Published Nov. 3, 2018
Stevie Yzerman wasn’t ready to be team captain.
Yzerman was all of 21 years old in September 1986 when Red Wings coach Jacques Demers, new on the job and taking over a moribund team (40 points the year before), named Yzerman his captain, succeeding the veteran Danny Gare.
Yzerman wasn’t ready. How could he be?
He had only three NHL seasons under his belt. He was shy, quiet and reserved. His body was still filling out and his overall game. He had just turned legal to drink a few months before the 1986 training camp.
Team captain? Not ready.
But Demers was desperate to find a spark. The Red Wings were awful and many were surprised that Jacques left a pretty promising situation in St. Louis to come to Detroit.
So Demers gave Yzerman the “C” and hoped for the best.
You can call Jacques Demers crazy like a fox today.
Better to be lucky than good
They sewed the C on Yzerman’s sweater and there it stayed for 19 seasons. He became widely regarded as one of the best team captains—in any major professional sport. Ever.
But Demers himself would tell you that he had no way of portending the happy union between Yzerman and team captaincy. The roster that Jacques assumed in 1986 was so bereft of high octane NHL talent, and the crowds at Joe Louis Arena were so inconsistent, that there really wasn’t much to lose.
I remember driving to the Joe on several occasions during the 1985-86 season, on a whim after work, and walking up to the box office to purchase a lower bowl ticket for that evening’s game. Not too many other fans were seated around me. The Red Wings would go down to defeat, of course, and I would drive home, with no traffic impeding me on the way out of the parking garage. It was a polite outing.
Demers arrived and the Red Wings started making the playoffs again–ascending to the conference finals in Jacques’ first two seasons.
Yzerman led the way, on and off the ice—still with that quiet, reserved persona. Demers lucked into a great decision.
The case for Dylan Larkin
There’s scuttlebutt that 22-year-old Dylan Larkin is earmarked for captaincy of today’s Red Wings, now that Henrik Zetterberg’s bad back necessitated that Z hang up his skates.
The situation is eerily similar to Yzerman’s back in 1986.
The team isn’t going anywhere—not this season, at least.
The roster has some veterans but they represent the glory days of yesteryear: Niklas Kronwall, Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm to name a few. Each of those players could wear the C. They’d be safe choices.
Demers had some veterans to choose from in 1986, as well. But they didn’t have the cache with the Red Wings franchise and they weren’t stewards of the future.
Despite the current, modest three-game winning streak, the Red Wings seem to have a vacuum in leadership. They’re poised for a new captain. After Zetterberg retired, the team decided to go with a bunch of alternate captains rather than give any player the C.
Larkin probably is about as ready to assume the captaincy as Yzerman was in 1986. Which is to say, he isn’t, by traditional metrics. He’s too young. His game is still a work in progress, though it’s progressing quite nicely.
But who’s the best player on the team? It’s Larkin, and it’s not close. And I see a certain je ne sais quoi in his body language on the ice. It is captain-like.
Dylan Larkin is about as close to being the face of the franchise as you can get right now. If you see that as an indictment, so be it. But it’s true.
The C is a big deal in Detroit
The C in Detroit is hallowed.
Alex Delvecchio’s tenure wasn’t filled with Stanley Cups, but that doesn’t mean that Fats wasn’t one of the best league captains during his 10-plus years.
Yzerman restored honor to the C after about a dozen years of the role being tarnished by bad teams and a revolving door approach.
Nick Lidstrom was Nick Lidstrom. Enough said.
Zetterberg was a fine captain, leading the team as it descended back to the pack and eventually below it. It wasn’t easy for Z to see the team denigrate on his watch.
Hockey fans know that being captain of the Red Wings isn’t like being the captain of just any other NHL team. With all due respect to the Arizona Coyotes.
If Larkin indeed is handed the C, it won’t be a small deal.
Dylan Larkin probably isn’t ready to be the captain of an NHL team. But yet, the timing is right for him to assume the role with the Red Wings.
Expectations for the team are low. The sports media in Detroit isn’t exactly the hardest-hitting in North America, so Larkin wouldn’t be walking into a pressure cooker after games. And again, he’s the best player on the team.
There was a time, not so long ago, when I thought that it was Abdelkader who would follow Zetterberg as captain. But Abby signed his big contract a few years ago and his game went down the tubes. My opinion.
Kronwall is on his way out. Helm, who will turn 32 in January, would be a not-bad choice. But the Red Wings don’t need “not bad.” They need a captain that could keep the C for years to come.
They need Dylan Larkin. Give him the role and let him grow into it.
It’s funny, really, that the same organization that gave a 21-year-old the C in 1986, has been reluctant to do the same with Larkin with the team in similar straits. The option to hand out a bunch of As instead of one C is only delaying what should be the inevitable.
Naming Larkin team captain now won’t make the Red Wings contenders this season. It’s not about that.
But the team does need direction amidst the current rebuild. Why not have a young captain to go along with the young, wet-behind-the-ears players that are supposed to be the future?
Why not have Larkin lead the Manthas, Rasmussens and Cholowskis?
Give Larkin the C and be done with it. The sooner you let the kid start to grow into the role, the better off the organization will be—on and off the ice.
He’s probably not ready. But he’s as ready as he’ll ever be, and for today’s Red Wings, that’s good enough.