By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Not only will it be a special night for the St. Louis Blues, who will unveil their fourth head coach in the last six years (Ken Hitchcock), but it will also be an emotional night of sorts for those that had connections with Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev.
The Blues will honor former players Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev prior to today's 7 p.m. game against the Chicago Blackhawks (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM).
Demitra and Korolev were among the 45 victims of the tragic plane crash in Russia that was carrying the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv hockey team to their season opening game of the Kontinental Hockey League. The plane crashed upon takeoff. Only one person survived.
Several alumni and former teammates, including Brett Hull, Curtis Joseph, Geoff Courtnall, Keith Tkachuk, Reed Low, Tony Twist, Kelly Chase, Jamie Rivers, Scott Young, Jeff Brown, Jim Campbell, Peter Stastny, current Blue Barret Jackman as well as Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, assistant coach Mike Kitchen, Hawks winger Jamal Mayers and Demitra's best friend and Hawks winger Marian Hossa will be on hand for the pregame ceremony.
"Great guy. I loved Pav. I loved coaching him," said Quenneville, who was Demitra's coach here in St. Louis from 1997-2004. "He was one of those guys that we had a good rapport, a good relationship.
"I knew all the signs of how we communicated without having to say anything. He'd sit on the bench and look back when he wanted to get back out there. Get me out there and I'd put him out there. You know why he wanted to be out, because he wanted to make a difference in the game. I like guys that love to score and was a competitive guy and a great guy."
Mayers was Demitra's teammate from 1997-2004 and remembers a guy that was just as good a person off the ice as he was off. He was a player that was talented and competitive.
"As good of a player as everybody knows he was, what got lost somehow is how competitive he was," Mayers said. "He really wanted to win. He always treated everybody the same and was a great teammate and friend.
"Obviously it's such a tragic loss. They all have families. It's hard to put into words. It's pretty devastating."
Hossa, who hails from Demitra's native Slovakia, was as close to Demitra and his wife Maja and kids as anyone and was deeply hurt of the tragic news when it took place. But he also is appreciative of the Blues for putting together a nice tribute.
"It's definitely nice what they're doing here for two former players and a great friend of mine (Demitra)," said Hossa, who wears Demitra's No. 38 on his skates. "It's great to be a part of something like that and definitely it will bring some memories back. It's going to be an emotional start. Pavol's always going to be with us.
"I know (Demitra's wife Maja). She's my neighbor. We're a close group of guys in my hometown, and we told her we are here for her and her family."
Korolev's family will be on hand for the ceremony, but Demitra's will not be able to attend. The Blues' players will wear a special No. 38 patch on their jerseys tonight and there will be a game-worn jersey auction. Also, a Demitra - Korolev Fund has been established and will offer children a chance to play hockey in both St. Louis and in Europe by paying their registration fees and/or purchasing hockey equipment they wouldn't otherwise have been able to afford.
"It's a sad story," Quenneville said. "Some guys stick out in your mind that you're fortunate to coach. When he came onto the scenes from playing at the minor league level and a short opportunity in Ottawa, he came here and he just flourished. He had a great career. He's a special guy."
The Blues will not only feel the emotions of bringing in a new coach, but the tribute as well.
"It's going to be nice to honor those guys," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "Of course it was a tragedy, but I think the fact that we set something up like this, it just speaks volumes of the impact that they had on this team when they were here.
"I know there's so many guys around here who have been touched by them. I think it's going to be great to give them the right honor that they deserve."
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Ian Cole, recalled from Peoria on Monday, will make his season debut tonight against the Blackhawks.
The Blues, including Kent Huskins (bruised ankle), are carrying nine defensemen on their roster but want to give Cole, a 2007 first-round draft pick (18th overall), a look here again after a good stretch of games with the Rivermen.
"I started in the same pattern as the team, kind of slow," Cole said, referring to the Rivermen. "Everyone just wasn't clicking. After those first couple weekends, everyone started figuring out and playing well. The past couple weeks, I've been playing well."
Cole, who played in 26 games and tallied one goal and three assists last season, will play with Roman Polak tonight. He was among the last cuts to be sent to the minors.
"Of course you're disappointed but at the same time, I didn't see it as something that was debilitating," Cole said.
"There's a real trust within the organization for Ian," Hitchcock said. "They want to see what he can do. He's had a very good AHL campaign so far this year. He's played very well, he's been really solid. He's a left shot, which can really help the group here and I think we're excited to give him a go here and see what it looks like.
"You want to reward him. He's been knocking on the door for a couple years now, and you want to reward a guy when he's been playing well down there. They wanted to give him the extra time, a ton of ice time down there. Now it's time to see if he can play.
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The Blues have had two practices, a full one Monday and Tuesday's morning skate, with Hitchcock and haven't noticed too much of a change ... at the outset.
The 59-year-old Hitchcock, who said Monday he doesn't want to change too much until he gets a better grasp of his players, will do some in-game tweaking if necessary.
"Not so much from a systems standpoint," Shattenkirk said. "He's really kind of hammering in his fundamentals and what he likes to see in his team and the game they play.
