The first pivotal act of Rod Brind’Amour’s first training camp as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes wasn’t the decision to name Justin Williams captain, because even though that was finally officially announced Thursday, it had been in the works for months.
“Big surprise, right?” Brind’Amour said.
No, it happened before the first of two practices, held a day early thanks to Hurricane Florence, when Brind’Amour spoke to the assembled team, four dozen players, for the first time. His speeches in his time as captain were typically short, intense and to the point – and the more effective for being so. This was a little different. There was more ground to cover, and Brind’Amour spoke for more than 15 minutes, leading up to the essential message that will underline this training camp, and indeed this season.
Without pointing fingers or assigning blame, the bar somehow got lowered around here, Brind’Amour said, to the point where mediocrity became acceptable, where the goal wasn’t to win the Stanley Cup, but to compete, to squeak into the playoffs.
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As far as Brind’Amour is concerned, the only reason to do this is to win the Stanley Cup. Unrealistic? Perhaps. But that’s the starting point. That’s where the bar will be set under Brind’Amour. With a new owner, new general manager, new front office and a handful of new players to go with a new coach. There’s never been a better time for that kind of reset.
That wasn’t the only reason that the mood was more relaxed and the practices more intense than a typical first day under the Bill Peters regime. Those conditions are not mutually exclusive, and the combination is a product of a no-nonsense coach who was a no-nonsense player and who now has a no-nonsense captain to rely upon.
Williams was the obvious choice last season, only to be kneecapped by Peters’ dopey co-captaincy, an idea so bad that the ostensibly demoted co-captains both agreed Thursday that it was a bad idea and they thought so all along
“I didn’t love it,” Jordan Staal said, and Justin Faulk said much the same thing as well.
They both also endorsed Williams as captain, which has been a fait accompli since Brind’Amour was hired. There’s a reason every player the Hurricanes added this summer said Williams called them right away. It wasn’t so much that he felt obligated. He also felt empowered, knowing this was coming.
Brind’Amour knew Williams, his former teammate and linemate, was the player he needed to fill this role that is considerably more than honorable in hockey, where the captaincy may not be the mythical responsibility it is sometimes made out to be but certainly has an innate importance, both in terms of tradition and leadership. In its best representation, the captain can be both a conductor and a buffer between coach and team, in varying proportions as needed.
Williams, who may as well share a hockey brain with Brind’Amour, couldn’t be better equipped to act as a conductor. But he’s enough of his own man, a player with vast experience and a 36-year-old with deep character, to act as a buffer as well.
“That makes it certainly a lot more unique and a lot simpler in the captain-coach relationship,” Williams said. “We know each other very well. We know what each other expects from other people. Obviously, Roddy is at a different stage of his career now. He’s a head coach and he’s taking on a different challenge as well. He’s going to need all the help he can get. And I’m going to give it to him. Be his voice. Be our team’s voice. It’s important we believe the same things, which I know we do.”
The news that Victor Rask needed surgery after slicing open his right hand in a kitchen accident threw some of Brind’Amour’s preparations into disarray – the Hurricanes weren’t exactly deep at center to start, and Rask is out indefinitely – but as far as his first day on the ice as a new head coach, things went more or less as he planned.
He has his captain in place. There was energy on the ice. The hard work is still to come, but at the least, the right tone was set Thursday.