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FOR SABRES, NOW YOU 'C' IT, NOW YOU DON'T

The "C" has been sewn on again, but its permanence appears nil for now.

For the first time since Michael Peca was on the ice, the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night broke out the hallowed hockey letter that signifies the team captain.

Defenseman Alexei Zhitnik wore the "C" for the Sabres' 1-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators in the preseason opener at HSBC Arena, a surprise move to some of the 16,558 spoken-for seats.

It is uncertain who will wear the "C" for tonight's home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at 6 because Sabres coach Lindy Ruff insisted he will move the letter around the roster before settling on someone. That's if he settles at all.

"There's a Tupperware container and there's a whole bunch of them in there," Ruff joked of the letters "C" and "A," the latter of which labels assistant captains. "The funny thing is they're only the stick-on ones. Until we get the permanent ones . . . it's a coach's decision. After a couple bad shifts you just rip it off and paste it on somebody else."

Buffalo went the entire 2000-01 campaign without a captain. Peca -- the designate since the Sabres re-signed him Nov. 6, 1997 -- was embroiled in another contract dispute last year, and out of respect to Captain Crunch, Ruff declined to issue the "C" even after it became certain the center wouldn't be back.

Before Peca was traded to the New York Islanders in the summer, however, Ruff stated he didn't want to go through another season without at least one captain.

The coach is considering rotating the "C" every few weeks throughout the season, not wanting to saddle any particular player with the expectations related to the honor.

The main names bandied about as captain material are forwards Stu Barnes and Curtis Brown, and defensemen Rhett Warrener and Jay McKee.

"I think we've got several real good candidates, but it's a process you have to take a real good look at," Ruff said. "I think some players are suited for it, and there are others -- there's pressure that comes along with it -- it's something they just don't need."

Sabres winger Rob Ray has long been considered a dressing room leader. He has his ideas of who should be the next captain, but he would be happy with any number of teammates in that role.

"I just hope that when they pick the guy this time . . . I think last time was too much of a bargaining tool to get somebody back," Ray said. "It was maybe, probably not given to the person who deserved it.

"I think Lindy and the guys in charge now know who the guys are that run things. They know which guys are the leaders. It should be a position where the leaders are going to get it, and I just think they'll make a much better decision this time than in the past."

On one hand, the Sabres fully understand the importance of a captain. Unlike the other major pro sports, hockey captains have responsibilities during play. They are the only ones allowed to approach officials to discuss penalties and interpret rules. Hockey captains also are counted on to inspire their teammates and smooth over dressing room issues.

"I think it's really important," Buffalo goaltender Martin Biron said. "When you're on the ice, referees like to see the captain coming to them rather than the assistant because they know that 'C' means he's the one who's been delegated to do the job.

"It's important for chemistry. He's the guy who will get everybody together, organize meetings, organize team dinner, stuff like that. I don't think it's overrated."

But the Sabres also are aware they just completed a successful season without a captain. They were 1 minute, 18 seconds from eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins and advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.

"I think it's a bigger issue with people outside the team than with players on the team," 18-year NHL veteran defenseman James Patrick said. "When Mike Peca was here everybody respected him as our captain, but last year we had a number of leaders chipping in in different ways."

In picking a captain, Ray and Patrick agreed it shouldn't be awarded to someone merely because he's a talented player.

The Sabres' won't have to appoint a figurehead captain. Ray said there are many candidates.

"There's a couple young guys that would make good captains on our team," Ray said. "You need a captain who's going to be around for a while. It's not a guy who's going to be here a year and maybe gone.

"For the last six or seven years there's a group of guys who run the room. Now there are younger guys being shown how to do it, being helped out and are put in that position more and more each year for when older guys move on.

"There's not one person in our dressing room that is overpowering over everybody. When there are decisions made, we all make them. It's been like that for a long time. There's guys in that room who don't have letters on their jerseys that are very big parts of leadership in that dressing room."
e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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