It was no less than two months ago that I was pondering this same question, that of captaincy, and examining the same factors. Thinking of all the tangibles â€“ speed, talent and scoring â€“ along with attributes that are harder to judge â€“ the ability to command the respect of the team, lead with strength of character and handle the Toronto media through success and failure. The lone difference is that last time, it was the Leafs.
For three seasons the Toronto Marlies have been led by Ben Ondrus. I am not sure how the Leafs organization first found Ben, but with that initial contract they struck captaincy gold. Ondrus was never the fastest, nor did he score the most goals, but with every fibre he cared for the success of his team. You could see it in his face when he was on the ice. From almost anywhere inside the confining walls of the Ricoh Coliseum, Ondrusâ€™ voice could be heard as he barked from the bench. And after a loss, as he sat solemnly in his stall, you could see it in his face â€“ defeat. It had all been left on the ice.
Ondrus had spent five years on the Marlies, plugging just about any hole that had sprung a leak. Anywhere from the first line to the fourth, on the wing or at centre and playing on both the power play or the penalty kill. I have witnessed him go hard to the net, deep into the corners, plug up the neutral zone and drop the gloves. He was a playerâ€™s leader. He holds the Marlies record for all-time games played with 253. He ranks second in all-time shorthanded goals with 5, and third in penalty minutes with 316. But not all the numbers swung in Benâ€™s favour.
Ondrus is injury prone. He played only 56 games this past season, and was still yet to complete three-quarters of any given season, let alone a full one. His injuries can be to blame for his career not rising past the AHL level. Ultimately his lack of advancement is reason why his contract was allowed to expire and the Marlies are left without a captain.
Captaincy is an interesting thing with the Marlies. With the Leafs, a team with a rich NHL history deeply entrenched in the hearts of the fans, the position brings with it a long legacy. Much of the honour and respect bestowed upon recent captains is based on the actions and success of those to wear the C before them. With the Marlies, and their short five-year term in Toronto, that respect and sentiment has yet to build. This doesnâ€™t however mean that it wonâ€™t.
What better way to build a cityâ€™s reverence for a team and its captain, then selecting someone close to home? During Ondrusâ€™ extended absence last season no one stepped up more than Whitby native Ryan Hamilton. The talented forward came to the Leafs organization by way of the trade that saw Robbie Earl leave for Minnesota in 2009. The former Barrie Colt led the Marlies in goals last season and finished in the top five in points among all on the active roster. Hamilton could be relied upon to play the final minute of even the hardest contests, and always dedicated appropriate time and thought to the media during the post-game scrum.
Hamiltonâ€™s season didnâ€™t pass without its fair share of adversity. Ryan had to take a medical leave early in the fledgling season to undergo a routine, yet still unnerving, heart operation. The winger suffered from an irregular heartbeat, much like that of Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, and required nearly half the season to recuperate from the ablation surgery needed to correct it. But even with the shortened schedule, Ryan managed to impress Leafs staff with his rallying spirit on the bench and vocal nature in the dressing room. Hamilton was the first of the Marliesâ€™ free agents to be secured for next season.
Another player that is no stranger to adversity is high-scoring Tim Brent. It was during a Leafs pre-season match that Brent tore his pectoral muscle, the lengthy rehab leaving him sidelined until February. But Brent proved that neither a shortened camp nor an extended injury would keep him from leaving his mark on the injury-prone group. Finishing fourth in both points and assists at seasonâ€™s end among those still on the active roster, Brent made a splash with his return by scoring at just under a point-per-game pace to complete the season.
With the Marlies bouncing in and out of the North division basement when Brent first dressed, the teamâ€™s eventual winning streak that saw them narrowly miss the playoffs can almost singlehandedly be attributed to Brent. A motivator to his teammates, Timâ€™s hard work was rewarded when he was called up to join the Maple Leafs for their final game of the season against rival Montreal. Brentâ€™s lengthy AHL experience dating back to the 2004/2005 Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, matched with his deep Calder Cup run with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2008 makes Brent a front-runner on the shortlist of potential Marlies captains.
Not to be left-out is the teamâ€™s longest serving member, and likely the strongest candidate for captaincy, Alex Foster. The undrafted Foster joined the Maple Leafs AHL club for their first year in Toronto. A tremendous shut-down offensive lineman, Foster is an ideal fit in Burkeâ€™s top-six/bottom-six format as a third-line centre. Among the three leading captain candidates, the defensively-minded forward has the most experience in the leadership category, having worn the A over the past few seasons. Fosterâ€™s coaches and teammates have often commented on the time he spends with the clubâ€™s newer members, introducing them to the city and helping them become accustomed to the less familiar parts of the AHL routine. Of the three, Foster played the least amount of games for the club last season having to spend significant time out after back surgery. Having only one complete season over the past five, it stands to reason that the Marlies decision to keep Foster aboard is directly related to the need for leadership among the younger crew the Toronto AHL club will be icing this season.
Torontoâ€™s AHL club is only one quarter of the way through a 20-year term. The city has 15 years to bond with the team, through success and failure, and attach themselves to the players along the way. The successes of those named captain now, will be remembered and expected by all those to display the C in the future. It is easy to think that this decision is a small after-shock to the quake of Phaneuf being made captain. But to Marlies season ticket holders, those who willingly miss a Leafs broadcast to join the Ricoh-regulars on the Exhibition grounds for an AHL battle, there hasnâ€™t been a more important choice.
To review a few more candidates for Marlies captain, check out MarliesHQ.