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FEATURE: Hischier Showed Leadership Mettle as Captain

May 28th, 2021 by Sam Kasan @SamiKasan / NewJerseyDevils.com

Devils management sat together in a room with all eyes fixated on the 18-year-old center at the end of the table. New Jersey had won the NHL’s Draft Lottery and earned the right to select No. 1-overall in the forthcoming 2017 NHL Draft.

One of the team’s prospective selections was Swiss-born Nico Hischier. The Devils brass sat down with him for an interview to see his personality and how he might fit with the team ahead of making their decision on whom to draft.

The Devils came away from that meeting impressed with his maturity, particularly stemming from the answer he gave in regard to his leadership style.

“I’m more of a leader with action. I like to do the action (so) that others can follow me,” said the youth. “Going to war with brothers, with the team, that’s what I like about hockey. It’s a team sport.”

The Devils would ultimately use their pick to take Hischier, and it was a decision based as much on his character as it was on his remarkable on-ice performance.

“When you draft players of Nico’s caliber, his talent, his character, his work ethic, you probably don’t think on draft day that’s your next captain,” Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. “But you envision somebody like Nico.”

Fitzgerald, who was the team’s assistant GM at the time of Hischier’s drafting, has watched him mature over the past four years both as a player and in the locker room. Hischier was named an alternate captain during his third NHL season in 2019-20.

When the Devils traded team captain Andy Greene to the New York Islanders in 2020, the captaincy went unfulfilled. Heading into the 2020-21 season, the choice for Greene’s successor was obvious.

“It was never a doubt who the next leader of this team was going to be. It was just when to do it,” Fitzgerald said. “People just started to gravitate toward (Hischier). At that point, I felt that he was the next captain. He is handling all of this really well, so what better time than the present?”

Thus, on Feb. 20, the Devils announced Hischier would become the 12th captain in team history, and youngest in the NHL, following in such legendary namesakes as Scott Stevens, Jamie Langenbrunner and Kirk Muller.

“For me, I’m a big believer in ripping off the band-aid, dropping him in the deep end and letting him go,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what we did. He’s going to lead us for a long, long time.”

Though the letter on his chest may have been different this season, it was perhaps the only thing different about Hischier.

“Everybody told me not to change anything, just try to play your game and that’s what I tried to focus on. That’s really what I tried to focus on every game,” he said. “On the ice, you don’t really notice you’re wearing a ‘C.’ I just try to do what I’ve been doing. That’s my game plan.”

As he did at 18 years old, Hischier, 22, still lets his play on the ice do most of the talking. For empirical evidence, look at this example late in the season.

On May 6, the Devils were clinging desperately to a 2-1 third-period lead against the Islanders. There were 28.4 seconds remaining in regulation when the puck found the stick of Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock, the owner of one of the harder shots in the NHL.

The game, for all intents and purposes, had no demonstrable meaning. The Devils had been eliminated from playoff contention weeks prior. There would only be two games remaining in the regular season for New Jersey at that contest’s conclusion. And Hischier had dealt with three separate health issues during the year due to a broken leg, COVID-19 infection and frontal sinus fracture.

And yet, as Pulock wound up for his shot it was Hischier, wearing a full cage to protect his face injury, that dropped to one knee in the shooting lane without hesitation. Upon Pulock’s follow through, the puck struck Hischier’s shin and deflected into the stands and out of danger.

The entire Devils bench stood up and shouted in approval. New Jersey would hold on for the 2-1 victory, the team’s last of the season.

“That says everything about how Nico wants to represent our team and how he wants to play. Gutsy block,” Devils head coach Lindy Ruff admired after the game. “I can see it at this time of year and a situation like that you may not want to go down. But I think he’s sending a message to the whole team. ‘I’m going to be a leader. I’m going to be a leader from Game 1 to the end of the year.’ When he blocked that shot everybody was up on the bench.”

But it wasn’t just on the ice where Hischier displayed his stripes as a leader. He also did so inside the locker room.

After the Devils lost their eighth-straight game, 5-1 in Pittsburgh on April 22, Hischier gathered his leadership group consisting of himself and alternate captains Damon Severson and Miles Wood. The trio walked into the locker room and had a lengthy “players-only” discussion.

The Devils responded with a much-improved effort two days later. Though the Devils suffered a ninth consecutive setback, Hischier himself, nearly tied the game with less than four seconds remaining, but his shot went just wide of the net. The final score, 4-2, doesn’t show how close the game really was or that a mere three inches kept it from going to overtime.

After that game the Devils would go on a 5-1-1 run. The message was delivered and received by the Devils leaders, headed by Hischier.

“I think that’s important, too, if you feel like the team is not going in the right way,” he said of the team meeting. “We discussed it with the leader group in this team. We felt it was the right time to do a little team meeting. I guess it worked. So it was the right call. I think everybody was on the same page after that.”

Hischier doesn’t just speak up in bad times either. He believes it’s just as important to be a voice of optimism and positivity when applicable.

“I try to help wherever I can. If I see something and think that I can help, I’m not afraid to tell them,” he said. “We’re all in this together. Try to get guys going. Try to hold them accountable. I feel like my job is playing the right way, and leading the right way by playing the right way. I have to do that day in and day out.”

Unfortunately for Hischier, he wasn’t able to lead on the ice for much of the season. A leg injury held him out of the opening nine games of the regular-season. Just as he was hoping to return, a bout of COVID-19 kept him iced for another two contests. He made his season debut Feb. 20 against Buffalo, his first as captain.

Hischier played in just five games before an errant shot struck him in the visor/face. He underwent surgery for a frontal sinus fracture and was out for the next 24 contests. He did the best he could to help his team and teammates during this time, and learned a lot about leading during that time.

“It was a learning process for me, how I handled these injures,” he said. “What I’m doing for the team even if I’m not playing. I try to help any way I can.”

Hischier’s first year as captain was a very adverse one for the team and for himself personally. The Devils didn’t get the results in the standing – finishing with a 19-30-7 record – and Hischier was limited to just six goals and 11 points in 21 games. But going through such trials lays the foundation of character and resolve.

“We are a young group,” he said. “This year, losing sucks, obviously nobody wants to lose, we don’t want to lose, but this year has been positives things as well. We’re a young group of guys and we have some great players in here. We’re all still learning. This year was a great opportunity for us to grow as a team and learn.”

Growth and development was the theme of the Devils’ 2020-21 season, and the same goes for the team’s captain. Though his attitude about leadership hasn’t changed, Hischier has matured a lot over the past few years and grown into the team’s captain.

Fitzgerald has witnessed it firsthand.

“Going back to (four) years ago, he’s a man now,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s just not the 18-year-old kid that we won the lottery with. He’s grown up.

“He’s our leader.”

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