"Leadership" is a controversial word in the National Hockey League these days, notably around the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets.
According to a report last week, those "deeply involved with Oilers" were lamenting they had let Matt Hendricks go last summer.
This was a reaction to the Oilers’ struggles and the Jets soaring near the top of the NHL — after Winnipeg picked up the fourth-liner with a late-summer signing.
A big part of what Hendricks brings as a player is leadership, according to seemingly everyone who has played with him.
Which got me to thinking I should take a closer look at the word.
I joined the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association as a rookie and walked into a dressing room that had several players who were part of two Avco Cup championships.
The veteran lineup had plenty of guys who made sure everyone was ready to play each game. While we had our funny guys who kept things loose, it was also a club well policed about when it was time to get serious.
Next up for me was the Winnipeg Jets, the team I joined for the last Avco Cup win in 1979 (after the Aeros folded at the end of the season) along with a bunch of Houston teammates.
We walked into a dressing room full of players who were already two-time Avco Cup winners and were the defending champs.
Our captain, Lars-Erik Sjöberg, missed most of the year with an Achilles injury, returning near the end of the season.
While a fairly quiet guy, he had a terrific sense of humour, knowing exactly when to inject it. When he spoke seriously, everybody listened intently. He always backed it up with his play.
It’s been written more than once that (former Aero) Terry Ruskowski was the heart and soul of the Jets that year. Though he was just five-foot-eight, he was absolutely fearless and a fantastic player.
For me, the list of inspirational players that year is lengthy: Barry Long fearlessly blocking shots without a helmet; Billy Lesuk tracking down every puck like he owned it; Kim Clackson laying down the law.
Leadership comes in many forms, and there were a number of others who contributed here.
The following year, we entered the NHL and lost several top-end players, as the NHL teams got their revenge by stripping the four clubs that came from the WHA.
We still had Sjöberg as our captain for one last year. That team worked hard and lost a ton of close games — we did everything we could with what we had.
After "Shoe" retired, I was named captain for the following season. I was told to just be myself, but I looked for things from the leaders before me and tried to ensure I was saying and doing the right things.
I sustained a shoulder injury and played in only 14 games that year. Unfortunately, I ended up the only plus player on a team that had a couple guys in the minus-50s and another at minus-61.
However, I couldn’t have saved the team from their 30-game winless streak with a rousing pre-game speech while not playing — you need to lead with your on-ice actions as well.
Some leaders inspire others to be at their best using only their play; some use their voices. The odd time, you get a good mix in one player.
Overall, my dressing rooms had jokers who kept us loose and guys who reminded us that it’s time to turn the music off and get serious.
Preparation for a game actually started the night before and continued throughout the day, so this is only the closer. If you had enough "good pros" in your room, the young ones knew what to do.
Mark Messier has had many stories told about him, but even he had help in the dressing room, and obviously led with his play on the ice. At times, folklore pushes a great story into the realm where some people believe in magical powers.
Today, a form of leadership really starts in the summer, shown by players’ tough off-season workouts and skills training.
As to that report out of Edmonton, goalie Cam Talbot was a stud last year — this season, he’s the opposite and now injured. The Oilers have more problems than that, but it’s a good place to start when wondering what they’re missing.
Professionals such as Hendricks are often talked about when a team is winning because of someone else. Earlier this season, it was Connor Hellebuyck’s goaltending that stole points for the Jets. Lately, they’ve improved their five-on-five performance and their power play is lighting it up.
I don’t see Hendricks’ (or anyone else’s) "good words" as being a big factor, unless he’s the Goalie-and-Power-Play Whisperer.
Captain Blake Wheeler mentioned the Jets had a fairly quiet room before the arrival of Hendricks, so his positive voice has likely helped them with their preparation.
The bottom line, though, is that everyone needs to contribute on the ice, and Hendricks has done what head coach Paul Maurice has asked of him.
Numerous players pushing others to greater heights makes for a better dressing room.
To that end, don’t let the narrative run wild on one guy, or you run the risk of missing how many "leaders" you actually have wearing your favourite team’s sweater.
Chosen ninth overall by the NHL’s St. Louis Blues and first overall by the WHA’s Houston Aeros in 1977, Scott Campbell has now been drafted by the Winnipeg Free Press to play a new style of game.
Read more by Scott Campbell.