Fixing whatever was wrong with the Vancouver Canucks became Rick Tocchet’s priority when he was hired by the team last January. And fix them he did, as they won 20 of the final 36 games of the 2022-23 season.

Tocchet was also charged with another task by the Canucks’ front office: finding the next captain. Going through the search prompted him to step back. He wanted to see how players reacted after the Canucks won or lost. If Tocchet voiced his displeasure with the team’s performance, he wanted to see how particular players approached practice the next day.

“I saw a lot of players grow over those three months,” Tocchet said. “Then came the hard decision: Do you wait a year? Is the guy we’re going to pick, is he ready? Are there a bunch of guys that are ready? Or do we wait? That was the big decision. Do we wait or do we pull the trigger because we have a guy who’s emerging.”

Ultimately, the Canucks chose Quinn Hughes as their next captain. But what was the process they used to get there? Who were the stakeholders involved in the decision? How long did it take? And how much did it help to meet Hughes’ parents before giving him one of the most important roles in the NHL?

These are just a few examples of the types of questions NHL franchises must answer when selecting a captain.

A deep dive into this process is even more relevant this season. The Canucks were one of six teams to choose a new captain, while five teams have yet to name one. That means 11 teams — or more than one-third of the NHL — faced some sort of captaincy decision within the past six months.

What one team might seek in a captain could be different from another; the selection process can vary too. Some franchises seek input from numerous voices. Others prefer a smaller circle. There have been times when either the front office or ownership makes the final decision. Others leave it up to the coach.

Even that part of the process raises questions about whether players should have a more active role in determining who becomes captain, now that player empowerment has taken on greater importance in professional sports leagues.

“A lot of people take pride in it,” New Jersey Devils captain Nico Hischier said. “It’s a huge honor if a team has the faith and the confidence in you to lead the team. In the hockey world, it’s an honorable thing to get that because it comes with such a high standard.”

CAPTAINCY WORKS DIFFERENTLY in the NHL than in the other three major men’s professional leagues.

Major League Baseball teams have named captains in the past, though they don’t typically wear a letter. The only current MLB player with a “C” for “captain” on his jersey is Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez.

The NBA is the same. In 2022, the Golden State Warriors had the C on one of their classic edition jerseys. But prior to that, the last team to have a C on its jerseys was the New Orleans Hornets in 2011-12. In both cases, multiple players wore the C while being on the court together.

In the NFL, teams are allowed to have as many as six captains. A few teams rotate the role weekly. This season, rookie quarterbacks Anthony Richardson, C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young became captains for their respective clubs.

The NHL is more static by comparison. There’s only one captain who wears the C on his sweater, while alternate captains wear an “A.” Captaincy can change, however, if a player gets traded, steps down from the role or has it stripped.

While the NHL has had a history of young captains, some of whom were teenagers when they took over, there has never been a rookie that has worn the C in modern league history.

“I’m not going to lie, I’m not sure if at 22 that I was totally ready for it,” Seattle Kraken general manager Ron Francis said. “You’re learning kind of on the job. As a young kid, you’re trying to establish yourself in the league and help the team win. There’s a lot of other things that go along with being a good captain, and as a young kid, you try to balance that.”

Francis said a challenge that came with being a young captain was talking to players who had more experience. The Hartford Whalers were in a transitional phase when they named Francis their captain. That year, the Whalers had nine players younger than 22 who played more than 50 games. They also had 10 players older than Francis who also appeared in more than 50 games.

“It’s not an easy thing at times,” Francis said. “But anytime you get to wear a C for an organization, it’s very flattering.”

Tocchet and Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour elaborated on how much linking age to captaincy has changed over time. Tocchet was a 27-year-old with eight seasons under his belt when the Philadelphia Flyers named him captain at the start of the 1991-92 season.

Tocchet said being a 27-year-old captain at that time was considered young because there were so many captains in their 30s. In Tocchet’s first season as captain, he was the seventh youngest in the league. Trevor Linden was the youngest captain, at 21. But there were 14 older than 29.

