Somewhere along the way, folks in the National Hockey League forgot how to spell New Yorck.
What, you say? New Yorck with a “ck” at the end. Obviously, too many pucks to the head, right?
Good point. It shouldn’t end with a “ck.”
It should be New YorCk with a capital “C.”
Just like the one that Dustin Brown, Ryan Callahan and Brian Gionta wear on the front of their sweaters.
The State of New York: home of the City That Never Sleeps, Buffalo wings, the hallowed baseball shrine in Cooperstown – and the birthplace of NHL captains.
Gionta, who for two seasons has worn the “C” for the Montreal Canadiens, and Callahan, the New York Rangers’ first-year captain, both were born in the Rochester suburb of Greece (population 96,000-plus).
Their early years in the game were spent in Rochester Youth Hockey.
“Brian and I joke; I call him Captain Canada and he’s referring to me as Captain America,” Callahan says.
Brown, in his fourth season as captain of the Los Angeles Kings, was born and schooled in hockey in Ithaca.
The Empire State? More like the State of Hockey Emperors, since three of the NHL’s 30 captains are New Yorkers. Two of them, Callahan and Gionta, are the designated leaders of Original Six franchises. And Gionta’s appointment was even more special since Chris Chelios is the only other American-born player to wear the “C” in Montreal.
So what’s the deal? Why has New York suddenly become the home of NHL leaders?
“I just think it says a lot about the programs we have in Rochester and in the state,” says the 26-year-old Callahan. “It just shows the kind of people that are teaching the kids – or were teaching us – are doing the right things.”
One of those guys is Tom Van Nederynen, 52, of Ithaca. Brown was 8 years old when he joined the Tier II Mite team coached by Van Nederynen. For the next five years, he learned hockey and some life skills from Coach Tom (hey, no kids were going to try to say that last name over and over).
“Obviously New York state is quite proud to have those three guys representing the state,” Van Nederynen says. “Dustin just loved to win and that was very contagious within the team.
“My brother [Steve, who also coached within Ithaca youth hockey] always said, ‘We’re going to watch him on TV some day.’ ”
That’s because besides his on-ice talent, Brown was driven to succeed.
“Right away I said to myself, ‘This kid’s really got the fever’ – and he never lost it,” Van Nederynen recalls.
“His competitiveness, his razor edge, those things set him apart. He was the most competitive kid on the ice, in a pick-up game on the pond or in a ball hockey game in the hallways of a hotel.”
In 1995-96, Ithaca’s Squirt team won a New York State Tier II Championship. Brown, as you could probably guess, was the captain.
A lot of the leadership tools weren’t learned at the rink, however. Upbringing at home was as, if not more, important.
“Your parents, that’s where you learn your values and they’re who mold who you are,” Callahan says. “A leader’s not made, he’s born. Who I am today has a lot to do with how I was brought up.”
Gionta, who turns 32 on Jan. 18, definitely agrees. And he doesn’t need to go any farther than his own family for proof. His younger brother Stephen, a veteran of six American Hockey League seasons (and 12 NHL games), is captain of the Albany Devils, New Jersey’s AHL affiliate.
“I think it’s the way you’ve been brought up,” Brian Gionta says of what he learned from his parents, Penny and Sam Gionta. “It’s how you treat people, the way you deal with people, the work ethic.”
With the honor of being captain comes added pressure. When the team is not performing well, the captain is expected to have answers or help the coaching staff remedy the situation.
“For some, there’s a burden to bear to find a way to get results,” Gionta says. “But I don’t think the captain is alone in that job.”
Van Nederynen recalls how when Brown got to the Kings, he had to realize there is only so much the captain can do.
“That was the toughest thing for him to learn,” he says. “Coming from a Tier II program, he could literally take the team on his shoulders. You can’t do that at the NHL level.”
That’s where the entire leadership group within the team comes into play.
“Not everything falls on my shoulders. I have a supporting cast around me,” Callahan says, referring to goalie Henrik Lundqvist, veteran center Brad Richards and defenseman Dan Giardi and Mark Staal.
“When things are not going well you have to figure out how you can turn it around. You call a meeting or ask guys to re-evaluate how we’re all playing.”
Callahan has been a regular with the Rangers since late in the 2006-07 season and became one of their prime-time players during the 2008-09 season. That year, Chris Drury, a native of Trumbull, Conn., was their captain.
“‘Dru’s’ a big part of what I do,” says Callahan, who teamed up with Drury to form a formidable penalty-killing unit with the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team. “He kind of took me under his wing early on. The biggest thing I learned from him was how he conducted himself. He was a pro every day, on and off the ice.”
For a captain, actions almost always speak louder than words. Leaders usually aren’t chosen because they can talk.
“Sometimes you have to say things, but I think it’s more important for me to just play my game because the way I play is a big part of why I was named captain,” Callahan says.
That’s certainly how it was in New Jersey a decade ago when Gionta was breaking in with the Devils and defenseman Scott Stevens and forward Joe Nieuwendyk were the team leaders.
“Stevens was kind of a quiet guy and so was Joe, but you knew they would be Hall of Famers and when they spoke, you listened,” Gionta recalls. “A lot of it is leading by example; on the ice, off the ice, how I handle myself.”
Gionta faces different challenges since Montreal is the center of the French-Canadian hockey universe. When he signed with the Canadiens as a free agent in the summer of 2009, he knew no French. He decided he should learn. When in Rome …
“It’s still a work in progress,” he says. “But it just made sense to learn. The area we moved to was a little more French. And for the kids being in school, if we were going to help them with their homework, it helped to know the language.”
In the summer, however, he speaks the language of western New York. Gionta married his high school sweetheart and they bought a home in Greece, just a few miles from where they grew up. The Rochester area will always be home.
Callahan also returns to Greece for the off-season. He, too, married a girl from his hometown and he can’t see leaving anytime soon.
“The city is great. I love it, but in the summer, I like to go home,” he says. “That’s where I grew up, that’s who I am.”
The Three C’s Of Captaincy: Character, Commitment And Composure
The player must work hard and lead by example.
Rolston’s first captain, in 2003-04, was Jimmy Fraser. This was on a team that included Phil Kessel, Nathan Gerbe, Jack Johnson, Jack Skille, Nick Foligno and Peter
That’s a pretty good Who’s Who cross section of American youth in the NHL. While Fraser never made it beyond the AHL, he is proof that leadership isn’t always about overwhelming skill.
“Jimmy Fraser was one of our role players,” said Rolston, who over the summer was hired by the Buffalo Sabres to coach the AHL’s Rochester Americans.
“With that group, it was a little difficult to get everyone on the same page sometimes. But Jimmy, No. 1, was an unbelievable competitor and, No. 2, he would confront guys if they weren’t working hard. He just had the respect of the players and he was able to get the best out of everyone as captain.”
After leaving the NTDP, Fraser went on to a four-year career at Harvard University, where he served as a co-captain during his senior season.
Other captains for Rolston with the NTDP include Kevin Shattenkirk, William Wren and Tyler Biggs. Every year it was someone with a different role or position; but all four shared the same qualities when it came to leadership.