When looking at the players in any team sport, you’ll consistent pattern with their jerseys.
Their surname (or family name) and jersey number will appear on the back, along with the team logo on the front.
Depending on the sport, you’ll may also see the logos of league sponsors as well.
When it comes to ice hockey, especially the NHL, you’ll notice some players dawning the letter C or A on the front of the jersey.
The letter contrasts with the primary jersey color for clear identification.
The NHL and the NFL (American Football) share the “C” in common, which represents the captain of the team.
But the “A” is something you don’t see in any other sport than in hockey.
What does the A mean on a Hockey Jersey?
The A on a hockey jersey stands for Alternate Captain. As with the Captain, the Alternate Captain has certain speaking privileges with the referee that regular players don’t. There can be up to three alternate captains, or two alternates and one captain assigned for every game.
Some refer to the A as assistant captain, however it is not mentioned once in the official NHL rulebook as an “alternate” expression.
The alternate captains are needed in case the official captain is not available for discussion.
However, the alternates share responsibility if the team hasn’t assigned a captain at all.
There must always be a minimum of two alternate captains or one captain and one alternate for each game.
It’s important to note that the players in leadership cannot abuse their position by arguing calls made on the ice.
If so, they can receive a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct call against them. (source - Section 6.1)
Rather, these players are there to listen to the interpretation by the referee so that they can relay the message back to their bench coaches.
Plays that often need further clarification are major and match penalties, goals under review and all out brawls.
Whether it’s the captain or the alternate captain, each team will send their representative by the referee crease.
The referee crease is located in the neutral zone, opposite to the player benches.
I included the image below for your viewing pleasure.
When an incident or call is being reviewed at length, you’ll see both team captains chatting up the refs in that area of the ice.
The remaining players are not permitted anywhere near the referee crease and will likely remain by their team bench.
As a note, not even the captain or alternates allowed inside the crease, but only by the perimeter.
Alternate Captain Role off the Ice
Coaches assign the captaincy or alternate designation to players who can lead their teammates and act as their role model.
Either the coach chooses the captain outright or may have the players vote on it.
When the team isn’t assigned a captain, the alternates lead in unison or rotate as the primary voice in the room.
Can Hockey Goalies carry the A?
Officially, goalies cannot take on the role of the captain or alternate captain on the ice.
Unofficially, the leadership role can be in the hands of the goalie but without the on-ice privileges.
The most recent example was that of Roberto Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks.
At the time, the entire team recognized him as the leader in the dressing room.
He even painted the “C” on his helmet at one point.
But the reality is that only his teammates could approach the referee crease during the game.
As such, those players on his team were given the alternate captain status.
Unfortunately for Luongo, the rule preventing goalies from official “C” or “A” roles was implemented back in the 1948-49 NHL season.
The restriction is forever known as the Durnan rule, in reference to the Montreal Canadiens goaltender, Bill Durnan.
Back then, teams were complaining that Durnan would speak to the referees at particularly crucial times of the match.
He was known for buying time for his teammates who needed to rest or slow down the opposition’s momentum.
In case you were wondering, there were 6 goalies who were handed the captaincy in NHL history. Make sure to check out that list in my blog post titled How Many Captains on an NHL Team?
Can Coaches or Managers carry the A?
The same rules apply to bench coaches or managers - they’re not allowed to carry the A.
If you haven’t yet realized, that means only forwards or defensemen (or combination of both) can wear the “A” or “C” on their jerseys.
The alternate captain designation is always an interesting topic of discussion.
You’ll see players assigned the A when another player in leadership is injured or sick.
Sometimes you’ll notice players cycle the leadership role. That is, they may sport the letter one game, only to have it removed the next.
It’s possibly a leadership trial run.
Can it be that the alternates are simply captains in training?
This is sometimes the case for the younger players versus their established counterparts.
Removing the A or C and crowning a new leader can resonate in the inner dynamics of each team.
The addition or removal of the letter can respectively be interpreted as a promotion or demotion.
In any case, make sure to see the alternate captains (or captains) summoned when the referees need to have a word with them.
Plays that need further explanation usually means tempers are flaring on the ice or behind the bench.