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'C' TALK FLATTERS PECA, BUT FIRST HE'D PREFER A CONTRACT FOR CASH

In recent days, coach Lindy Ruff has all but offered free-agent center Michael Peca the captaincy of the Buffalo Sabres.

This is high praise considering the new coach has barely met the reigning Selke Trophy winner, who has missed all of training camp and now the start of the regular season in a contract dispute.

Peca said Thursday he's honored by the obvious hints and flattered by what he says would be a stunning opportunity for any young player. He also said it wouldn't move him one inch toward coming in for anything less than the contract money he believes he deserves.

Fair enough, but there is a larger question here and it has to do with whether or not Peca should take the job if it's offered.

Being captain of a hockey team isn't just some ceremonial post designed to showcase one's ability to distinguish between heads or tails, as in football, or to organize the team's first team road party, as in baseball. In hockey, it is considered an extraordinary honor, but one that often comes with extraordinary burdens.

In hockey, the captain is the team leader. He's responsible for the attitude of the team on the ice and the direction it takes off it. On the ice he must lead by performance. Off the ice, with character. If he's a really good captain, he's expected to confront players who are not playing up to their capabilities and challenge management if it's perceived as not helping the team. Making the role more difficult is the fact he must be respected -- from all parties -- for doing it.

Powerful position? Certainly, but along with the responsibility come problems.

There's something in the NHL known as the "weight" of the captaincy. Former Sabre Pierre Turgeon had it thrust upon him in Montreal and the burden almost destroyed his career. Calgary's Theo Fleury, after several seasons with the "C" stitched onto his sweater, gave it back. Fleury didn't like the additional responsibility and felt his game (a near career-low of 67 points last season) suffered from it. Longtime Vancouver watchers say Trevor Linden suffered under the weight of the burden. No surprise the mantle there was handed over to Mark Messier just this week.

One need only look to Eric Lindros to make an argument against burdening a young player with the responsibility of leadership.

Lindros collapsed under the weight of the load in the playoffs against Detroit last spring. His failure not only doomed the Flyers against the more experienced Red Wings, it brought into question Lindros' ability to perform whenever he's faced with a challenge.

Don't believe it? See Canada vs. Team USA in last summer's Canada Cup for a historic point of reference. Closer to home there is always Alexander Mogilny's stint with the Sabres while Pat LaFontaine was out. Ouch!

Peca said he was flattered by Ruff's open hints but that he hadn't thought much beyond that. He said he didn't think past Sabres problems in that area would be an issue and he said he hadn't given a whole lot of thought as to whether or not being responsible for players other than himself would detract from his still developing game.

He did, however, say it was as much a responsibility as it was an honor, that if offered, he wouldn't take it lightly.

"If it happened, I know I couldn't do the whole thing on my own," he said. "I know that if it were to happen I would want to involve some of the veterans on the team in the process. One of our strengths last season was that we did things as a team and I would want to make sure that were the case again no matter who was the captain."

Fair enough. And in the interim, he's going to think about the reality of dealing with the burden that comes with the job and whether or not it's good for Michael Peca, the Buffalo Sabres and the team.

Good idea. Flattery is nice, but the job isn't.

Peca, like all the Sabres, would be wise to keep that in mind.

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