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Brewer learned how to be a captain from the best

by Larry Wigge
Eric Brewer says he's always been sort of a history buff. So it wasn't unusual to see him studying the names of St. Louis captains that are engraved on a plaque in the entry way from the Blues dressing room to the Scottrade Center ice.

Al Arbour, Red Berenson, Barclay Plager, Brian Sutter, Bernie Federko, Brett Hull, Wayne Gretzky, Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis and Dallas Drake were just a few who preceded the Vernon, British Columbia, native, who became the 19th player to wear the "C" for the Blues in a team vote last February.

"Arbour, the Plagers, Brian Sutter, Gretzky," Brewer said out loud. "There's plenty of history here."

While captains are the object of attention in this piece, Brewer, who was picked fifth in the 1997 Entry Draft by the New York Islanders, admits his history studies started long ago.

"When I was a kid growing up in Western Canada, I read everything I could find on the Edmonton Oilers," the 29-year-old defenseman explained. "I knew all about the players, the team, the traditions."

Eric was just 4 when Arbour coached the New York Islanders to their fourth straight Stanley Cup title in 1983 ... and couldn't be held to a test on that playoff year that just happened to be Edmonton's first trip to the Final. Or could he? You might be surprised at all of the little details are wrapped in the brain of this brawny 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman.

"When I was 9, I knew all about the Oilers, their wins, their losses," he continued. "I was devastated like all Oilers fans to hear that Gretzky had been traded. Edmonton had just won four Cups in five years. By the time I was 11 they won it all again. Five championships in seven years."

It's quite the coincidence that Brewer got to see the tradition of the Islanders and then the Oilers first-hand in his first three years in the NHL.

But the stories of Arbour, Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Billy Smith, along with Gretzky, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson were not just ghosts to the well-read blueliner.

"Four Stanley Cups in New York and five in Edmonton ... and all the stories and tradition," Brewer remembered. "You couldn't ask to be brought in to two more storied franchises."

I wondered if Eric had used any of those great leaders as a role model for himself when he became captain of the St. Louis Blues a year ago.

"I know all the great captains I've played under — Trevor Linden, Jason Smith, Doug Weight, Dallas Drake. They were all hugely respected guys on their own teams and throughout the League," Brewer explained. "The way they presented themselves and how professional they were each day I think was a true reflection of their team."

But Brewer cautioned, "You've got to be yourself. Though, I will admit, starting with those teams helped me find my identity as a player -- and that's a big part of gaining the confidence to be a leader.

"A lot of standing up for your teammates is all about common sense."

Especially in pressurized situations -- like the one he faced when he received a late-night phone call to his summer home in Vancouver in early August 2005. Brewer and his wife Rebecca were interrupted while watching Adam Sandler's movie, "Spanglish." In a matter of moments, that theme of being himself and not someone else became more and more difficult to do, because Oilers General Manager Kevin Lowe told Eric right off he'd been traded to St. Louis for former NHL MVP and Norris Trophy winner Chris Pronger.

The movie was forgotten. Real life took over. A call to Eric's folks was next, then a few calls to some of Eric's former Edmonton teammates. Two hours had passed, and the couple couldn’t fall to sleep, so they rewound the movie -- although Eric said it was a futile move with so much going on in their lives.

Anyone who could stand up to the typical Pronger comparisons had to be strong-minded, even if Brewer never looked at it that way.

"I think at first I felt flattered," Brewer said. "Chris is a world-class player and has been a world-class player for a long time -- and to think that St. Louis wanted me to help them replace him made things a little more palatable."

But the questions and comparisons to Pronger have continued, no matter how unfair they might be -- especially now that Pronger went to the Stanley Cup Final with Edmonton the year after the trade and then moved on to Anaheim for the 2006-07 season and won the Cup there.

"It's inevitable that some people are going to compare what I do -- or don’t do -- to Chris Pronger," Brewer said. "I was going to be playing some of the minutes he played here. I can’t help that.

"Bottom line: I've never looked at being traded for Chris Pronger as a burden. I looked at it as a challenge. And I like challenges."

"I know all the great captains I've played under — Trevor Linden, Jason Smith, Doug Weight, Dallas Drake. They were all hugely respected guys on their own teams and throughout the League."
-- Eric Brewer

Being named captain of the Blues was all part of a rather busy week early last February for Brewer. More responsibility fell on Eric's shoulders a couple of days later when Rebecca delivered the couple's first child, a daughter named Reese. But Eric never let his teammates down, flying out by himself after the birth to catch the team for a game in Dallas.

"He's a matter-of-fact kind of guy for the most part," Blues leading goal scorer Brad Boyes said. "He's not loud. Not a broken record. He picks his spots."

"'Brew' communicates well. If there's a point to be made, he makes it very clearly so that no one misunderstands," said Blues goaltender Chris Mason. "Nothing has changed with Brew's temperament since we played together many years ago at Prince George. When you hear him say something, your head kind of snaps to attention."

"Brew's got the ability to keep everyone on the same page," veteran Blues winger Keith Tkachuk said. "He's not a rah-rah guy, but he knows when to step up and say just the right thing."

Coach Andy Murray talks about the team-leading minutes Brewer plays and the high grades he always gets when the coaches review the games. But there's more.

"He's been an integral part of two world championships and one Olympic gold medal team," Murray added. "What has been the most captainly thing he's done? To me, it's lots of little things ... on and off the ice. I remember earlier this season we were talking about the job of a captain and I told him, 'I don't care if you don't have anything to say as long as you go out there and play your best and lead by example.'

"When he's playing well, he's usually the team's best player."

Eric isn’t wild and crazy. He likes country music and says hip-hop is OK, too. He's obviously well-read. And he's especially good at the power of observation.

Even though he had already played two seasons with the Islanders and two more with the Oilers, Brewer remembered a learning experience that he'll never forget as a young defenseman for Team Canada at the 2002 Olympics at Salt Lake City. That, he said, helped him find his identity and a big, strong, all-round defenseman.

"What I think is important is playing a lot," he said, without hesitation. "Maybe you don't shoot the lights out offensively, but you're always out there for the last faceoff of a game. I'd rather be known as a guy who can do lots of things.

"At the Olympics, I sat beside Rob Blake and Adam Foote, Al MacInnis and Ed Jovanovski. I watched their every move. How they prepared for a game. I studied everything they did -- and it did a lot for a young kid’s confidence."

And that two-week crash course in leadership and professionalism resonated one of Eric Brewer's more salient points from earlier in this story: You've got to be yourself.

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