Interviewing Jamie Benn is like trying to extract a glass of juice from a kumquat: It’s an arduous task that doesn't yield much bounty, but what you get is darn tasty.
Which is to say that the low-key-to-the-point-of-a-mute-button Benn doesn’t scream “NHL CAPTAIN”, because you can’t picture him screaming anything.
But that’s our sports society’s perception of captains, right? Foaming Reggie Dunlops lighting fires under asses and leading his charges to victory? Confident Mark Messiers and Chris Prongers acting as the team’s mouthpiece with the media, sometimes to the point of guaranteeing victories?
Benn is the antithesis of that, and was named captain of the Dallas Stars this week. Mark Giordano is also a low-wattage star that won’t “overturn any tables or strip paint off the walls of inner sanctums with lacerating critiques,” as George Johnson put it in the Calgary Herald. He was named the next captain of the Calgary Flames, following a rather tough act in Jarome Iginla.
Both are a reminder that the captaincy in hockey is a unique animal, in that what we perceive as leadership and how leaders actually lead are quite different; and that the selection of a captain is perhaps sports’ most symbolically important gesture, ranking only behind the establishment of a team name and uniform.
But it’s also a study in contrast: Giordano is the Flames’ obvious choice as captain but not a star; Benn is the best player in the Stars, and potentially the face of the franchise.
Here’s the other perception of the captaincy: That it’s given to a star because he should just receive it out of ritual, or to feed his ego. That’s always been the knock on Alex Ovechkin – rightly or wrongly – and he doesn’t help himself when he’s praising a guy like Brooks Laich as the team’s best leader.
Is Benn just the best player getting the ‘C’? There’s probably an element to that. But like with Ovechkin, it’s leadership by example.
There are veterans on the team deserving of the ‘C’ – Ray Whitney and Stephane Robidas, for certain – but Benn is a good demographic fit (he’s 24) with the rebuilding Stars and a player that sets the tone for the team.
“I know that when I was here, he was usually here,” said defenseman Brenden Dillon. “He set a great pace for all of us. He was mad after last season, and determined, and he just worked all of the time. You look at him, and he’s so talented, and yet he was one of the hardest working guys in here. So if he’s that talented and working that hard, you know you have to work even harder.”
“To me, the determination and the desire to win is the biggest thing,” Whitney said when asked what it takes to be a good captain. “You can tell with Jamie, he’s got that. He’s ready for this.”
Giordano is older (29) and more of a steadying influence than anything else. From Bob Hartley, in the Calgary Herald:
"A good captain of a hockey team is like a good captain on a boat. You recognize the value of a good captain on the water when the ocean goes crazy a little bit; in the middle of a storm. Anyone can be a captain when the sea is calm. The captain should bring poise, an element of calm.
“Hockey is a very emotional business. You win three and you’re ready to plan the Stanley Cup parade. You lose three and you’re ready to fire everybody and the chairs are flying. That’s where you need a guy that has the ability to take one step backward and say ‘OK, what’s the best route forward?’, without going crazy or acting in the heat of the moment and five minutes later regretting his actions.
Choosing a captain in the NHL is a fascinating decision. It tells you where a franchise is headed, or where it wants to go. It gives you a psych evaluation of the roster. It reveals who the leaders are, and who’s along for the ride.
Benn and Giordano may never be mentioned in the pantheon of great captains. But at this moment, they’re the right players for the Stars and Flames.