed it by team management.

“It really is an honor,” Weber said on Sept. 30, 2018 upon his selection by management. “I don’t know if you can put it into words. I don’t know how many times you can say it’s an honor. You look at the guys in our dressing room, guys who have worn this letter in this organization’s history. It’s special.”

Weber succeeded forward Max Pacioretty, who was traded to the Golden Knights on Sept. 10, 2018 for Suzuki, forward Tomas Tatar and a second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

Pacioretty, who was Canadiens captain from 2015-18, said he was inspired by center Jean Beliveau, the team’s greatest and longest-tenured captain. Beliveau was elected by teammates on Oct. 13, 1961, succeeding Doug Harvey upon the legendary defenseman’s trade to the New York Rangers.

Arguably the greatest ambassador in NHL history, Beliveau would captain Montreal through his retirement at the end of the 1970-71 season, winning five of his 10 Stanley Cup championships as captain. His first was as a teammate of defenseman Emile “Butch” Bouchard, his next four with forward Maurice “Rocket” Richard.

Max Pacioretty was Canadians captain from 2015-18.

“No disrespect to any of the legends on the walls, but I’m always drawn to Jean Beliveau,” Pacioretty said when he was introduced as the 28th captain in Montreal history. “He’s the model captain for anyone who’d want to be a captain in this league, especially for the Canadians.

“I have pictures all over my house — my favorite is of Jean Beliveau and Yvan Cournoyer (captain from 1975-76 through the forward’s retirement in 1979, the Canadiens winning the Stanley Cup all four years).”

Saku Koivu was captain from 1999-2009, the second-longest tenure behind only Beliveau. The center said he found the fire-breathing eyes of Richard, captain from 1956-57 through 1959-60, all Stanley Cup wins, following him around the dressing room from above the benches.

“The history is all around you here,” he reflected on July 8, 2009, having just signed with the Anaheim Ducks as a free agent after Montreal had informed him he would not be offered a new contract.

“You see all the names and faces of the people, the great teams that have been here. When I was named captain of the Canadians, I heard more about these men. But what shocked me was later, when I walked into the (Bell Centre’s) Mise au Jeu restaurant and saw paintings of the team’s captains hanging on the wall. The last one was me. You can’t really believe that you’re among those other players.”

Hugely popular Saku Koivu was Canadiens captain from 1999-2009.

Koivu’s inspiration was the great Beliveau, the Rocket’s successor whom he saw every home game when the man known as “Le Gros Bill” would take his Bell Center seat three rows behind the Montreal bench.

“The role of captain isn’t simply to serve as the intermediary between penalized players and the referee,” Beliveau told La Presse newspaper columnist Andre Trudelle after the 1961 player vote gave him the “C.”

“The captain of a team must find ways to bring a harmony to a club, to see that all the players are perfectly at ease and to play, on occasion, the role as their ambassador with the coach and team management. With the confidence that players have placed in me — of which I am deeply touched — I will do my best to perform all of these tasks.”

Beliveau performed more gracefully, and he can be argued more effectively, than any captain before him, his many qualities the gold-standard template for others who would follow.

Maurice Richard was captain of the Canadiens from 1956-57 through 1959-60, the last four of the team’s NHL-record five consecutive Stanley Cup championships. Here, he points to the newly stitched “C” on his sweater in the fall of 1956, upon succeeding the retired Emile “Butch” Bouchard.

Six future Hall of Famers consecutively succeeded Beliveau, in order: center Henri Richard, Cournoyer, defenseman Serge Savard, forward Bob Gainey, defenseman Chris Chelios and center Guy Carbonneau. In fact, all 12 Canadiens captains from Toe Blake in 1940-41 through Carbonneau in 1993-94 have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Before the selection of Pacioretty, Cournoyer spoke of the captaincy he had held dear.

“I might know that he’s a good player who can do something on the ice, but what can he do to bring the team together?” asked the 10-time Stanley Cup champion. “That’s my main thing about the captain. In my day, if things were going bad or if the players were having problems, it was up to the captain, and the guys together, to figure it out.”

Among many things to do this offseason, Montreal management will decide which player it believes can best handle the weight and responsibility of the captaincy.

There is a place in the team’s Alumni Lounge for a 31st painting, one more captain welcome to join this special club. One more player soon will hold the torch high, as have 30 before him, keeping a respectful eye on the Canadians’ storied past while focusing on its present and future.

Pictures: Hockey Hall of Fame (Richard: Alain Brouillard); Getty Images

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