"I think he's coaching that within our systems we have now and how we're playing. He's going to make some tweaks, but we're not going to be seeing a completely different team here tonight."
Said Hitchcock, who will go with the same lineup tonight aside from Cole going in for Taylor Chorney on defense, "For me, the game is the easy part. The 24-48 hours for me, it's changed. It's not changed on the ice. That's the simple part for me."
Cole said Hitchcock won't take long to implement his style.
"I feel he's just observing right now, and in the next couple days, he's going to start ramping it up pretty good ... get back to being the man, the myth, the legend that you hear about," Cole said.
One part of the team's game Hitchcock definitely plans on changing is the dump and chase style.
"I don’t like the chip and check game and I think we’re doing that a little too much here," he said.
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One thing Hitchcock has acquired with his days in the NHL is a sense of humor.
When Hitchcock came in for his gathering with the media after Tuesday's pregame skate, he offered up the following:
"I got good advice today in the lobby: Be sure you sign (Albert) Pujols," Hitchcock said, getting a good laugh from the media throng. "That lady informed me of that at 6:05 (this morning). ... I better get it done."
Somehow, Hitchcock said he somehow found himself at the Peabody Opera House next to Scottrade Center, "It's a nice place ... pretty dark though."
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Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp is among those that endorses Hitchcock's move to St. Louis. Sharp, who played for Hitchcock with the Philadelphia Flyers, said the Blues are getting a good man, someone who helped elevate his game.
"He transformed my game a little bit. I think him along with John Stevens, the coach in the minors at the time, really taught me to play the right way," Sharp said. "He's probably mentioned that over there ... playing the right way. I learned that from him and I was thankful I got to play under him for two years.
"He'll have St. Louis playing great. I know that. It's not a good thing he's coaching in out division, but we need to play better and beat these guys. ... He has a proven record of building teams and building winners. ... They're going to get used to having team meetings and they're going to get used to the details and the finer points of the game. Those are all things Hitch is the best at."
Hitchcock said Sharp was one of those players that adjusted to his style.
"Patrick and I, we're pretty close," Hitchcock said. "I think the tight ship is skill level is not relevant. Everybody has to be a worker. That's kind of what I'm very determined at. I don't do a lot of yelling and screaming and embarrassing people. I'm relentless in that. To me, like any good coach in any sport is to have everyone play on the same page when the other team has the puck."
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Hitchcock paid the ultimate compliment to Hawks star Patrick Kane, who has been playing center for Chicago after playing extensively on the wing.
"That's the worst nightmare for all of us," Hitchcock said, referring to coaches around the league. "That's not good because a player that's that strong and that competitive and that patient with the puck, we've all kind of dreaded that day when he was going to move into the middle of the ice. It's not fun. When you come with a 1-2 punch like that, it's not a lot of fun."
When hearing those comments, Kane responded, "It's fun to hear that, especially from a coach like that who's so well-respected like that and who has so many wins under his belt.
"I feel like I can a little more consistent. I can probably do some better things all around, but I guess it comes with the territory of learning the position. So far, I think it's been a pretty good thing for the team. It gives us an option, if now, maybe down the road a little bit."
Hitchcock said Kane's transformation will be fine and the rest of the league will just have to deal with it.
"We were hoping it didn't come. It's there," Hitchcock joked. "You've got to deal with it, but there were a lot of 'Oh, no's,' because the game isn't played in the middle of the ice much anymore, but he's got enough trust and confidence in his own ability. He knows how to play in there. It's a nervous defending time when you have a player with that type of skill level and patience with the puck that can make plays with people. It's a little bit scary.
"Joel could have made it a lot easier if he would have put Kane and Toews together. That kind of screws up our plan. We'll have to adjust."
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The Blues' lineup against the Hawks tonight:
Vladimir Sobotka-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Matt D'Agostini-Patrik Berglund-Chris Stewart
Alex Steen-Jason Arnott-Jamie Langenbrunner
Evgeny Grachev-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Ian Cole-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak will make his second straight start, with Brian Elliott as the backup.
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Chicago, coming off a 6-2 loss at home against Vancouver Sunday, have tweaked their lineup and know the Blues will come hard playing their first game with a new coach.
"When you look at a team and they make a coaching change, you want to make sure you are ready against that team because they're going to show they want to play for the new coach," Hossa said. "They want to bring out all the emotions, all the energy. They'll be ready. We're going to have to play smart against this team. It's never easy to play in this building.
Said Quenneville, "We expect them to be excited. On our side of it, we want a response to our game from Sunday night. There's a lot of motivation on both sides. We expect both sides to be hungry and ready to play. It should make for a good game."
The Hawks' lineup against the Blues, which includes the return of defenseman Duncan Keith, who missed the last four games with a hand injury:
Michael Frolik-Jonathan Toews-Patrick Sharp
Daniel Carcillo-Patrick Kane-Marian Hossa
Andrew Brunette-Dave Bolland-Rostislav Olesz
Viktor Stalberg-Marcus Kruger-Jamal Mayers
Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook
Niklas Hjalmarsson-Nick Leddy
Steve Montador-John Scott
Corey Crawford gets the start; Ray Emery is the backup.