What's in a letter?
After A and B and just before D. The third letter in the alphabet...
The caboose of the three letter trio so important to mothers of the romper room set.
When you're in preschool and you make it to the letter C, you might have thought you'd just won the Nobel Prize for Physics by judging the reaction of the adults present.
When you make it to college and you get a C, you get that "slacker" look from your folks and they start talking about taking away your precious beer money.
You might even hear about C-level executives and try to compute what tax bracket they might be in and wince if you even got remotely close.
When you begin to translate the letter C to hockey, the importance of the third letter in the alphabet takes on an entirely different level of significance. Captain. Wearing the "C." Immediately, flashes of the greats of the game fill my head - Mess, Gretz, Mario, Clarkie and perhaps the greatest player to ever wear the C - Stevie Y. These men embodied what it meant to lead by example, play for the team first and foremost and excel at the highest level when the chips were on the table and the game was on the line. These were men who would take a team and put it on his back, make the key play at the right time and perform the unenviable, off-ice task of being equal parts team psychologist and U.N. Peacekeeper while trying to keep a club working together, performing at a high level over an 82 game regular season and pulling towards the same goal - Lord Stanley's Cup.
The list of those who have held the Captaincy of the Orange and Black is filled with storied names and images of past glory. Spirits of names who have worn the "C," like Van Impe, Clarke (twice), Barber, Poulin, Tocchet, Lindros and Primeau watch, wraith-like, from the rafters in anticipation...waiting. As the team's 41st season nears, the Philadelphia Flyers have the opportunity, due to the departure of Jason Smith, to choose which player will wear that third letter of the alphabet as its 17th Captain.
Before moving on to discuss the 17th Captain-to-be, I want to take a moment to talk about "Gator" and his legacy as a Captain of the Orange and Black. If you were to simply look at his numbers for last season - 77 games played, 1 goal and 9 assists for 10 points, 86 penalty minutes and a minus 4 - you might not be overly impressed. Heck, you might think those numbers indicate a defenseman who had a subpar year might not have deserved to wear the "C". If you looked simply at the numbers...you might even be correct.
But if you watched one shift, then you know that the intangibles that Jason Smith brought to the ice every night made him a force to be reckoned with and a warrior through and through. He laid his body out on the line every night, as he lead the team in blocked shots with 204, and laid the wood on every opponent he could, and lead the team in hits with 142. Jason Smith gave his all every time he set foot on the ice, checked the toughest opponents every game and played with the warrior mentality that made him such a fan favorite in the City of Brotherly Love. Jason Smith was not going to return to Philadelphia, this much we knew. What will, hopefully, be his legacy - as displayed by the defensemen who remain - is his unfailing commitment to the team, willingness to do what it takes to keep the puck out of your own net and the mental and physical toughness to lead by example. Jason Smith was a warrior and he will be missed. You can be certain the ghostly visage of #21 has ascended to the rafters of the Wachovia Center to take his rightful place among his 15 Orange and Black brethren. He too is waiting...
The 2008-09 version of the Philadelphia Flyers is stacked with many young and exciting players with bright futures. Intermingled, are a wealth of seasoned veterans who bring savvy, poise and years of experience to the table. Out of this abundance of skill, heart and leadership one must be preferred, above the other deserving candidates, to become the 17th Flyers Captain. Who shall it be?
Many think this to be a slam dunk for #18, the Cannon, Mr. Everything - Mike Richards.
While there are several other tenable options, among them Danny Briere and blueliner Kimmo Timonen, it is not an astounding or especially brilliant revelation that Richards is the clear on-ice leader. The Cannon lead the team in points with 75, tied for 3rd in goals with 28, lead the team in assists with 47, was 2nd on the team in plus/minus with +17, was 4th on the team in penalty minutes with 76, lead the team in powerplay scoring with 37 points, was 4th on the team in powerplay goals with 14, 2nd on the team in powerplay assists with 23, lead the team in shorthanded goals with 5, tied for the team lead in game winning goals with 6 and second on the team in shots on goal with 202. When #18 is on the ice, in whatever situation, the other team has to know where he is and game plan against him. That is the mark of a great player.
Impressive numbers aside, Mike Richards plays every phase of the game and plays it well, gives maximum effort at all time, stands up for his teammates and himself, makes the players around him better and has that "it" factor of a natural born leader.
There are a lot of very talented players in the league who will never be called to be or want to be a Captain. It is more than just being good enough. It's having the right stuff, the desire to be accountable at all times and hold your teammates to that same high standard, combined with the willingness to lead and the desire to play for the logo on the front and not the name on the back. Mike Richards embodies all of those qualities and a dozen more I was unable to put to words. It would be a crime against humanity if Mike Richards were not wearing the "C" on his sweater on opening night as the 17th Captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. I have a funny feeling the ghosts of the rafters will make it so.
Thanks for reading...