CHARLESTON, S.C. • In the last decade, the Blues have held several team-bonding activities. In Calgary a few years back, coaches canceled practice and told the players to go see a movie together.
Some players yawned during the film but were sighing more because the theater was not their choice of places to hang out.
Beginning last season, the Blues began taking a new approach to building off-ice relationships. Last March, the club took advantage of a game in Vancouver to work in a trip to a ski resort. This season, with a week off following Friday’s game in Winnipeg, the team flew to Charleston, S.C., for a few days of R & R.
But what’s even more appealing for the Blues than the destinations is the fact that general manager Doug Armstrong and head coach Ken Hitchcock are allowing the players to arrange their own agenda.
Yes, the Blues will be on the ice Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before returning to St. Louis, but outside of the couple of hours at the rink, the free time is exactly that — free time. Some golfed on Saturday and others have plans to go out on a fishing boat.
“It comes from a place of authenticity when it’s derived from our own desires to hang out with the group,” Blues captain David Backes said. “When it’s forced, when you’ve got to do something, yeah you’re spending time together and you might get something out of it. But not as much as when you really want to do things as a group … and really make that bond special off the ice.”
The brainstorming for this year’s trip began several months ago. The Blues were looking for a warm-weather climate, where players could participate in outdoor activities. The team chose Charleston, an historic city with a population of approximately 125,000.
The Blues flew 3½ hours from Winnipeg to get here, landing around 5 a.m. Eastern time Saturday. They awoke to 80 degrees and hundreds of sightseers and shoppers in the quaint community. Not far from the team hotel, the Farmers Market featured southern BBQ, ice-cold lemonade and soothing music.
“It’s nice to get away and keeping the guys together for four or five days is important for us at this time of the year,” Armstrong said. “We talked to the leadership group about setting the schedule. We obviously have to get some work done, but we want them to enjoy themselves. They’ll have a lot of free time to do things that will hopefully bring them together.
“You have to realize why you’re doing it. You want them to get to know each other and the way you get to know somebody is to spend time with them away from the work environment and become friends. I think a lot of guys have been on this team for a while, but it’s important to get the new guys acclimated as soon as possible. I think this will do that for us.”
Backes said that he is looking forward to fishing and taking a few of his teammates out on the water. The team’s second-leading scorer with six goals said there will probably be a biggest bass competition.
“There will be a few of us out on the boats, some guys that haven’t fished ever and some guys that know what they’re doing,” Backes said. “There will be plenty of (competition) going on. We’ll give you a report when it’s all said and done.”
First-year Blue Magnus Paajarvi, who was acquired in a trade with Edmonton last offseason, said that you won’t find him reeling in any keepers.
“I don’t like to have the fish in my hands,” Paajarvi said with a squeamish look. “No, that’s not my thing.”
But either way, Paajarvi said the Blues’ retreat is a great idea.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Rather than going back to St. Louis and being in an apartment, you get the chance to hang out with players you probably wouldn’t back home. It’s a good thing for the guys that have been here, too, because they get to know us a bit. It’s very mutual, so it’s really great and I’m looking forward to it very much.”
The players won’t be the only ones enjoying themselves.
Hitchcock, a Civil War buff, has plans to visit Fort Sumter, where the shots that started the war were fired on April 12, 1861.
“I’ve never seen Sumter, so I’m really looking forward to that,” Hitchcock said. “That was really the start of the Civil War, and having a chance to have an experienced fellow take you on a tour is going to be really good.”
But Hitchcock realizes that the purpose of the trip is to build the camaraderie among his players.
“The goal for me would be to continue to build the bond without interference from us,” he said. “I think my experience in the last couple of years with this generation is they just want to be able to do it on their own, so we’re going to leave them on their own.” “We’ll obviously be there for practice, but we don’t want to supply the structure for them to have to get together.
“We want them to do it because it’s really important for them. I think knowing the way the leaders are, they’ll really take ownership of that and have some good functions and do the group things that need to get done.”