The Montreal Canadiens Captaincy and the Flat Hierarchy


The Montreal Canadiens captaincy was a hot topic of debate throughout the summer. The minute Brian Gionta signed with the Buffalo Sabres, months of discussion, speculation, blogs and call-in shows ensued.

On September 15th, the Habs finally announced their decision on the team’s captain for 2014-15.

The captain will be… four alternates.

Instead of nominating a captain outright, the team opted to go with four alternate captains. Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Markov, P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty will have an “A” sewn to their jerseys for the upcoming season.  Carey Price is also said to be included in forthcoming captains meetings.

With so much build-up leading up to the announcement, there was a palpable sense of disappointment at the anti-climactic result. Analysis quickly poured in from all corners.

Some, unsurprisingly, viewed the move in a negative light.

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  • “It’s like there’s no clear-cut guy that’s ready to come out and take on the role, that’s the perception this decision gives,” said former Habs’ captain Vincent Damphousse in a conversation with ESPN.

    Sean Gordon of The Globe and Mail iterated the same sentiment, stating that this “feels like a satisfy-no-one compromise concocted by an organization with a serious aversion to boldness.”

    Others were far more accepting of the move and took Marc Bergevin at his word, seeing the move as a transition on the way to the emergence of a younger leader like P.K. Subban or Max Pacioretty.

    Whatever one’s opinion, the Canadiens’ dressing room structure just became a lot flatter.

    2013-14 Canadiens’ Dressing Room Structure

    2014-15 Canadiens’ Dressing Room Structure

    The exact  thought process behind the team’s decision will likely never be known to the general public.

    When it comes to organisations elsewhere in the world, however, the logic for implementing such a structure is clear: it allows groups to have an increased sense of ownership over decision-making and react more quickly to changes in the environment.

    Anecdotal and scientific evidence points to these setups bringing significant returns.

    Many of our colleagues at Gamesided are probably huge fans of Portal and Half Life — both  have received over 90% average scores on MetaCritic. Valve, the maker of the two hit series, does not have managers at all. They happen to think that such constraints severely limits the value of their employees.

    Everyone here at Fansided is also familiar with WordPress. After all, it is what we use to publish our pieces.  So do about 20% of the world’s websites. Yes, you read that right. According to estimates, 20% of the world’s websites are made with WordPress. It also turns out that the company behind WordPress employs the same kind of flat, high-autonomy structure described above.

    This list could go on, but the bottom line is that flat hierarchies have proven their value in organisations around the world. And, should you look at the above examples and think that this notion only applies to the tech world, it is worth considering a recent study from Texas A&M. Researchers there discovered that teams of factory workers who managed themselves outperformed workers organized in hierarchies.

    As Tim Kastelle at Harvard Business Review notes, there “is a growing body of evidence that shows that organizations with flat structures outperform those with more traditional hierarchies in most situations.”

    In reality, we’ve long known this to be true in hockey circles as well. As Cam Cole of The National Post recently pointed out, championship teams succeed because of strong groups. From the Edmonton Oilers in the 80’s to the Los Angeles Kings today, these squads didn’t win by placing the onus solely on one individual.

    In 2014, it is clear that traditional top-down systems are being outperformed by flatter, more nimble structures. From firms, to factories, to teams, the evidence points increasingly in favor of decentralized, collective leadership. And, in an era of trades, free-agency, instant analysis, blogs and social media, the “C” might really be nothing more than a pressure-filled honorific anyway.

    Instead of pondering over how unusual it is for a team to go without a captain, we should wonder why we still name captains at all.