Down Goes Brown: Grading NHL celebrity captains of 1991

Johnny Bower and Brendan Shanahan reveal the logo that the Maple Leafs will wear to celebrate their 100th season.

The next year will be a big one for NHL milestones. For starters, we’ll see the 100th anniversary of the league itself, dating back to its official formation in 1917. The coming season is also the Maple Leafs’ centennial — one the franchise is celebrating with new uniforms, an outdoor game and a special Hall of Fame exhibit.

If that wasn’t enough, the 1967 expansions teams, including the Kings, Penguins, Flyers and Blues, will all mark their 50th anniversaries. We’ll no doubt see plenty of marketing initiatives in the coming months as the league marks the various occasions.

Here’s hoping they’ve got something good in mind, because the bar has been set high. Twenty-five years ago this summer, in advance of what would be its 75th season, the NHL decided to celebrate the occasion in the very best way it knew how: With a parade of B-list celebrities.

During the 1991 off-season, the league asked all 22 of its teams to name one celebrity captain for the coming season. Some teams rose to the challenge and found a candidate who captured just the right blend of local ties and hockey fandom. Other teams… well, not so much. So today, let’s look back on all 22 of those celebrity captains, as we count them down from worst to best.

No. 22: Montreal Canadiens – Maurice “Rocket” Richard
No. Just… no.

Let’s be clear: Rocket Richard is a legend, one of the greatest wingers of all time, and a defining player of a generation. He inspired children’s books, songs and even the occasional riot. In the world of pro sports, there are superstars, there are Hall-of-Famers, and then there’s that very small group of players who transcend it all to become something even more. Richard is in the group, no question. Rocket Richard ruled.

But asking a franchise to pick a celebrity captain from the entire world of arts, sports and pop culture and then having them come back with one of their own players is the most Montreal Canadiens thing ever. This franchise is so obsessed with its own history that they literally couldn’t think of any other options here. Sorry, Montreal, but that’s too much. Pick a marginally famous folk singer like all the other teams in the country ended up doing.

No. 21: New York Rangers – Marv Albert
This was six years before Albert’s assault trial, so we won’t penalize the Rangers for failing to see into the future. But we will penalize them for a lack of creativity in selecting a “celebrity” from within the sports media world. Albert was best known for his work on NBA games, but he’d worked Rangers games over the years, so this all felt a little too insider-y.

This is New York, after all, home of the world’s biggest stars. With all due respect to Albert, there were probably more famous people wandering by on the street at any given moment. But that would have required the Rangers to actually make it to the street, instead of just wandering down the pressbox hallway and grabbing the first person they recognized.

No. 20: Philadelphia Flyers – Bobby Rydell
Of all 22 captains, this was the toughest one to track down. Most teams were proud of their choices; some had press releases or formal announcements, and everyone else would at least show up in a newspaper article or two. But not the Flyers. Most news coverage just made vague reference to them not getting around to making a pick yet.

As best I can tell, that pick ended up being Rydell, the teen idol pop singer best known for the 1960 hit, Wild One. At least, that’s according to the one line slipped into the end of this article on the Flyers’ opening-night loss to the Capitals. That’s pretty much all the evidence I could find of the Flyers participating in this campaign at all. They just didn’t seem all that in to the whole celebrity captain thing. Which is weird, considering the franchise’s proud history with pop music.

No. 19: Hartford Whalers – Susan Saint James
Saint James might seem like an odd pick, but she was chosen because she’d once attended college in Connecticut. That’s it. The fact that she was married to the president of the NHL’s TV partner was no doubt purely a coincidence.

As a side note, the Whalers appear to have been the only team to name a co-captain, as they snuck in an additional mention of Gordie Howe. Normally, that would fall under the same category as the Habs choosing Richard. But I’m going to give the Whalers a pass, on the assumption that they picked Howe just to troll the Red Wings in hopes of getting them to lose their minds when it came time for their pick.

Spoiler alert: It worked.

No. 18: Calgary Flames – Ian Tyson
When the NHL said “celebrity captain,” half the league’s Canadian teams immediately went “local folk rock singer” and called it a day. Maybe the biggest upset of all here was that, somehow, Stompin’ Tom Connors didn’t get picked by anyone. How is that even possible? I’m assuming he was removed from consideration to make it fair for everyone else, like when you were in a hockey pool in 1984 and nobody was allowed to draft Wayne Gretzky.

