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Phobia may keep Ozolinsh from captaincy - Sun-sentinel
By Michael Russo
VAIL, Colo. · Sandis Ozolinsh has been one of the NHL's most lethal and clutch performers among offensive defensemen. He's supremely confident, has played in 113 pressure-filled playoff games and won a Stanley Cup with Colorado.
But ask him to stand up and speak in front of more than a handful of people, and Ozolinsh says he just can't.
He gets nervous, begins to sweat and stutter. It's why he hates doing radio and television interviews and why he's not so sure he'd be a good captain for the Panthers.
"I have a phobia where I can't talk in front of people," he said. "Really, more than two people, I cannot. I'm not too vocal, so I don't know if that's a problem, because addressing the team -- no way."
Coach Mike Keenan doesn't believe captains have to be rah-rah guys. Colorado's Joe Sakic and Detroit's Steve Yzerman are considered two of the NHL's best captains, and they're extremely quiet.
Ozolinsh, a 30-year-old native of Riga, Latvia, would seem to be a front-runner for the captaincy because he's one of the more established players, can communicate with officials, handles his media responsibilities and leads on the ice.
Last season he played nearly 30 minutes a game for Keenan and scored 10 goals and 29 points in 37 games, a pace of 22 goals and 64 points over an 82-game season.
But Keenan, who took the co-captaincy away from Pavel Bure and Paul Laus when he arrived last season, says he's still not certain if he'll name a captain.
Asked about it Monday, Keenan took a deep breath and said, "We haven't decided."
Keenan said the topic dominated his lunch conversation with assistant coaches Paul Baxter and George Kingston.
There is a chance Keenan may choose to alternate captains.
"I've gone with four assistants before, two at home and two on the road and rotated them," Keenan said. "This way you get more involved in the leadership group."
When Mark Messier was his captain in New York, Keenan says he rotated the alternates' letters among Adam Graves, Kevin Lowe, Steve Larmer, Brian Leetch and Craig MacTavish.
In St. Louis, Wayne Gretzky and Shayne Corson were his captains and he rotated as alternates Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Brett Hull and Marc Bergevin.
The one difference is most of the names Keenan mentioned were already established players and considered leaders. The Panthers have mostly teenagers and twentysomethings.
The Panthers will be relying on veterans like Ozolinsh, Stephane Matteau and Dmitry Yushkevich to lead in the dressing room while helping develop leadership skills among the youngsters.
"I'd like to see them emerge, but that's why you have the Matteaus and Yushkeviches and Ozolinshes of the world," General Manager Rick Dudley said. "They've been around a bit, so it's a lot easier to emerge as a leader if you have some influences around you."
With the Panthers having difficulty naming a captain, there's a perception that they lack leadership.
"We don't think we're [without] leadership," Dudley said. "I can tell you from experience, one player like a Dave Andreychuk in Tampa changed the whole complexion of that room. I would like to think that a Yushkevich or a Matteau can offer that to [Keenan]."
But it's still a question whether the Panthers have that one player who can lift the spirits of a team. In Montreal last week, one of last year's weaknesses emerged. The Panthers were in control of the exhibition game when Niklas Hagman took a double-minor high-sticking penalty. Suddenly the momentum switched, the Panthers were deflated and the Canadiens took over.
"The key is finding guys who know how to deal with adversity and pressure situations," Keenan said. "Every game there's some kind of bump that needs to be overcome. As a group they have to learn that."
Ozolinsh believes the Panthers have a core group of leaders, "but you can't really judge right now. Once the season starts, if times are going bad, then we will see how much leadership we've got.
"It's easy to be a leader on a team that's winning. It's really tough
to be a leader on a team that's losing."