A franchise player is an athlete who becomes the personification of his team. He is the face of the franchise, and he spends all, or almost all, of his career in one place, becoming a leader, an impact player and a cornerstone for the team to be built around. There are athletes like this in every sport, so of course hockey has had its fair share of great franchise players. But who are the best “faces of the franchise” in the history of the league? When you think of a hockey team, which player from that team immediately comes to mind?
First, some criteria:
-Must have played at least 10 years with the team.
– Cannot have spent more than three years playing for any other teams combined (we’ll call this the Brett Favre rule). So yeah, that means Wayne Gretzky ain’t makin’ this list.
-Must have been named team captain sometime in his career (Hey, if his own team doesn’t recognize him, how can I?).
Honorable Mention: Martin Brodeur, G, New Jersey Devils; Jean Beliveau, RW, Montreal Canadiens; Mike Bossy, C, New York Islanders
So without further ado….
10. Gilbert Perreault, Center, Buffalo Sabres
Part of Buffalo’s famed “French Connection” line of the 1970’s, seventeen-year veteran Gilbert Perreault kicks off this list. The “Original Sabre”, a title bestowed to Perreault after Buffalo made him the franchise’s first-ever draft pick (1st overall in 1970); Perreault made Buffalo into the competitor they were in the 1970’s and 80’s. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 1971, and went on to win a Lady Byng Trophy as well (awarded to the player who demonstrates “the highest combination of skill and gentlemanly play”). He led the Sabres to eleven straight postseason appearances, including a Prince of Wales conference championship and a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1975. He served as captain of the Sabres from 1981-86 a reign that was ended only by Perreault’s retiredment. Perreault was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1990, the same year the Sabres retired his number 11 jersey. To this day, he is the Sabres’ all-time leader in goals (512), assists (814) and points (1,326). A true franchise player, he played all seventeen of his NHL seasons with the Buffalo Sabres.
9. Ray Bourque, Defenseman, Boston Bruins
The franchise defenseman of the Boston Bruins for twenty-one years, Ray Bourque was a hard-hitting blueliner with a gift for scoring. The eighth overall selection in 1979, Bourque made an immediate impression on the team that selected him, winning the Calder Trophy for his phenomenal debut season in 1979-80. An unselfish player and gifted scorer, Bourque captained the Bruins for 13 years, leading them to two Eastern Conference championships (1988 and 1990), though he never won a Stanley Cup in Boston. In 2000, seemingly as a reward for his leadership and value to the franchise, with the Bruins struggling, Bourque was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche so he could have one last chance at winning a championship. And at the end of the 2000-01 season, Bourque and the Avalanche hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup, giving Bourque the first and only championship of his illustrious 22-year career. He stands as the longest tenured captain in Bruins history, and as the highest scoring defenseman of all-time with 1,579 points.
8. Stan Mikita, Center, Chicago Blackhawks
A 22-year veteran and the 14th highest scorer of all-time, Stan Mikita was the epitome of the term “franchise player” for the Chicago Blackhawks. Widely regarded as one of the best centers of the 1960’s, Mikita led the league in scoring four times that decade (’64, ’65, ’67 and ‘68). He led the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup in 1961, scoring six goals in the playoffs (the most anyone had in the postseason that year). That 1961 Stanley Cup was the last the Blackhawks would win for another 48 years. A four-time Art Ross Trophy winner as the NHL’s leading scorer, two-time Hart Trophy winner as the NHL MVP, and two-time Lady Byng Trophy winner, Mikita captained the Blackhawks for only one year (1976-77), but finished his career has one of the most decorated and impactful players in Chicago history. In addition to being enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Mikita is immortalized in statue form outside of the Blackhawks arena in Chicago.
7. Bobby Clarke, Center, Philadelphia Flyers
Leader of the “Broad Street Bullies”, a nickname given to the brawling, hard-checking, ready-to-drop-the-gloves Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970’s, tough-guy and team captain Bobby Clarke epitomized that special brand of eastern Pennsylvania hockey. A great scorer but an even better enforcer, Clarke actually had more seasons with 100 penalty minutes (six) than he had seasons with 100 points (three). He led the Flyers to two Stanley Cups (1973-74, and 1974-75), and won the Hart Trophy as league MVP three times (1972-73, 1974-75, and 1975-76). He had two stints as captain of the Flyers, one during their Broad Street Bully days from 1973-1979, and again from 1982-84. Clarke retired in 1984 after 15 years in the NHL, all of which were spent in Philadelphia. He finished his career as the Flyers’ all-time scoring leader, a title he still holds, and will long be remembered as the Captain of the Broad Street Bullies.
6. Mike Modano, Center, Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars
One of only five Americans ever to be taken with the first overall selection in the NHL Entry Draft, Mike Modano played the first twenty years of his career as a member of the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars franchise (the team moved from Minnesota to Dallas in 1993). He was the face of the franchise in two states, and as an American helped make hockey popular in Texas, home of “America’s Team” (the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys), a place that had never had a professional hockey team before. Modano led them to three Stanley Cup Finals as the team’s most dangerous offensive player. He lost in the Finals as a Minnesota North Star in 1991 and as a Dallas Star in 2000, but in 1999 led them to a Stanley Cup Championship over the Buffalo Sabres. Modano captained the Stars for four years, from 2003-06, and finished his tenure in Dallas as the most iconic player in Stars history.. He played one injury-shortened season with the Detroit Red Wings in 2010-11, but returned to sign a one-day contract so he could retire as a Dallas Star. He finished his career with 10 All-Star Game appearances, one Stanley Cup, and the franchise record in points scored with 1,374- enough points to make Mike Modano the highest-scoring American hockey player of all time.
