Captaincy a mixed blessing in Montreal

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:30 PM ET

Brian Gionta had to stand on a box for his first meeting with the media as the Montreal Canadiens captain Wednesday.

The forward is a little guy by anyone's standards, but that box will only be needed for his daily sessions with the Montreal media, a necessary evil of wearing the "C" in that town.

Gionta plays bigger than he is on the ice and doesn't need a soapbox off it.

Those are two of the biggest reasons he is now the 28th captain of the Montreal Canadiens, a team and franchise that once occupied a much larger place on the cultural landscape of the city -- and the province -- and by extension, why its captain occupied a significant place on the Quebecois political landscape.

That significance has been eroded over the past generation, in part by the Canadiens' decline from the silver standard in hockey to a middling franchise that had to be rescued by a millionaire American meat packer and ski resort owner when nobody in La Belle Province was interested in owning what had been an institution.

The Canadiens as a franchise have gone from a significant cultural institution to pretty much just a sports franchise, and last spring's surprising post-season run notwithstanding, not one that's had a lot of on-ice success.

The captain has gone down that slope with them. Free agency and changing values have made him an icon no longer.

"Around here, the 'C' stands for see ya later," said former Canadiens captain Mike Keane, who was shipped to the Colorado Avalanche with Patrick Roy in 1995, summing up the eroded power of the office.

Keane was one of seven men to wear the "C" for the Habs over a seven-season stretch from 1989 to 1996 (Bob Gainey, Guy Carbonneau, Chris Chelios, Kirk Muller, Pierre Turgeon and Vincent Damphousse were the others).

Saku Koivu brought some stability to the position for 10 seasons, but as a Finn, he was no longer the face or the voice of the club's constituency -- he steadfastly refused to speak French -- and this generation of Canadiens fans is now used to the guy wearing the "C" no longer being one of them, like a Maurice Richard or Jean Beliveau.

The significance of the position also took a hit last season when Canadiens management decided that after all the upheaval in an off-season that saw Koivu and about half the rest of the team leave via free agency, a captain wasn't needed. After a season of allowing the members of the new leadership group to find their levels, Gionta emerged as the clear choice.

Defenceman Andrei Markov, one of the alternates along with Hal Gill, might have been the second pick, but he is less comfortable in front of the media and, like it or not, that is a consideration.

Gionta, the second American, after Chelios, to be in care of the captaincy, has earned respect by becoming a front-line player despite his small stature and for being a man with a measured response off the ice.

The Canadiens don't have to worry about him saying something stupid or blindly stepping into a political mine field. It doesn't hurt he's also under contract for another four years and Markov could be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

Gionta is a winner, having his name on the Stanley Cup with the rest of the 2003 New Jersey Devils. On most nights he is the Canadiens best player, both in terms of effort and results.

He got off on the right foot by saying he and his family are making the effort to learn French.

That's a good first day.

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca


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