As I watched New York Rangers All-Star Brendan Shanahan stick up for his captain, Jaromir Jagr, yet again (this time, not with his fists, but with a verbal barrage against officials), I got to thinking
A player doesn't have to have a "C" on his jersey to be a leader. In Shanny's case, he wears the "A" in the Big Apple, but sometimes no letter is needed to have an impact on your teammates.
Every NHL team has a player who fits that description, but I've selected five players who are not obvious choices. They are players who lead by example, not necessarily in the headlines.
During the offseason, the San Jose Sharks addressed one of their biggest needs (penalty killing) when they signed free agent Mike Grier, who added not only speed, but toughness. Grier had many options. Plenty of teams were after him. But he ultimately chose San Jose because he believed the Sharks had the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup.
Little did the Sharks know they were getting so much more.
Back in late November, the Sharks went through a rough patch -- they were winning games, but didn't look good doing it. So, during a practice, Grier pulled the troops together at center ice and told them it was going to take more than what they were doing if they wanted to play for the Stanley Cup (something San Jose fell short of last season when it was upset by Edmonton in the Western Conference semifinals).
Grier has a way with words, but his actions on the ice tell more. During a Nov. 28 game at St. Louis, Grier got his helmet knocked off after a collision in the corner. When he got to the bench, there was a lump the size of a tennis ball protruding from the back of his head. He missed just one shift. Grier wanted to get back on the ice to help preserve the 2-0 win. The stitches would have to wait. But for the Sharks, it is Grier who has left a mark.
(I know Paul Kariya is a leader, but remember, I'm listing the less obvious selection.)
Talk about a player who came into this league with high expectations. Legwand was the second overall pick in the 1998 NHL draft behind Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier. The Predators' first-ever draft selection used his tremendous speed to create scoring chances, but it was his defense that needed work.
But, instead of complaining or saying "my offense will suffer," Legwand worked on his two-way game to become one of the better defensive forwards in the league. Preds coach Barry Trotz trusts Legwand so much, he regularly assigns the center to the opposition's top offensive threat.
Two Decembers ago, Legwand hurt his knee. He had to choose between reconstructive surgery (and the lengthy rehab that comes with it) and an arthroscopic procedure through which he could return more quickly but would still experience severe pain in play. Legwand chose to play through the pain last season. The pain was so excruciating, he had to shower sitting down. Last season, the Predators were 39-5 with Legwand in the lineup, but were upset in the first round of the playoffs. This offseason, Legwand had the reconstructive surgery and can now skate pain-free as Nashville makes another run for the Cup.
What makes a good leader? A player who can make his teammates laugh. That's what Carolina's Ray Whitney did at the beginning of the 2005-06 season, which ended with the Hurricanes' improbable ride to the Stanley Cup.
And Whitney's still doing it. For a player who doesn't look for attention, he certainly gets a lot of face time. It all began by accident.
Whitney decided to just pop up during one of those TV interviews that are conducted by the bench. The first time he did it, the Hurricanes went on to win the game. Being a superstitious sort, Whitney continued his routine and had fun with as many TV bench interviews as possible, popping his head in just when the interviewer would least expect it.
It became such a tradition, the Hurricanes put together a video montage of Whitney's "camera hog" moments and showed the tape at a team dinner during Carolina's Cup run. Keeping a straight face that night was tougher than containing the Edmonton Oilers last June.
This season, Whitney is still keeping his Carolina teammates laughing, and he has no problem leaving the serious motivational techniques to Rod Brind'Amour.
Sometimes a player is expected to be a leader because of where he's been and what he's accomplished, but not all who are given the "C" rise to those expectations.
Drury's résumé speaks for itself. He's won everywhere he's been. Little League World Series champ, Hobey Baker Award winner, NHL rookie of the year, the proud owner of a Stanley Cup.
Sometimes, winning alone isn't what makes someone a great leader.
One night last season, Drury was thinking about how there were no pictures of Lord Stanley in the Sabres' dressing room. How could the Sabres think about winning their first Stanley Cup if they didn't see it in front of them?
The next day, Drury passed on his advice. Soon enough, there were three posted pictures of the Stanley Cup -- one in the weight room, another in the players' lounge and a third strategically placed so it was the last thing the players would see when exiting the locker room. Buffalo went on to earn its first postseason berth since the 2000-01 season and came within one game of the Cup finals.
As for this season, Drury and the Sabres are the ones to beat in the East. When it's over, they hope the next Stanley Cup photo in their locker room has them in the picture, as well.
When was the last time you knew a leader who went by the name of Skratch? With a "K"?!
He is the Brett Favre and the Cal Ripken of the NHL. Barring injury, Skrastins on Tuesday will tie the record of 486 consecutive games played by a defenseman, set in the '60s by Tim Horton. Skrastins will stand alone when he steps onto the ice Thursday night versus Atlanta. But hey, he is not making cameo appearances just to set the record -- he ranks second in ice time for the Avs.
His Ironman status has earned him tremendous respect from his teammates. What's truly amazing about Skrastins' streak, the longest active streak in the NHL, is the fact he still has a streak! Considering Skrastins' reputation as one of the league's premier shot-blockers, he has still managed to avoid injury. No one on the Avs has blocked more shots this season than Skratch. His 142 blocks leads the team and is fourth overall in the NHL.
Leaders there are many types, yet no team can win without them. I gave you five. Hope the team you root for has at least one.
Hooked on hockey, Linda Cohn is an anchor for ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. She has been with the network since 1992 and promises a gluttony of glove saves in her weekly column. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.