Until this year, the one constant throughout the Wolf Pack’s eight seasons of existence had been the fact that, when you saw the captain’s "C" on a Pack jersey, you always knew whose jersey it was, whether or not you could see anything other than that one letter.
Ken Gernander was such a steady presence and so firmly identified with the Wolf Pack franchise, that when you thought of Wolf Pack leadership you thought of one name and one face, and basically took for granted that guy’s being there year after year.
This year it is a different situation, with Gernander having moved on to an assistant-coaching role with the Pack, and perhaps the biggest challenge facing the team was that of filling the leadership void. Not that there weren’t plenty of good leaders and magnetic personalities on the Wolf Pack roster, but picking up the mantle left by Gernander, who had experienced absolutely everything the AHL had to offer in his 14 years of play, was a huge burden to shoulder.
Not wanting to saddle one individual with the entire responsibility, the Wolf Pack coaching staff declined to designate a captain throughout the first half of the season, rotating assistant captain’s "A’s" among several of the team’s players. Once the year hit the halfway point, though, the braintrust felt that it was time to name one guy to succeed Gernander as the titled leader of the squad.
Coaches Jim Schoenfeld, Gernander and Ulf Samuelsson made their choice, and a vote taken among the players came overwhelmingly to the same conclusion, that the right man to assume the captaincy was fourth-year pro Craig Weller.
"It’s definitely a good feeling," Weller says of being given the “C”. "I’ve worked hard over the last three years, and it is a really good feeling to know that I’ve worked my way up and gotten some respect from my teammates. I know that there are a lot of other guys that could be in this position, and I’m just going to try to do my best with it."
With Gernander no longer playing, the Wolf Pack are for the most part a very young group, and Weller is among a cadre of five or six guys of similar ages, all in their mid-twenties, who hold status as the ranking veterans. Weller is the one who has the title, but he is quick to stress that setting the leadership tone for this Pack team is a group effort.
"(Chad) Wiseman, (Alex) Giroux, (Marty) Grenier, (Joe) Rullier, all the older guys, even some of the younger guys, are all doing their best to be leaders," he elaborates. "We have such a young team in general this year, so we’re all trying to work together. But the group of older guys are definitely trying to lead by committee. We try to talk a lot as a group, and work things out like that."
Even the so-called "older" guys do not have a huge experience edge on the rookies in terms of years-played. Weller says, though, that this year’s particular crop of newcomers has been quite receptive to whatever input he and his fellow veterans have sent their way.
"They (the rookies) know this league is a tough league," Weller explains. "And I think they respect guys that have been in the league for three or four years and played a lot of games and gone through the tough parts of the schedule and the rivalries and the Wednesday nights when it’s a little bit quieter in the building, and all the different things that come into play that they might not be used to. We try to lead them in that direction, just to let them know what to look for and to be ready for it."
Much like Gernander was, Weller is a player who shows leadership simply by the way he approaches the job of playing the game. He never fails to give a full effort on the ice, and even when he was struggling to stick with the Wolf Pack during the first year or two of his pro career, it was never for lack of "want-to.” Off the ice, the Calgary native is consistently among the first Wolf Pack players to beat a path to the weight room or the stationary bike for some extra work.
"I’ve always tried to do that and I’m going to try to maintain that for sure," Weller says of always doing more than necessary in the grunt work department. "Definitely I have to work hard to be a factor out there, so hopefully guys look at that and try to follow that. But as far as wearing the ‘C’, I’m just going to try to do what I’ve done to make me successful and try to pass that along."
When asked what guidance the only other captain the Wolf Pack has ever had has offered him, Weller responds, with a twinkle in his eye, "I was lucky enough to play with Kenny for three years while he was the captain, so I find myself looking back and trying to see ‘what would ‘G’ do?’. But when I asked him the only thing he’s said to me so far is that when he started out as captain he had hair. So that’s the only thing I’ve really gotten from him, just to watch out, and use Rogaine."
Weller’s new wife, Jenn, will no doubt hope that his wavy locks will survive the pressure of being a captain, the latest step in a quick rise for the defenseman-turned-winger. He’ll only turn 25 on St. Patrick’s Day, and within the span of a mere couple of years he has gone from a spare part trying to stay on the Pack’s roster to the man who is the acknowledged leader of the team.
"It definitely feels like I’m getting to be an older guy," Weller chuckles. "At the start of the year I was the only married guy, now I’ve got a little support with Lee Falardeau, and a couple of guys getting engaged. But I feel like I’m getting mature and getting to know this league pretty well, and I’m just hoping to continue to improve and get a chance at the next level."