Anyway, Calgary’s honour went to Tyson. Personally, I would have gone with then-current WWF intercontinental champion Bret Hart, but let’s be honest, it was the early 90s. The Flames weren’t exactly making great personnel decisions.

No. 17: Toronto Maple Leafs – Gordon Lightfoot
Have I mentioned that the Canadian teams liked singers? They liked singers.

Side note: How much do you think it killed Mike Myers not to get the nod here? He was already a big star on Saturday Night Live by this point, but the Wayne’s World movie hadn’t come out yet so he didn’t quite have that crossover appeal. Then again, given how things turned out when he finally did get to work with the Leafs, that’s probably a good thing.

No. 16: Minnesota North Stars – David Wheaton
I’ll be honest: I had no idea who Wheaton was, and my shoddy research attempts came up empty; I had to reach out to old-school North Stars fans for help.

As it turns out, he was a Minneapolis-born tennis player who’d had some success on the pro tour, including a semi-final appearance at that year’s Wimbledon. That run featured a quarter-final win over Andre Agassi, making his much-hyped Wimbledon return after years of boycotting in protest of the tournament’s conservative dress code — which you’ll have to believe me was a very big deal back in the early 90s. I feel like that alone is enough to move him a few spots up the list.

No. 15: Buffalo Sabres – Jim Kelly
Well, Kelly was about to start losing to Dallas with a championship on the line, so in hindsight he really was the perfect choice to lead the Sabres into the 1990s.

No. 14: San Jose Sharks – Willie McCovey
Given that the expansion Sharks hadn’t even played a game yet, this is a solid enough call. They picked a captain who’d fire up local fans while also reminding the rest of North America that the area already had plenty of pro sports history to draw on. Maybe not the most inspired choice, but not bad. And at least the NHL didn’t make them pick somebody from Minnesota in a weird draft that nobody understood.

No. 13: Edmonton Oilers – Kurt Browning
At the time, the figure skater had won three-straight World Championships and was probably Canada’s most beloved athlete. After he assumed the captaincy, he lost the world title in 1992 and failed to medal at either the 1992 or 1994 Olympics. The lesson, as always: If you make your living on the ice, never allow yourself to be associated with the Edmonton Oilers.

No. 12: Quebec Nordiques – Gaetan Boucher
Yet another athlete makes the list, as the four-time Olympic medalist and Lou Marsh Trophy winner earned the Nordiques’ honours. As one of the most successful Olympians in Canadian history, he was a perfectly reasonable pick. But seriously, enough with the athletes and singers. Surely there must have been somebody out there who did something else for a living?

No. 11: Chicago Blackhawks – Jim Belushi
Ah, much better.

The first of two eventual Blues Brothers to make our list, Belushi may be the most predictable pick out of the entire bunch – he was (and still remains) pretty much the default go-to celebrity that you call when you need somebody to represent Chicago.

But he works just fine here, because he’s a legitimate Hawks fan and also because this was back when Vince Vaughn was still doing after-school specials about the dangers of steroids.

No. 10: Winnipeg Jets – Burton Cummings
Yes, it’s yet another Canadian singer. But if you’ve ever seen Cummings pound out a national anthem or two before a Jets game, you know he belongs in the top ten.

No. 9: New Jersey Devils – Yogi Berra
And now we’re back to the athletes. But this is a good one.

At first, Berra might seem like an odd choice, given that he’s primarily associated with two New York teams. But he called New Jersey home, and more importantly, he was a big Devils supporter and would occasionally even hang out with the players after practice.

Years later, the Devils would start winning championships after adopting a modified version of that classic Berra saying, “It ain’t over until we get a one-goal lead in the first period and spend the rest of the game blatantly tackling people in the neutral zone.”

No. 8: Washington Capitals – Larry King
Another pick who doubles as a diehard fan of the team, King remains on the Caps’ bandwagon to this day and has named Alex Ovechkin as his favourite player.

By the way, the 1991-92 Capitals had a good season but made a disappointing early exit from the playoffs at the hands of the eventual champion Penguins. I guess that’s just what happens when you supplement the roster with old Kings.

No. 7: New York Islanders – Ralph Macchio
This is an… interesting pick. It came two years after the last Karate Kid movie and a year before My Cousin Vinny came out, so the “celebrity” angle isn’t especially strong. But Macchio is a longtime fan, and also he’s Ralph Macchio, so I kind of like the pick.

Side note: Who would win in a fight between all the celebrity captains? I’m disqualifying Rocket Richard right off the bat, because even though he was 70 years old at the time, he would have taken the field without breaking a sweat. Beyond that, if Macchio is allowed to do his crane kick, I think he has a legitimate shot at a top-three finish.

