Our old friend Rob Ray has caused quite a stir in Ottawa after questioning during the Buffalo Sabres broadcast the leadership of Senators Captain Daniel Alfredsson. Ray is the former NHL tough guy who played very briefly for the Senators twice during the twilight of his career. Rob is a very engaging and entertaining guy and perfectly suited to be the rinkside analyst on the Sabres broadcast. He is a former Buffalo fan favorite and still lives in the chicken wing capital of the world.
I was intrigued by his comments on several levels. A statement like that is loaded when it comes from a former player and (briefly) former team mate because many assume he would be the type of person who would know. Or maybe Rob falls into the everyday trap broadcasters all around the world fall into. You are the expert and yet you have no explanation as to why you think Ottawa is not the same type of team with the same type of record it had last year. Maybe just maybe Rob dropped the leadership bomb because he had nothing else insightful to say and needed to say something. It’s an easy crutch for those of us in this business because its one of those things that can never be proven or disproved.
What I have found over the years covering the NHL is that anyone who doesn’t live in that locker room with the players has no clue as to what is going on inside of it. Though many of us are often asked to comment on the “state of the room”. We all come up with our best guesses when asked. We all despise admitting we don’t really know because that deflates the impression that we are insiders. It is at its base, a personal ego motivated answer because the reality is, no one exect the players in that room know what the state of that room is. That includes former NHLers and former team mates.
Many other things popped into my mind when thinking about Rob’s comments. His Sabres are out of the playoffs right now after winning the Presidents Trophy last year. Injuries and free agent departures are the reasons and everyone knows it, but if Gord Wilson or Garry Galley on an Ottawa broadcast were to propose that part of the problem in Buffalo is leadership, is that not valid? After all it appears they might not have any or they may have too many. I don’t know since I am not a player in the Buffalo room.
They have a rotating captaincy each month. Does that mean they have so many great leaders it would be unfair to designate one as the leader of all leaders? Or is it a matter of having no true leader and simply auditioning several over the season to find a good one or at least a passable one. Or is it Lindy Ruff’s way of trying to thrust the leadership role on several players whether they want it or not. I also don’t believe I have ever heard Rob question the leadership in Buffalo yet it appears their internal leadership situation seems far more muddled than most other teams.
Is that one dominant leader the key to pushing a great team to become a championship team? I believe it is one of the key components, but is not a magic wand. Mark Messier is thought of in many circles as the best leader in the history of hockey although I am not sure who invented the machine which gauges that. If that singular leader can will his team to victory and change or manipulate the behavior of every team mate so as not to allow any team distractions, then why didn’t Messier win more. He won 6 Stanley Cups, but he was also on 19 teams which lost and many of those teams were of a high enough quality to be able to win. So did Messier fail? As the best leader in the history of hockey he actually lost more than he won in games that matter.
The fact is the best power plays in the NHL fail about 80% of the time. The best batters in baseball fail about 65% of the time. Mark Messier’s winning percentage is fantastic and his leadership skills are above questioning and that makes my point. Declaring Daniel Alfredsson a poor leader is farcical. The team he captains has made it to the playoffs for 11 straight years. He led them to the final last year. In fact Daniel Alfredsson’s individual and team inspiring play led the Senators to an Eastern Conference Championship win over those Sabres last spring. Oh, did I mention his game winning goal in the deciding game of that series.
Leadership in any team sport is of huge importance but it is not a magic wand that fixes every problem. Rod Brind’Amour won the cup and was a great leader and his team missed the playoffs the next year. So is he a terrible leader now? Ray Bourque rarely said a word and I am told by players who were there, that when there were internal locker room problems which sometimes involved physical confrontations, Ray was not a part of that. Is Ray a poor leader? The story is the same for Lidstrom, Sakic, and Sundin. If a leader’s credentials rested on his ability to physically intimidate or verbally negotiate with every teammate who didn’t grasp the team concept then the top leaders in the NHL should be Derek Boogaard, Georges Laraque and Brian McGrattan.
To make a long post even longer, let’s also talk about what the letters on their Jersey’s mean. In Ottawa’s case Alfredsson is the captain and is the leader of this team. For several other clubs it’s the same. But for many teams that “C” is a marketing tool to sell jersey’s and designate a player as the face of the franchise for marketing purposes and for his future ascendancy to his team’s crown as the clubs most important player. But this does not mean he is the leader. When managers and coaches seized the selection process away from the players, automatic assumptions about whom the players actually followed often became a guessing game.
For example, when Alexi Yashin was the captain of the Senators no players followed his leadership. He was given the captaincy because as a self interested ego driven player the mangers knew they would get a higher performance level out of him if he wore the “C”. The actual captain (although he had no letter) of those teams was probably its least talented player Lance Pitlick.
For Rob Ray or anyone else outside the Senators locker room to question the leadership of Daniel Alfredsson is easy to do and impossible to prove. Maybe the leadership qualities of every captain in the NHL should be viewed as a simple switch. If they win, he’s a great leader. If they don’t he isn’t. Maybe there aren’t 30 magic wands, but actually only one which just gets passed around a lot and we just haven’t figured that out yet. Lets make that the new rule in the NHL. The captain of the Stanley Cup championship team is the best leader in hockey. The rest are bums...unless they have the wand next year.
See you at the rink.