“Now the trend is a little bit different,” Tocchet said. “Most of the teams are going younger, or it’s one of those cases like with [Alex] Ovechkin or [Sidney] Crosby for years where they have been mainstays. Same with [John] Tavares and the Islanders. Now, you’re getting more of the Brady Tkachuks in Ottawa and Hughes for us who are the star players that are emerging as leaders.”

It’s a contrast from when Brind’Amour first became a captain. He was an alternate at 24 with the Flyers but didn’t become an NHL captain until he was 35, with the Hurricanes.

“A lot of it, too, was the guys I played with were great leaders,” Brind’Amour said. “How it came about with us was when Ron Francis left and it was like, ‘Now, I’ll take it over’ kind of thing.”

Back in 2003-04, the average age of an NHL captain was 32. The league had five captains who were older than 40 with the oldest being 43-year-old Mark Messier. The youngest at the time was Patrick Marleau, at 24. In 2013-14, the average age of a captain was 29. The oldest at the time was Martin St. Louis, who was 38, while the youngest was Gabriel Landeskog at 21.

The NHL’s current captaincy demographics reflect Tocchet’s point about a shift. Ovechkin is the oldest captain, at 38, while there are three captains — Nick Suzuki, Hughes and Tkachuk — who are each 24. Although the average age for a captain this season is 31, there are quite a few players who inherited the role at an early age.

Crosby and Ovechkin were at the vanguard of that shift when teams started naming younger captains. It was a trend in the 2010s when players such as Dustin Brown, Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews inherited the captaincy before they turned 25. It continued when Landeskog and Connor McDavid were named captains as teenagers.

While Crosby and Ovechkin are the longest-serving captains in the NHL, they’re part of a group of 12 current players who received the C before they were 25. It’s a group that also includes Aleksander Barkov, Jamie Benn, Dylan Larkin, Steven Stamkos, Hischier, Hughes, Suzuki and Tkachuk.

Those players are all considered the best player or among the best players on their team and currently have (or had at the time) long-term contracts.

How important are those factors in choosing a captain?

“What you want in a perfect world is a player that the other players can emulate,” Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “Not necessarily to emulate the skill, but the work ethic. So, there are some captains that are disconnected slightly from the group because nobody can do what they can do. Some of these elite guys are just freakshows.”

Like McDavid?

“I don’t even want to use his name, because Connor may also be the hardest-working guy on the ice and I don’t know that,” Maurice explained. “But what you want as a coach for your 13th forward and your seventh defenseman is to say, ‘I don’t expect you to score 50, but I expect you to try as hard as he’s trying.’ For a coach, the value of having that kind of person as your captain is invaluable.”

Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said whether it’s a captain or an alternate captain, the goal is to find someone who wants success for the team and not just themselves. Getting to that point takes time, Bednar said, because the first few years are about a player just trying to survive in the NHL before they can take the next step.

“It’s an ideal situation if your players wearing letters and your leaders in the room can be your best players,” Bednar said. “That’s who the team is following and relying on. In [Nathan MacKinnon’s] case, he’s playing 23 [minutes] a night. In Cale [Makar’s] case, it’s 25 to 30 a night. … These guys are on the ice the most. We’re relying on them the most. If they’re our strongest leaders, I feel comfortable not only with them focusing on their own game but being able to help the team. To me, that’s the ideal situation.”

FOR AN ORGANIZATION to have its best or one of its best players feel comfortable taking on such a large responsibility is not always a given.

The Canucks quickly learned that was never going to be an issue with Hughes.

That became evident during the defenseman’s rookie season. He was averaging nearly 22 minutes of ice time, which was the second most by a Canucks player. Hughes was second in 5-on-5 ice time among defensemen and had the most power-play minutes.

Such a heavy workload allowed Hughes to reach a certain conclusion.

“I feel like whenever we weren’t playing well, it was because I wasn’t playing well or [Elias Pettersson] wasn’t playing well,” Hughes said. “So I feel like I’ve been a leader in that sense for a long time, and I feel like that’s been on my shoulders. Over the years, I’ve just felt confident.”

