ST. LOUIS - As game time approaches, Blues captain David Backes has the same routine: strap on the gear, lace up the skates and pull on that blue and gold jersey he always wears with such pride.
As he walks to the ice, sometimes he stops to look at the photo collage on the wall that features the 20 men who have worn the captain’s “C” in the 49-year history of the Blues. Seeing the collage reminds him how he’s supposed to lead as the most recent player to be bestowed the honor in an extremely exclusive group.
“That’s one heck of a list of guys,” Backes says. “At the end of the day, I don’t know how ‘Backes’ is going to fit in, but I’m proud to be part of it right now.”
That collage includes Al Arbour, the team’s original captain and the man many would say is responsible for turning a group of players who knew very little of each other into a team that went to the Stanley Cup Final in each of its first three seasons. The list also includes Barclay Plager, a beloved Blue who laid it all on the line with every shift and was as much a leader on the ice as off of it. It also includes Brian Sutter, a player-turned-coach who wore the C on his chest from 1979 until 1988… and Bernie Federko, Brett Hull, Wayne Gretzky, Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis… the list is considerably small (only 20 players in nearly five decades), yet the legendary names seem to go on and on.
“I don't take the responsibility lightly,” Backes said about getting the “C” stitched to his jersey in 2011. “You know what’s come before you, who has laid the path for you and what this organization means to this city.”
Accepting the responsibility is something you have to be prepared for, something you have to be ready to accept with 100 percent commitment. Nobody knows that more than Bob Plager, who was captain in 1970 and after a short time, surrendered it.
“For a guy like myself and the way I was, I had to go in and tell the guys there’s 10:30 p.m. curfew and let’s take care of ourselves,” Plager said. “The players would look at me and say ‘Bob, settle down.’ So I went to see (Head Coach) Scotty Bowman and I said ‘Scotty, I’m not the captain to go in and say these things, but I’ll lead on the ice. The players will respect what I do: I’ll sacrifice my body, I’ll play injured and I’ll do anything.’
“We had our captains,” Plager added. “Barclay and Al Arbour, now those were two of the greatest. Arbor was a guy that won some Stanley Cups and was an older player who wore glasses and blocked shots and sacrificed his body. You watched this guy, you followed him, and you played like him. That’s the way it was in our day.
“And Barclay, he was like Al Arbour,” Plager said of his brother. “Barc didn’t need the ‘C’ to be captain. We followed him whether he wore the ‘C’ or not.”
The Blues will honor all the men who served as captain during the club’s first Heritage Night on Dec. 12 when the team hosts the Dallas Stars at 7 p.m. Many of the team’s former captains will return to St. Louis for the event, and the first 15,000 fans at the game will receive a commemorative canvas that features all 20 captains since the inaugural season in 1967.
In addition, fans can enjoy a dinner reception with the captains on Friday, Dec. 11 at Peabody Opera House. Tickets are $150 and include cocktails, dinner and an opportunity to mingle with some of the greatest Blues of all-time.
Captains scheduled to attend are Garry Unger, Frank St. Marseille, Bob Plager, Barry Gibbs, Bernie Federko, Rick Meagher, Garth Butcher, Brett Hull, Shayne Corson, Al MacInnis, Eric Brewer and Backes.
“I was aware of the history and the players that had worn it before me. Those names were incredible,” said MacInnis, who served as captain from 2002 until 2004. “When you wear a ‘C,’ it’s certainly not something you try to do alone. You always have a group of leaders with you to help balance things. In St. Louis, there was a great tradition of captains, a long list of great players and Hall of Famers. To be included in that group was certainly a great honor and it was something I cherished.”
“To have them all together for a Captains Night, it’s a pretty cool event,” Backes added. “I’m sure they’ll be around the room spreading stories and encouragement. There will be butterflies (to play in front of them), yeah, but hopefully we perform well and do them all proud.”