Peers, alumni say 31-year-old has earned every step climbed in NHL ladder
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- When Barret Jackman first slipped on a Blues uniform as a young 20-year-old, most would be in awe to be interacting and competing for the first time with the likes of MacInnis, Demitra, Tkachuk, Weight and Pronger.
But that wasn't the immediate focus on Jackman's mind heading into that NHL debut in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena on April 14, 2001.
Something to do with selecting a number for him had Jackman feeling peculiar.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Blues defenseman Barret Jackman is all alone in franchise history for
games played by defenseman after lacing up the skates in Game No.
616 Saturday night against Columbus.
"Coming in right away, (it was) more of a 'Why am I wearing No. 5. Why would they want me ... everybody else has (No.) 47, 75, 98,'" Jackman recalled. "Right away I got the story, I got the background from a couple different people. (Former Blue enforcer and current radio color analyst) Kelly Chase was really big at teaching me the history of the St. Louis Blues. I got to sit down and talk to him about Bobby Plager and getting to know Bobby, it was a huge honor, even at 18.
"I realized the significance. You put that jersey on, not only the Bluenote, but to have Bobby Plager on your back is something that's unexplainable when you don't know Bobby."
Jackman, the 17th overall pick of the 1999 NHL Draft, would don the No. 5 jersey, which belonged to Bobby Plager, who was the lone owner of No. 5 from 1967-78. Others have followed (most notably Rob Ramage) but how ironic was it when Jackman, now 31, became the franchise leader among defensemen in games played when he suited up for Game No. 616 Saturday night and when he became No. 5 on the all-time list wearing No. 5 and passing up ... of course ... Bobby Plager's 615 career games?
"I was telling JD (former Blues president John Davidson) we thought he was a good hockey player, we figured he'd be a good hockey player, but passing me in all those records he's getting now, I didn't realize he was that great a hockey player," Plager joked. "... Over the years, Barret is not just a great hockey player with what he does on the ice, you couldn't ask for a better person off the ice in what he does and the charities he's involved in. He's just a player anybody would love to have, not just on the ice as a player but off the ice."
Plager took the words to heart from former Blues scout Patty Ginnell, who convinced the Blues Jackman is the guy to pick in the draft, and it was easy for Plager to be at peace with No. 5 going to a rookie, since it was worn proudly by Ramage.
"Nobody was going to wear it for a while. It was put away ... and he's done good," Plager said of Jackman. "I'm proud. I look out there every night and I'll tell you, there's people in here that get on Barret Jackman, but Barret Jackman is a team player. He's done everything for this city.
"You do watch. When you had a number, you're always interested who gets your number. I was very fortunate here that Rob Ramage came in here, and nobody wore the No. 5 sweater better than Rob Ramage."
It's the only number Jackman has ever known, and one he still wears proudly to this day.
"It's a huge honor," Jackman said. "I worked really hard just to get to the NHL and even harder to stay. There's been injuries that I've had to play through, and the business side of it with a couple lockouts, but to be up there with Barclay Plager, Bobby Plager, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger and what they mean to the franchise is pretty cool. For me to do it with the No. 5 on my back and the Bluenote on my chest ... the way Bobby Plager did it is even that (much) more special.
"Getting to know Bobby, there's no awkwardness whatsoever. Just his personality, he makes everybody feel at ease. I love being around him, I love hearing his stories, his non-jokes but true stories that he always tells. He's a guy that I idolize and I’d like to be just like. He never misses a charity event, he never misses any kind of hospital visit. He’s alway's around, he’s always there to promote and to be an ambassador of the Bluenote. That's something I try to do as well."
And to add pressure on Jackman coming in as a rookie, his defensive partner would be ... of course, MacInnis, who played in 613 games with the Blues.
"I remember him as a rookie coming in, even from Day One he showed poise, he showed confidence, showed in a confident but not cocky way that he belonged," said MacInnis, the Blues' senior advisor to the general manager. "And he's had a very good, consistent career to this point. That's not surprising really, just the way he approached the game, so I’m not surprised that he’s played 616 (games), and he’s got a number more ahead of him.
"Hats off to Jacks. I mean, really to be able to do a good job adjusting his game, especially the way the game was played when he first started to now, it’s a huge, huge change. You've got to break a lot of old habits and he's been able to hang on and have a pretty consistent career. ... Jacks is a pro. Comes to play hard every night, he's hard to play against. He comes ready to play at the start of the season. He understands the conditioning part. He’s just an old-time pro and that’s what you get out of him every night. I’m not surprised he’s having a great career and obviously he has years ahead of him as well. It’s nice to see."
Jackman, who has 22 goals, 143 points and 858 penalty minutes during his career, went on to win the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) in 2003, beating out Henrik Zetterberg and Rick Nash for the honor and was part of some terrific Blues teams early in his career.
