Eric Staal’s leadership has been called into question a lot over the past several months, and while I haven’t been around the Hurricanes for quite some time, I want to chime in on this subject. Credit to Esbee for writing this fantastic post on the subject and inspiring me to give my two cents.

I’ve been in the Canes’ locker room nearly 100 times, but I have no idea if Eric Staal is a good leader. I don’t think that has anything to do with my abilities as a journalist; rather, I think it has to do with the way athletes present themselves in front of the media, and thus the public.

Here’s the truth: we don’t know these guys. We like to think we do, but we don’t. When I tell people what I do for a living, many assume I’m buddies with Alex Ovechkin and Jason Heyward and Aaron Murray—that we go out for drinks together, chat up girls and share many laughs. Nope.

In reality, we ask them a few questions several times a week, and their responses tend to be superficial and underwhelming. In reality, many athletes dislike the media in general and have no interest in speaking with us.

In reality, our jobs are far less glamorous than many believe.

Eric is a reserved guy, and he doesn’t give the most enthusiastic interviews. Yes, there have been times when I wished he could be more candid, but he’s far from the only mild-mannered captain in the NHL.  Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara, Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, Martin St. Louis, Dion Phaneuf and Henrik Sedin act in similar fashions when the red light is blinking, and four of those guys—five including Eric—have won Stanley Cups.

Heck, I was the same way.

In my senior year of high school I was privileged to serve as the co-captain of our JV hockey team. (I had only learned to skate a year prior to that season, so don’t feel bad that I was stuck on junior varsity).

We had a very young team, and though I had played far less puck than my teammates, I was at a very different point in my life than they were. I was prepping for college; they were fresh out of middle school. My role was never questioned, at least to my knowledge.

Anyway, my fellow co-captain was a hilarious, outgoing kid who established a light-hearted atmosphere to the locker room. I was a quiet adolescent, so I deferred to him when the boys needed a pick-me-up.

But that didn’t make me less of a leader. Sure, I didn’t have much experience at the rink, nor did I have any experience giving Herb Brooks-esque speeches, but I was a veteran of competition. Once upon a time I was an elite tennis player and varsity baseball player, and I knew what it took to win.

Some of my teammates were struggling with their grades, so I helped them study.

Some had incredible talent but were disgustingly lazy. So I, someone who had only been skating for a few years but did whatever it took to earn ice time, showed them what it meant to put forth an acceptable effort.

One teammate was home-schooled most of his life and was bullied constantly by his peers. So I ate lunch with him, gave him some pointers on dating and did what I could to make him feel comfortable.

After that season, I won an award for my leadership, which led to scholarship money for college—allowing me to go to a private institution without inheriting much debt.

Now, our team certainly didn’t deserve any media attention, but for the sake of my point, let’s pretend a contingency of writers and broadcasters followed us around every day. Think they would have noticed the impact I made off the ice?

Exactly.

The media would have seen my impact on the ice—including all two of my career goals—and they would have had the chance to talk to me for a few minutes at a time. But their knowledge of who I was would have been extremely limited.

And the things I did for my teammates would have NEVER come up.

If we were under the kind of microscope NHLers deal with regularly, there would have been many tweets, columns and forum posts arguing I wasn’t a good leader. I wouldn’t have cared, and if Eric believes he’s doing a good job, he doesn’t care about the vitriol thrown his way.

I have no idea if Staal is a good leader; I’m not around for those behind-the-scene moments, and I never have been. I don’t expect this question to be answered for a long time, if ever,

Like Esbee said in her post, Eric is never going to fit the mold many fans want to see from the guy wearing a C on his chest. People want him to be like Brind’Amour and Francis, and that simply isn’t fair. We can’t expect Eric to change who he is based on what the peanut gallery desires.

There are many ways one can lead, and I feel like myself and my former co-captain prove that.

I understand the frustration Canes fans are going through right now. I truly do. This recent stretch has been painful to watch, and people want answers. Unfortunately, many of the questions being posed will remain a mystery.

Eric could be a reason why things are going South, but I don’t know that. And neither do you.

It’s not our place to know.

About The Author

Andrew Hirsh is a graduate of Elon University and is entering his fourth year as a credentialed NHL writer. He founded SunbeltHockey.com in 2012 and serves as the site's managing editor. Andrew can be reached via email at ahirsh3@gmail.com.

2 Responses

  1. Section_328

    Good read, and I think the point that none of us KNOW what goes on in the locker room/off the ice is a good one. What if being the captain isn’t the best use of Eric’s abilities? Not everyone is built for that role, and it’s not a knock on someone if that’s not a role they’re suited for. Perhaps Vincent Lecavalier is a similar case. Named captain at a young age (though Staal was older when named captain) and was stripped of the C and his game improved.  There’s similar talk that not being the captain could help Ovechkin just be himself. 

    It’s not an insult, IMO, to say that someone isn’t built to be captain. Perhaps the best situation for all parties involved is for Staal not to be captain.

  2. Andrew_Hirsh

    Section_328  That’s an interesting thought. Even Ilya Kovalchuk had that issue to an extent. Heck, Ron Hainsey was the Thrashers captain for a bit, and the numbers suggest that weighed him down. 

    I think relieving Staal of the captaincy *COULD* be a positive move if 1) he has no hard feelings about it; and 2) there’s someone worthy of the C who can step up and fill that void. 

    I can’t remember who brought it up on Twitter the other day, but the point was made that Brind’Amour had a supporting cast full of potential captains. That certainly helped. Eric doesn’t have that luxury, unfortunately.