The night of Nov. 6, David Backes tried to go out with his wife, Kelly. They had to come home early. Only 13 games into his first season as the captain of the St. Louis Blues, Backes faced a crisis. The team had started 6-7-0. Head coach Davis Payne had been fired.
Backes let the dogs out and got on the phone. He hoped he would have the chance to speak to his new coach, veteran Ken Hitchcock, a Stanley Cup winner, before they showed up to the rink on Monday. They had to get on the same page and fast. Their next game was Tuesday night, and it was against a Central Division rival, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Sometime after 6:30 p.m., Hitchcock called from his car – probably somewhere on I-70 or I-71 – as he made the seven-hour drive from his last stop in Columbus, Ohio, to what would be his renaissance in St. Louis. They spoke for about an hour. (Too bad Backes didn't fly over and pick him up.)
Hitchcock told Backes he put a lot of trust in his captains and expected a lot of them, too. He told him to lead by example, to try to inspire others to follow, to make sure the Blues were tough to play against, to never give anyone free ice. He explained what had to change immediately and what would take time.
"It was a good conversation, time well spent," Backes said. "As you can see, the results have proven themselves."
The Blues beat the Blackhawks that Tuesday night, 3-0. They have gone 23-6-7 since Hitchcock's arrival. They're in the thick of the NHL's toughest division – heading into Friday's action they are six points behind the league-leading Detroit Red Wings, one point behind the Nashville Predators and tied with the Blackhawks, with three games in hand on all three of them.
And Backes has been a big key.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called him the Blues' "most explicit leader since gritty Brian Sutter," the captain from 1979-88. That's saying something. The captains who followed Sutter included Scott Stevens, Brett Hull, Wayne Gretzky, Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis.
It doesn't show in Backes' individual statistics. He leads the Blues in goals (16) and points (37). He is plus-16. But those numbers are good, not gaudy, and he is on pace for about the same – or even a little less – than the 31 goals, 62 points and plus-32 he produced last season.
This is a team that wins as a team. The Blues boast no one among the NHL's top 55 scorers. They play hard, fast and structured. They spread out their offense. They give up few shots (26.2 per game, first in the league) and few goals (1.96 per game, tied for first in the league). No wonder they had only one representative at Sunday's All-Star Game: goaltender Brian Elliott.
Backes could have been there, though. He gives Hitchcock the kind of calming influence he had in Keith Primeau with the Philadelphia Flyers, not to mention, in some ways, the kind of on-his-toes, attacking forward he had in Mike Modano with the Dallas Stars.
"He's truly our leader on the ice and off the ice," Blues winger T.J. Oshie said. "He's the guy doing the little things right that everyone sees and follows."
Asked if he has ever played better, Backes said: "I don't know if I have. The puck might not be going in the net in droves, but my impact on games has been, I feel, substantial. We've had a lot of success as a team, and I think that's a better barometer than the stat sheet."
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Primeau considers himself a Hitchcock disciple now. He uses many of his principles as a youth hockey coach. But he didn't get Hitchcock at first. Didn't necessarily like him, either.
The Flyers would lose a game. Hitchcock would call in the leadership group and blame it all on them. Huh? If they were the leaders, if they were contributing offensively, if their teammates weren't pulling their weight, how was it their fault?
Hitchcock and Primeau would speak every week in the summer. They would grab a cup of coffee together. They would act almost like friends. Then Primeau would walk into the rink on the first day of training camp, stop by Hitchcock's office to chat and discover that they weren't friends. Hitchcock was the coach. Primeau was the player. Plain as day.
Eventually Primeau caught on. When the Flyers lost, it was the leaders' fault because they still weren't making enough of an impact. They had to demand even more from themselves so they could demand more from their teammates. Hitch is a personable guy away from the rink. So when he rants and raves at the rink, it isn't personal. It's really about the big picture.
"What I came to realize was that the message that he was trying to deliver was usually bang on," Primeau said. "We all know that Hitch's delivery at times … um, can be harsh. When you're dealing with different personalities and different mentalities and different egos and different states of mind, sometimes it's hard to absorb."