But then came the lean years following the 2004-05 lockout, a year in which Jackman, a Trail, British Columbia native, chose to remain in St. Louis and play for the now-defunct Missouri River Otters in St. Charles.
Jackman went through the 2005-06 season, which saw the Blues plummet to 30th in the league, change ownership from Bill Laurie to Dave Checketts and begin the process of rebuilding, something he chose to tackle instead of bolting for bigger and better opportunities.
"The records haven’t been there. The first couple of years we were awesome, and then the records weren't there, but the pride in the Bluenote and the guys in the dressing room really made it still something that was a learning experience but it was fun to go through with the group of guys," Jackman said. "Everybody cared so much. Some really good friends have come out of those years -- Jay McClement, Ryan Johnson, Matt Walker, Eric Brewer ... all guys I talk to regularly. Some of my best friends have come out of some of those down years. Sometimes you need struggles to find true character. We’ve always had that in this room.
"Even when we were bad, we were losing games by one goal. You work so hard and everybody around the league said they might not be the most skilled but they’re the hardest working team around. That’s something that we've struggled with. You take a lot of pride in wearing that Bluenote, and we definitely did in those down years."
It's a lasting memory Davidson, who was brought in by Checketts to clean up the mess left behind by Laurie, will remember most about Jackman.
"A lot of people went through (the bad times), but even when contracts were up, he wanted to stay," Davidson, now president of hockey operations for the Columbus Blue Jackets, said. "He knows the situation, he understands that he's a Blue. For young people getting into an organization, you want the Barret Jackmans around because it expedites the whole process for them becoming better pros. It's not only on the ice, it's off the ice. He's a gentleman, he's a pro and as far as athletes go, he's one a lot of young ones should look up to."
And through change, Jackman continues to embrace his role as a shutdown defenseman playing the tough minutes shutting down talented opposing foes.
"To have longevity, you have to be healthy," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I think it's more significant to role players. We take skill players who play a long time for granted, but role players who do all the tough stuff ... Jackman winds up playing heavy minutes every night. He plays 20 minutes a night, they're all heavy, all of it is on PK or against top opponents. That's a hard way to make a living. I think that stuff is what you really admire. When a guy is able to stay healthy, still provide a certain level of high-quality play and then play against the other team's best players and be able to block shots, playing at the end of games, I think you really learn to admire that stuff."
And that's the sort of game and personality both on and off the ice Jackman is sharing with today's younger Blues players. And in the meantime, they have found their way back to being among the top competitive teams once again.
"You can't say enough about what Jacks has done for the organization," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "He stuck through some tough times here. Now, his character shows and he's still here. It's kind of a reward for everything. There were some tough seasons. Now he's on an awfully good team. You wouldn't ask for more success from a better guy. Every day, he brings the same attitude to the rink. He and his family have been great for me, great for every young guy. To see a guy like that have success, it's fun.
"It's not the hockey stuff, it's the things that you go through in life, especially as a young guy, there are things that you need to learn. Jacks has always been there for me, even if it's a silly question, he's going to give you his honest answer and how he feels. That's what makes him a special player and special guy. He's there for anybody and it shows on the ice."
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Barret Jackman is 46 games away from tying Garry Unger for
fourth place on the all-time games played list in Blues
Jackman added: "I try to. You encourage guys to do everything they can off the ice. To use any kind of celebrity for the greater good, never turn down an opportunity to sign an autograph for a kid, visit a hospital or talk to people that are maybe down on their luck. That’s something Chaser has been a huge part of over the years. Bobby, Al’s done a lot, so it’s something that I try to get the guys involved in, too."
Even though he's been through a pair of lockouts, an injury-riddled 2003-04 that caused him to miss all but 15 games (shoulder) and various other injuries, Jackman feels like he can still chase down Garry Unger (662), Brett Hull (744), Brian Sutter (779) and Bernie Federko (927), but he understands it will take some good luck and prolonged health. And of course, the Blues will have to want to keep him around. he's signed through the 2014-15 season.
"Yeah, physically I feel the best I have in many years," Jackman said. "Obviously things change year to year, but right now I feel great. I've been a part of some down years but now that this team is on the upswing, I hope to be a part of it for a long time."
One never truly understands where a career will take him, but Jackman got some pretty good advice early on in his career. It's been something that's stuck all these years from a familiar franchise face.
"I think it was after my second game in the league. It was a playoff game against Detroit, we ended up losing but going down the lineup and shaking hands with guys like Chelios, Yzerman and Brett Hull, he (Hull) stopped me and said, 'Hey kid you’re going to be a helluva player,'" Jackman said. "That was pretty special for me, and then my entire first year playing with Al and all the friendships that I gained and a lot of the things I tried to earn during that first year was big for me."