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|Davis Payne was on the ice Saturday morning for his first practice as head coach of the Blues (Getty Images). |
Shortly after arriving for his first day on the job, Davis Payne strolled into his new office and found a hand-written note on his desk.
The message was from Andy Murray, who had been dismissed as head coach earlier Saturday morning. The note offered congratulations and wished him luck in his new position.
“I was surprised, and certainly the contents touched me. It was a classy move,” Payne, the club’s new head coach, said Saturday. “The note he left on the desk in there is something I’ll certainly cherish.”
Payne also cherishes the opportunity he has been given in St. Louis. After nearly 10 years of coaching experience in the minor leagues (ECHL and AHL), the Blues are giving him his first chance to prove he has what it takes to be a successful head coach at the NHL level.
“I’m absolutely thrilled to be standing where I am,” he said. “I asked (our team) to work hard for each other, I asked them to trust each other and I asked them to play with passion. There’s a lot of ground to cover structurally, there’s a lot of ground to cover philosophically, but we feel that if we trust each other and work hard and play with passion, we’re going to take steps in the right direction.”
Payne’s predecessor inherited a Blues club in 2006 at rock bottom. Under Murray’s direction, the club returned the playoffs with a miraculous run in 2009. But this year, the club has stalled, and Blues President John Davidson decided it was time for a new voice in the locker room.
“We feel that a new voice is something that needs to be with our club right now. Davis will provide that,” Davidson said. “We feel that we’re a .500 hockey club right now on paper, but we think we should be better. I think everybody realizes that and that’s our goal – to be better than that. We have to have goals, and we have to pursue those.”
Payne was named the ECHL Coach of the Year in 2007 after coaching the Alaska Aces to a championship in 2006. The club reached the conference finals in three consecutive years under Payne’s direction and had a .691 winning percentage. In his first season as a head coach with the Rivermen, he led Peoria back to the postseason after a two-year absence.
This season, the Rivermen were 19-13-1-2 under Payne leadership.
Now, he gets a shot in the big leagues.
“Obviously the buildings are bigger and there’s lots of star power on the ice, but it’s the same game,” Payne said. “I feel like you communicate and give the players the message. If you have them towing on a collective rope, great things can happen. I think that’s where we expect to go as a team.”
“He needs time to implement his philosophy and we need to change things,” said Blues forward David Backes
. “It’s a new coach, but it’s the same guys on the ice. I don’t know how he’s going to motivate or what he’s going to do, but it’s not all him, we need to make changes and stick to game plans.
“We’ve shown with the talent in this room, and the work ethic when it’s there, that we can play with anyone.”
Prior to the coaching change, the Blues were 17-17-6, good for 40 points in 40 games played. That pace simply isn’t good enough to qualify for the postseason in a very competitive Western Conference. Davidson said Payne will remain the club’s coach for the season, and his performance will be evaluated.
“Davis is very excited about this opportunity and he’s going to try and take advantage of the opportunity. We hope Davis is our guy…period. Our goal as of right now is to get back to winning, especially on home ice and to make the playoffs, and to improve as we march along here with all players in our lineup.”
Davidson said Payne is a “fierce competitor” and is a good communicator with his players. He brings an aggressive style of play and has worked well with young players throughout his tenure in the minor leagues. The Blues hope Payne can translate that relationship into the NHL and become a long-term solution behind the bench.
“I held the whistle this morning and I’ll be behind the bench tonight. I’m thrilled with that,” Payne said in his first press conference as the Blues’ head coach. “I’m going to work my tail off to turn that into another day…I’m going to appreciate every moment I’m here, I’m going to enjoy every moment I’m here.
“Like I said, (whether it’s) a day or a decade, I’m thrilled to be here.”