There is a rich tradition of the role of captain in hockey culture. The captain is the player who is the voice of the team -- among the players, to the coaching staff, and with the on-ice officials.
But the traditional captaincy is a top-down model and success these days – whether in business, hockey, or the business of hockey – is built on collaborative leadership.
That's what the Buffalo Sabres are banking on as new management and a new coaching staff decided to go with a rotation of alternate captains as the season opens Thursday night.
The team announced Thursday morning that forwards Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo, and Jack Eichel along with defenseman Zach Bogosian would be the team's four alternate captains.
"To be honest, I don't think that happens very much anymore," Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said on Wednesday when asked about naming a captain. "I think successful teams have a collaborative model. Just like coaches, you can't have one voice. You have to empower your assistant coaches. Within the locker room I think it's important it's a group effort."
The group effort has been a key point raised by everyone around the Sabres dressing room. Even the four alternate captains named on Thursday are likely to change. "We're going to rotate them," head coach Phil Housley said.
"Our coaches sat down and really evaluated the situation and we felt the guys that we named we have total confidence in," Housley said after the team's morning skate in KeyBank Center. "Just talking to Jason, he was very comfortable with the decision so we named the four alternate captains at this point. There's a lot of good leaders in that team and we're going to rely on all of them to be a part of it."
Among the advantages of not naming a captain is spreading the responsibility for leadership around the team and the potential impact that can make in the room.
"With this leadership by committee, it's really going to force us to grow together and grow closer as a team," Okposo said. "I think that's a big thing in an organization, especially one that's younger, is everybody taking ownership and having a good number of guys really try to lead in their own way and try to grow as people. I think that's the right way to do it right now."
Okposo is no stranger to the letter on his sweater. He was an alternate captain for the Sabres last season and wore the "A" for seven seasons for the New York Islanders.
"It's something I take very seriously and it's just an honor to have it and be recognized as one of the leaders on this team," Okposo said. "In saying that you can't change who you are. I've worn a letter at different times of my career and I try not to let it change me, but in saying that I really want to take a step forward in my leadership role and in my play, too."
Eichel was asked about taking a bigger, or more formal, leadership role with the team after he signed his eight-year, $80-million contract extension.
His attitude on Thursday, when the "A" was affixed to his sweater, was the same as Wednesday's.
"It's a tremendous honor, but kind of like I said yesterday, I don't want to change too much," Eichel said. "I want to be myself around the rink every day, bring the same attitude, work ethic and personality and just be a good teammate. I think that's important. We're all just trying to work hard and get better every day. That's what a leader does."
There are a few other things necessary of the official leadership group. While Okposo said he always tried to lead by example, he understands another component of wearing a letter.
"Just saying the right things and saying what I think needs to be said when it needs to be said," Okposo said. "Not shying away from having a difficult conversation with a guy or with a member of your organization."