Originally written April 11, 2012 on Fox Sports Midwest:
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ST. LOUIS - Four days before his evolution as a leader continues in the playoffs, the captain stands in the St. Louis Blues locker room, strong and stern. After a practice Monday at St. Louis Mills, David Backes looks at the crowd in front of his stall. Sweat drips from his left ear. He places both hands on his dark-blue shorts and fields questions about his team's first postseason berth since 2009. Soon, Backes is asked about his growth as a first-year captain. He begins his answer with a quip "How much tape do you got on that thing?" he says before speaking about how life as the 20th man in franchise history to wear the "C" has been a process. He stares ahead and marks time with his response. "There have definitely been stumbles and trials and tribulations," Backes says. "There have been great successes. There are definitely things that have been noted that I'll do differently next year that we'll clean up, and we'll be even better for going forward." However, a chance to capture St. Louis' first Stanley Cup in franchise history is Backes' focus now. The center became the face of the Blues' best season in recent memory: the 49-22-11 record, the 109 points and the clinching of the Western Conference's No. 2 seed. But there were challenges involved in those accomplishments too. He learned to assert himself in times of struggle and success, despite being known as someone who prefers to lead by his actions rather than his words. In a breakthrough year for his franchise, Backes evolved to become a stable presence. "I think that's probably one of the quietest stories of the year," Blues center Scott Nichol says. "He has led this team right from the time when they announced him captain. He has had some guys to lean on. But do you know what? He hasn't tried to do too much." Teammates unfasten their pads around Backes in the locker room, their work on the ice done for the day. The Blues' postseason run begins Thursday at the Scottrade Center with a best-of-seven quarterfinals series against the San Jose Sharks, a team they beat four times in the regular season. The captain will be trusted to lead once more. "We've got a lot of unfinished business," Backes says, "and there's a lot of learning left to do." Backes' respect for the "C" was evident from the start. With it, he carried knowledge that the Blues' play this season would reflect upon him. On Sept. 9, Backes stood in a small room at St. Louis Mills and honored his predecessors. He mentioned Bernie Federko, a captain from 1988 to 1989. He mentioned Brett Hull, a captain from 1992 to 1995. He mentioned Wayne Gretzky, a captain in 1996. Backes also mentioned a desire to show traits that made those stars succeed. The day marked his progress within the only franchise he has known in the NHL. The man the Blues selected in the second round of the 2003 Entry Draft spoke about earning his team's trust and respect. He spoke about wanting to become someone known for steady leadership as well as physical play. "Hopefully, I'm a lead-by-example type of guy where we're going out there getting the job done," Backes said that day. With time, he adapted to the nuances of St. Louis' season. Davis Payne, the Blues' coach since the 2009-10 season, was fired Nov. 6 and replaced by Ken Hitchcock. St. Louis went on to become one of the NHL's largest surprises and was in position to earn the Presidents' Trophy before losing four of its last five games. "I think right from the beginning of the year he came in with the attitude that he was a leader," Blues winger Jamie Langenbrunner says. "He just has that mentality." Backes' attitude contributed to the Blues' turnaround in many ways. He led the Blues in points (54) and goals (24). He also became known as the franchise's most dedicated talent with his work off the ice, continuing a focus that general manager Doug Armstrong praised when he named Backes captain. But Backes' growth in the role took time. Some around the franchise noticed him become comfortable in January. That month, the Blues established themselves as a Western Conference contender by going 8-3 and winning seven of nine games at home. "He's a vocal guy, but I think he knows how he leads is on the ice," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk says. "I think when we had that stretch through January, when we were really playing well at home, he was driving the bus." Backes might have helped the Blues find an identity as a group that relies on timely scoring to complement the league's best goaltending, but the discovery did not come without self-doubt. He is 27 years old, seasoned enough in his six NHL campaigns to observe his team's approach and say, "I think we've been playing playoff-style hockey for the whole year." However, his age created some discomfort as well. He looks around the Blues locker room at playoff veterans such as Jason Arnott, 37, and Langenbrunner, 36, and sees a need to balance between asserting himself and deferring to players with more postseason scars. The struggle between growing as a leader and respecting those who have been bruised in their chase for a Stanley Cup has been Backes' internal fight all season. The playoffs will present him another test in his development as the face of the Blues' future. "The toughest thing is you've got 37-year-old guys here when they were breaking into the NHL, I was 9 years old," Backes says. "Now I'm supposed to be the guy that's at the forefront leading. Those are the same guys that have won Stanley Cups and have been to the promised land. I'm trying to assert myself and take that leadership role, especially with the older and more accomplished guys." Hitchcock stands in the same small room at St. Louis Mills where Backes was introduced as captain seven months ago. It's Tuesday afternoon, and the coach has seen enough playoff hockey in his previous 14 full seasons behind the bench to know the chemistry necessary to survive this time of year. "David is going to play a significant role," Hitchock says. "But I think the guys you bank on are the older players who have been through it. There's no substitution for the experience of being through playoffs. "Yes, we're going to lean on David for his play. But we don't need his voice right now. We need his play, and we're going to get it. We know that. We need voices from guys who have experienced this before." So Backes' role as captain continues to evolve. He will be asked to lead with the same focus that made him the franchise's choice to build on legacies left by greats such as Federko, Hull and Gretzky. But he must also defer to playoff veterans who were brought to St. Louis to help the Blues in their attempt to win a postseason series for the first time since 2002. Backes' ability to adapt will be critical. Yes, the first-year captain has become a symbol of St. Louis' emergence because of his strong leadership. But in the playoffs, he must learn another skill: He must become an effective follower. "I think the biggest thing he did is not change what he did to be successful before," Federko told FOXSports.com. "He was made captain for what he did. You don't want to change anything. You don't want to do anything differently from what you did." If Backes remains versatile, he will create a legacy worth remembering by future Blues captains. Seven months ago, he embraced the tradition that came with wearing the "C". Seven months ago, he refused to shy from referencing the most decorated players who came before. Now he has a chance to accomplish something no other Blues captain has done: Hoist a Stanley Cup. Yes, Backes' first season as the face of the Blues' future included trial. But in the coming weeks, his evolution as a leader can make a championship dream real.
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