(Look, you’ve made it all the way down to No. 7 — don’t suddenly act like I’m the one taking all this too seriously.)

No. 6: St. Louis Blues – John Goodman
Goodman is a St. Louis icon who shows up often a sports-related events, so this is a rock solid pick. Years later, he would even make an unsuccessful bid to buy the Blues. And the pick holds up well today – sure, Goodman has arguably been knocked down to second place on the celebrity Blues fan scale by Jon Hamm, but that’s still some pretty impressive longevity.

More importantly, I feel like there’s a decent case to be made that Goodman was the most legitimately famous celebrity on the entire list. At the time, he was starring in the top-rated TV show in America and had a successful movie career that was just months away from producing a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor. He was an honest-to-goodness A-lister. We’ve got a few more big names to get to, but I think Goodman might be the guy.

No. 5: Detroit Red Wings – Dave Coulier
I’m torn on this one. When you go around incessantly calling yourself “Hockeytown,” it feels like the bar for a celebrity fan should be set a little higher than the third most famous guy on a bad family sitcom. On the other hand, Coulier was probably the second most famous celebrity who was wearing a Red Wings jersey in every photo you ever saw of him, trailing only that guy from Ferris Beuller.

I think we can all agree that this can’t be a middle-ground pick; it has to be ranked either really high or really low. Today, I’d rank it low. But in 1991, when nobody had any taste in anything, I think I find it oddly inspired. Coulier cracks the top five.

(But let me know if you disagree with this section. I’m more than willing to cut it out.)

No. 4: Vancouver Canucks – Rick Hansen
Slam-dunk pick. Honestly, its only flaw is that it’s so good that I can’t really make fun of it. See, Canucks fans, there really was a time when your franchise made good decisions.

No. 3: Boston Bruins – Michael J. Fox
We head into the home stretch with the first of back-to-back picks that fall into the sub-category of “Canadian celebrities getting scooped up by American franchises,” which is a little shady, but we’ll let it pass.

At first, this one seems questionable. Fox grew up in Canada; how did he wind up as Boston property? But it’s true — Fox is a Bruins’ fan, and has been all along. So the pick works, and given that Fox remains one of the few celebrities that just about everyone likes, it’s hard to argue with it.

The only minor surprise here is that Fox edged out fellow Bruins diehard Dennis Leary for the honour. But remember, this was early in Leary’s career when he was best known for his standup. He obviously couldn’t have done the job, since Bill Hicks hadn’t come along and done it first.

No. 2: Los Angeles Kings – John Candy
The Kings’ undoubtedly made the easiest pick of any team. Remember, this was back when Candy was in tight with Wayne Gretzky and Kings owner Bruce McNall. The three had purchased the Toronto Argos together earlier that year, and had shocked the sports world by signing presumptive first overall NFL pick Rocket Ismail to a massive contract.

There’s a good chance that Candy was having a beer with Gretzky and McNall at the exact moment they found out they needed a celebrity captain. It would have been a shock if he wasn’t the Kings’ choice.

But while the pick lacks in originality, let’s not overthink things. It’s still a home run. John Candy forever.

No. 1: Pittsburgh Penguins – Mister Rogers
The defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins chose Fred (Mister.) Rogers as their captain. The NHL was a wonderful place in 1991.

I love everything about this pick. Rogers is basically the last guy you’d imagine a team going with, which is what makes it so perfect. And it turns he even knew his way around a rink, thanks to apparently being “a sometimes figure skater.”

Seriously, watch this clip of the Penguins 1991 home opener, below, in which Rogers is introduced, gets a massive ovation, skates out onto the ice while the organist plays his theme song, grabs a live mic out of Mike Lange’s hand in order to drop his catch phrase for an even bigger ovation, and is then given a sweater with the captain’s “C” on it. Not a hockey sweater — an actual knit sweater, which he proceeds to button up before skating away like a badass while Lange is still trying to talk to him.

If that clip doesn’t make your day ten times better, I don’t know what to tell you. This world may not be for you. Mister Rogers was the best celebrity captain of the 1991 off-season, and it’s not even close.

(As a side note, several of the celebrity captains were given their own hockey cards in that year’s Pro Set Platinum series. So if you’ve ever wanted to own a rookie card for Burton Cummings, James Belushi or yes, Mr. Rogers himself, you know where to look.)

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