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Original Issue

Block the Vote

Control-hungry coaches are appointing captains rather than letting players choose, with mixed results

Canadiens right wing Brian Gionta took to the ice on opening night in Toronto last Thursday lugging some extra baggage, a fabric C sewn onto his jersey. He became the 28th captain of the heritage franchise last month, and while news accounts trumpeted him as the second American to wear the C in Montreal—Chris Chelios was a co-captain for one season more than two decades ago most missed another significant aspect of Gionta's captaincy: In the 101-year history of the club he is one of just a handful of men appointed to the position rather than elected by his teammates.

Coach Jacques Martin clearly anointed the correct player for the role; Gionta is a respected, no-nonsense veteran. But the decision reflects an NHL trend. While coaches and general managers constantly harp about "accountability," they apparently don't trust their players enough to allow them to elect their own leaders. Of the nine vacant captaincies in the league last summer—eight had been filled by Sunday—only one team, the Ducks, actually allowed players to vote.

But Anaheim is not exactly Athens. Rather than a secret vote, coach Randy Carlyle instructed his players to write down three choices, in order, and sign their ballots. The reasoning, Carlyle told SI, was to gain insight into two things: how players viewed the team's internal leadership and whether the Ducks' on-ice transition from a veteran team to one whose nucleus is in its mid-20s was registering in the dressing room. "In our minds," Carlyle says, "there were really only two candidates"—Ryan Getzlaf, 25, and 35-year-old Saku Koivu, Gionta's predecessor in Montreal. If his players had elected anyone else, the coach conceded he would have voided the results. Getzlaf won, succeeding the retired Scott Niedermayer. In tallying the ballots, Carlyle noticed Koivu voted for Getzlaf and Getzlaf voted for Koivu.

"There's an old saying: 'The coach always counts the vote,' " says Oilers coach Tom Renney, who last week appointed veteran Shawn Horcoff as captain to replace Ethan Moreau, now with Columbus.

In this meddlesome age, there are as many misses as hits when coaches and G.M.'s bigfoot the vox populi. Although the NHL has banned goalies from being captains since Montreal's Bill Durnan wore a C in 1948—they are not permitted to leave the crease to talk to officials—Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis picked star goaltender Roberto Luongo as the Canucks' unofficial captain in 2008. Luongo publicly embraced the role but melted down in the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. After discussing the matter with Gillis last month, Luongo resigned from the ill-conceived captaincy, which now means he might speak less and save more.

Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault chose Henrik Sedin last week, like Gionta a solid and more conventional alternative. But in the NHL, captains should be the people's choice, not just two people's choice.

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C CHANGES The Montreal brass appointed Gionta, while Getzlaf (below, left) won on a semi-open ballot in Anaheim.



[See caption above]