Canucks center and alternate captain J.T. Miller said the moment he realized Hughes could be named the team’s next captain came when Tocchet arrived. The Canucks entered the 2022-23 season with the expectation they could take the success they had under Bruce Boudreau and harness it into a postseason appearance.

The opposite happened. They struggled to find consistency under Boudreau, which led to his firing and Tocchet’s hiring. A coaching change was only part of the equation, with the team trading captain Bo Horvat during the season as well.

“[Tocchet] challenged the leadership group to be better and demand more of ourselves and our teammates,” Miller said. “Quinn went from being pretty quiet to a big voice in our locker room. It was not any one thing in particular. He, day by day, got better and better growing into the role, and he’s just going to continue to grow in that regard. The last 20, 30 games of the year, he was the guy driving the boat, and it’s why we all have his back and why we all believe in him.”

Even though Hughes understood the responsibility and had the support of teammates such as Miller, there were still no presumptions about who would wear the C. Because Tocchet had been a captain himself and was the head coach of the Arizona Coyotes when they named Oliver Ekman-Larsson their captain, he knew what he wanted out of his next captain.

“To me, more than ever, it’s about being an example,” Tocchet said. “It’s going on the ice early. If things aren’t going well, are you doing the right things? You get blown out, are you leaving the room when the media wants to talk? Are you hiding? These are things that I pick up. Everyone is a great leader when things are great. But when things aren’t going great, what kind of leader are you?”

Tocchet said the primary stakeholders with a captaincy decision are usually the head coach, the GM, the team president and ownership. He said there can be more voices but that it’s also about finding a balance.

How does it work among those stakeholders? Do they vote? Do they arrive at a consensus? Do they decide that one person gets to have the final decision? And if so, who is it? Is it the owner because it’s their team? Is it the coach, GM or president?

“Imagine if we had five people sitting there and we had five different answers,” Tocchet said. “It’s like, ‘Who wins?’ I’ve never had that situation. If you had five different people with five different answers saying who they want as captain? I don’t know who wins. I think management and ownership would tend to say it’s the coach’s room, and they give the coach the final say, I would think. But thank God because we didn’t have five different answers.”

In the Canucks’ case, it was chairman and owner Francesco Aquilini, team president Jim Rutherford, GM Patrik Allvin and Tocchet who made the decision. Tocchet said that Aquilini, Allvin and Rutherford all agreed that it should ultimately be the coach’s choice.

Tocchet checked in with former Canucks coach Travis Green, a close friend, for his take. Green told Tocchet that Hughes came to the rink and put in the work.

Tocchet mentioned that when the Canucks were going through a difficult stretch last season, he watched how Hughes got better. He watched how Hughes stepped up in the midst of uncomfortable moments and said things that Tocchet knew weren’t easy to voice.

“Even to some of his buddies on the leadership group, that was uncomfortable for him,” Tocchet said. “Would he have said that a year prior? I don’t know. I just saw his emergence.”

Tocchet said that Hughes, Miller and Petterssen were all players who “had the qualities” to be the Canucks’ captain. What stood out about Hughes for Tocchet was the fact that he “knew where he stood in the organization” and was willing to take the next step.

“It’s coming to the rink early and not just showing up for practice,” Tocchet said. “It’s staying after practice and working with a young kid or picking up a kid for lunch. Not being selfish. Those were the little things that I saw emerge. It just insulated what I thought in terms of a guy who could be a great leader for this team.”

Aquilini, Allvin, Rutherford and Tocchet periodically spoke throughout the summer about the captaincy decision facing their team. Tocchet said they were leaning toward picking Hughes but had one last thing they wanted to do before finalizing their decision.

They invited Hughes and his parents out to lunch to learn more about him and his background.

“I think that’s the final cherry on top. It’s about their values. His dad’s a terrific guy, and his mom was terrific at lunch. I think that kind of sold it that we made the right decision,” Tocchet said. “I respected that Jim [Rutherford] really wanted to have some kind of sit-down with the family. It kind of checked the box that, ‘OK, we made the right decision.'”