Primeau learned to separate the message from the delivery, and as the captain, he started to separate them for his teammates at times. He said "translate" was a good word for what he did, that the captain served as "the middleman."
"When I figured that out, really it became very easy," Primeau said. " 'Here it is. He's in command of the ship, and it's my responsibility to get you guys to understand what it is he's saying and just hold everybody accountable to that standard.'
"There were many times I had to walk guys off the cliff at the back of the bus after games because they weren't listening to the message. They were listening to how the message was delivered. Instead of hearing what he had to say, they were too busy licking their wounds.
"And that's all it's about. It's about making the team better, it's about unifying the group and it's about winning hockey games."
Primeau was already the captain in Philadelphia when Hitchcock arrived in 2002-03, the same way Backes was the captain in St. Louis. He doesn't remember if Hitchcock reached out to him the same way, but he has an idea why Hitchcock might have called Backes that night.
The next day, at his introductory news conference in St. Louis, Hitchcock addressed his reputation for being hard on players. He said he was as current as anyone in understanding the changes that had taken place "not only in the style of game, but in the dealing with the personnel." He said he had spent "a ton of time understanding how older guys coach younger kids." He said his job was "to sell what I'm asking them to do."
"I reflect on my relationship with Hitch, and it took me a while to buy in," Primeau said. "It took me time to accept what he was saying. And so I think he recognizes maybe from that relationship – or maybe multiple relationships he's had with captains or leaders in the past – that if he's going to drive the ship in the direction he wants, he needs that buy-in from the leader in the locker room, and recognizing that, he immediately reached out to David to gain his support.
"If he's got the support of David and he understands the concept, they'll continue to have the kind of success they've had early on. To me, it looks as though they've got it much quicker than any other group that he's had in the past."
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Backes and Hitchcock clicked. Backes calls Hitchcock "a fantastic guy"; Hitchcock cites Backes' "natural leadership skills." Backes calls Hitchcock "cerebral"; Hitchcock describes Backes as a "really learned person."
Only 27, Backes has been smart enough to seek the advice of veteran teammates, including former NHL captains like 36-year-old Jamie Langenbrunner, who used to play for Hitchcock in Dallas, and 37-year-old Jason Arnott. That has helped him bridge the gap between his younger teammates and the 60-year-old Hitchcock.
"He's got a real open mind for the right thing to say and the right thing to do," Hitchcock said.
Remember how Primeau said he used to "translate" for Hitchcock? Well, Hitchcock said Backes will "temper" things for him now.
"I'm not a coach that worries about the day to day," Hitchcock said. "I'm more concerned about the big picture. I think he understands that, so he's able to temper some of the messages that come from the coaches, and I think that that helps the players.
"The players don't treat it as life and death. They look at it as a learning opportunity rather than, 'I'm getting blasted, and man, the coach is down on me.' The players don't look at it that way, and I think a lot of that is because of him."
Backes will send messages the other way, too. Take Wednesday. The Post-Dispatch reported that he told Hitchcock the players preferred to stay off the ice, so Hitchcock changed the schedule and let them work on their own.
But Backes knows the biggest message he can send is on the ice itself. Not only does he need to produce offensively, but he needs to skate, stay within the structure, kill penalties, block shots, hit people.
"Play hard and lead by example – that's been explicitly stated with me and Hitch," Backes said. "Set the tone. Make sure that if I'm going to expect everything out of my teammates … For them to give everything, I've got to be the first one out there doing it.
"It's been a good relationship. It's been fantastic. He plays me a ton."
"It's tough to get a breather sometimes," he said.
Finally, the Modano comparison comes in. Backes is a different player than Modano was – less elite skill, more power and edge – but Hitchcock wants him to play the way Modano did. He puts him out against top players, but not to blanket anyone. He wants him to compete harder than everyone else. He wants him to forecheck, not sit back and protect. Make those top players play in their end. Make them cheat. Make them screw up.
"It's the same approach – attack, attack, attack," Hitchcock said.
Make the other coach bark at his guys, and see if their captain knows how to temper it.