Tight-knit group went a long way in achieving team's success this past season
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- There were smiles and handshakes, pats on the back and so-longs. This was not a day these Blues players looked forward to after a season's worth of fighting, competing and standing together side-by-side.
Make no mistake about it, the 2011-12 St. Louis Blues had a closeness about it that is hard to find among teammates. But from the guys that played in a night in, night out basis going through wars together to the guys that were on the sidelines when the season ended Sunday in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Semifinals, the Blues were a close-knit unit group.
Under Ken Hitchcock, the Blues soared to the Central Division title and a
postseason playoff series victory for the first time in a decade.
It's more than just X's and O's when the team was able to go 49-22-11 and rack up the second-most points in franchise history (109) this past season and win a playoff series for the first time since 2002.
"Every year I've been in St. Louis, we've had a great group of guys," said defenseman Barret Jackman, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. "In the past, we just haven't had maybe the success, but this year, you have the talent and you have the right mix.
"Every one of the guys on the team really played for each other and really cared. You look at the guys and you realize not everyone's going to be back. That's the nature of the game."
It's a part of the game -- and business side -- players have come to understand. That's why Tuesday's locker cleanout at the St. Louis Mills Ice Zone was one this group will remember.
"That's business. ... To say every single guy in this room is going to be back next year is going to be a very far stretch," said winger Chris Stewart, who becomes a restricted free agent. "This time of the year sucks. You come in, you clean out your locker, you're having meetings ... there's a lot of training staff here, too. Who knows what everyone's going to be up to next year?"
Added defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, who also becomes an unrestricted free agent: "It's very tough. Unfortunately every new season brings new change. You see new faces every year and old faces come and go. That's the business of the game. That's the reality that we're faced with.
"This year, I truly mean that this is the best team I've ever played on. We had such a great group of guys. It really made it fun to go to the rink every day. Everybody had their own personality that they brought to the group, their own characteristics that they brought to the group. Some guys may never see each other again or play with each other again. You hope you create those memories that will last forever with a group like this. Unfortunately, we fell short of [the goal]."
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk agreed.
Blues players celebrate their series win over the San Jose Sharks.
"Tough. Unfortunately, that's the nature of this league and of the business," Shattenkirk said. "A lot of great guys here that have had a tremendous time. I've learned a lot from a lot of older guys. I'll always be able to draw on this year, which is nice, and be able to come back and know what it really takes to be a winning team."
The Blues had a winning team. They can only hope to build off of this past season's success. But it's a group that coach Ken Hitchcock, who came on board when the team was 6-7 on Nov. 6, enjoyed coaching.
"It's a really strong core. It's a good core," Hitchcock said. "It's a respectful, young, vibrant, excited core. I'm sure if you talk to the players, they'd like to start training camp in a week. They're excited. It's a great core. It's a great group of young guys to want to get the information. They just don't have the knowledge. They don't have it yet. You can't talk them through that stuff. They've got to go through it. So we've gone through it. Now it's on us to learn the lessons. But it's a great core. It's a hungry, wanna-get-better, really improve ... it's an exciting group to be around.
"I think it's going to be a team that can hardly wait to get to training camp. It's going to be a team that can hardly wait to get to the rink. I think you're going to see a huge difference in some of the younger players to have learned lessons this year about what it takes to win in the National Hockey League. It's a real good group."