BEING AN NHL CAPTAIN comes with several responsibilities. They often serve as the conduit between the coaching staff and the dressing room. They usually talk to the on-ice officials during games.

They also must present themselves as the face of the franchise whether their team is about to win the Stanley Cup or endure a season near the basement.

So how does it work for a player who used to wear the C for one team but goes to another team where that job belongs to someone else? And if those former captains are asked to be part of their new team’s leadership group, how do they toe the line between knowing when to help versus overstepping?

“If you’re getting a letter, that means you’re seen by the organization as responsible for more than just yourself,” Nashville Predators center Ryan O’Reilly said. “I think that’s encouraging, and you have to have those tough conversations when things aren’t going well. It brings more responsibility for everyone.”

O’Reilly was an alternate captain when he played for the Buffalo Sabres and for Canada at different tournaments. He captained the St. Louis Blues for two-plus seasons until he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs last season.

Toronto already had an established captain in John Tavares, but O’Reilly was another experienced player who could be one more voice within their leadership group. O’Reilly signed with the Predators in free agency, going to another team that had an established captain, Roman Josi, and gave him the chance to be part of the team’s leadership group.

O’Reilly, who is an alternate captain with the Predators, said captaining the Blues allowed him to further appreciate the importance of having the sort of strong leadership group that was able to supplement his efforts when he wore the C.

“There’s so many guys that did certain things that helped me along that I wasn’t good at doing,” O’Reilly said. “Whether that was conversations with the GM — there were guys who were better at that who did that. I think there are so many different leadership roles within a team, and guys do so many things differently that there are so many guys who could wear it.”

Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone echoed a similar sentiment. Stone was an alternate captain for two seasons with the Ottawa Senators before he was traded to the Golden Knights where he ultimately became the first captain in franchise history.

For having alternate captains Jack Eichel and Alex Pietrangelo — who each know what it’s like to wear the C Eichel captained the Sabres for three seasons, while Pietrangelo had the same role for the Blues for four seasons.

“Since I have been the captain here I haven’t had to do nearly as much as I thought, and the reason being is Petro’s been a captain, Jack’s been a captain,” Stone said. “[Alec Martinez] is a three-time Stanley Cup champion. [Jonathan] Marchessault, [William] Karlsson and [William] Carrier have been here and started the culture. We’re just continuing that. … I’m not saying it’s easy, but being the captain of the Vegas Golden Knights is easier than a lot of places because of the foundation that’s been built from the top down.”

COULD THE SELECTION process ever change? The majority of players to whom we spoke for this story said it has been up to the coaching staff or management to choose the captains, from the time they played in either college or major junior through the NHL.

Because the captain’s role carries so much weight, is it possible that the NHL and its teams could eventually allow players to have more say? In the NFL, some teams have players vote on captains, which is what the San Francisco 49ers did this season, resulting in second-year quarterback Brock Purdy being named one of their six.

Avs veteran defenseman Jack Johnson said players didn’t really have a say on much when he broke into the league back in 2007. He said that has since changed, and he used sports science as an example as to why. Johnson said coaches have become open to hearing from players about when they need to be pushed versus when they need rest, based on the data they’re receiving from heart rate monitors. That could lead to openness on other decisions.

“I think you need to take some input from the players when it comes to captaincies and leadership,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, the players are behind closed doors and whenever your boss is around, you’re well behaved and buttoned up. But it’s the guys in the room that really have the true pulse of who the leaders are, what guys’ true colors are like and what guys are like away from the rink.”

But there are certain situations when everyone from management to players knows who should be a team’s captain, which is a point that Panthers alternate captain Aaron Ekblad made when he was asked whether players should vote.

“Whether the players chose it or management chose it, I think 90% of the time — or even 95% of the time — it would still be the same decision,” Ekblad said. “If the players chose it, I still think Barky would be our captain.”