5. Joe Sakic, Center, Quebec Nordiques/ Colorado Avalanche
Another great player who defined an era for the team he played for, Joe Sakic is probably second only to John Elway in Colorado sports lore. When the Quebec Nordiques moved south across the border in 1995 to become the Colorado Avalanche, it fell upon Sakic, who was named team captain in 1995, to “sell” hockey to the citizens of Denver. And he did just that, leading the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup championship (Sakic won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs) at the end of the 1995-96 season. From there on, with Sakic leading the way, the Avalanche were a Western Conference powerhouse, making the playoffs ten straight years, while winning another championship in 2001. Sakic captained the Avalanche until his retirement in 2009, wearing the “C” for 15 years. He finished his career as the Avalanche’s all-time scoring leader, as a 13-time All-Star, and as the eighth-leading scorer in NHL history with 1,641 career points. The Colorado Avalanche retired his #19 jersey in 2009.
4. Steve Yzerman, Center, Detroit Red Wings
The longest serving captain of any North American sports franchise, Steve Yzerman captained the Detroit Red Wings for twenty years, an era that lasted from 1986-2006. During that time, Yzerman led the Red Wings to five Presidents Trophies (given to the team with the best regular season record), and three Stanley Cup championships while Yzerman himself was selected to ten All-Star teams. He won almost every award imaginable, earning the Lester B. Pearson Award in 1989 (MVP, as chosen by the players), the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1998, and the Selke Trophy in 2000 (an award that recognizes the NHL’s best defensive forward). He was a prolific scorer as well, finishing his career with 692 goals and 1,063 assists, and his point total (1,755) is good for sixth-best of all- time. A 23-year veteran, he spent every season with the Red Wings, retiring in 2006 after an illustrious career that left him known in Detroit sports lore simply as “The Captain”.
3. Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Right Wing, Montreal Canadiens
The only player on this list to have a trophy named after him, Maurice Richard was the elite scorer of his time. He was the first player to eclipse the 50-goal mark in a season, and he was the first player in NHL history to record 500 goals in a career. For his ability to put the puck in the net, the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy was named in his honor, and awarded each year to the NHL player who scores the most goals. Richard captained Les Habitents for only five years (1956-60), but led his team to a Stanley Cup championship every year he wore the “C”. He won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in 1947, and was a fourteen time All-Star. At the end of his career, he was the NHL’s all-time leading scorer (though his totals have long since been eclipsed multiple times), and the customary three-year waiting period for the Hall of Fame was waived specially for him, and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961.
2. Gordie Howe, Right Wing, Detroit Red Wings
Howe, the NHL’s third all-time leading scorer, tough guy and iron man, played the first twenty-five years of his career for the Detroit Red Wings, leading them to four Stanley Cup Championships (1950, 1952, 1954, 1955). Known for both his scoring ability and toughness, the phrase “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” was coined in his honor, coming when a player gets a goal, assist and a fight in the same game. The Saskatchewan, Canada native was team captain for five years, from 1958-1962, and is the Detroit Red Wings’ franchise leader in both career games played and goals. After 25 years with the team, he spent his final NHL season with the Hartford Whalers in the 1979-80 campaign. Howe was a 23-time All-Star, a six-time Hart Trophy winner, a six-time Art Ross Trophy Winner, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. To this day, he is still second all-time in goals scored, and third all-time in assists and total points in NHL history, and is truly the epitome of a “franchise player”.
1. Mario Lemieux, Center, Pittsburgh Penguins
Known for his incredible scoring ability, puck-handling and finesse, Mario Lemieux comes in first on the all-time list of franchise players. After Pittsburgh spent the first overall pick in the 1984 draft on Lemieux, he embraced his role as the franchise’s savior and keystone to their rebuilding project following their league-worst finishes in 1983 and 1984. He delivered instant results too, scoring 100 points in his rookie year. This was a sign of things to come, as Lemieux would deliver ten 100-point campaigns in a Penguins uniform, including a franchise record 199 points (114 assists to go along with a franchise-best 85 goals) in 1989. He was team captain from 1987-1997, a reign that ended only after Lemieux retired, but then resumed from 2001-06 following Lemieux’s un-retirement from the league in 2000. He led the team to two Stanley Cup championships, in back to back years (1991 and 1992). However, Lemieux’s biggest role as the franchise player of the Penguins probably came in the years when he was retired. In 1999, with the Pittsburgh Penguins nearing bankruptcy, Lemieux swooped in and bought the team, saving it from another owner and a possible relocation. In addition to his checkbook, Lemieux also lent his forechecking to his team, getting back on the ice a year after buying the team. He scored 76 points in the 2000-01 season, leading the Penguins into the playoffs and reinvigorating the fan base. After several injuries and the NHL lockout in 2005, Lemieux again retired from the NHL in 2006 after spending 17 seasons in the league, all with Pittsburgh, finishing seventh all-time in the NHL for total points and first in team history for total points with 1,723.
His #66 is one of only two numbers retired in Pittsburgh Penguins history (the other being Michael Briere’ #21). As the player who saved the team not once, but twice, Lemieux undoubtedly deserves his lofty standing at the top of the list of all-time great franchise hockey players.
-By lead columnist Arun Morace