By Larry Wigge
First impressions are key.
For Barret Jackman that would start on Draft Day 1999 in Vancouver, when he was the St. Louis Blues first selection, 17th overall. Wonderful day for Jacks, but even more meaningful for Edmonton Oilers executive Kevin Lowe.
Just one look. That's all it took for defenseman Kevin Lowe, the sixth-time Stanley Cup champion with Edmonton and New York Rangers, who watched as the Blues selected Jackman from the Regina Pats and made his way onto the draft floor. Seeing that glare on his face for Lowe, currently an executive for the Oilers, was a mirror image of Mark Messier's stare.
"You could see the fire in his eyes right there on the draft floor," Lowe explained, wondering why his scouts were all over a player like Jackman. "You knew the Blues had just drafted themselves a player who would soon become a presence on their defense."
The next step was getting the youngster in shape and in camp. The Fruitvale, British Columbia, native, was just 6-feet tall and weighed in at 205. At the Blues camp in 1999, struck up a friendship that Hall of Famer Al MacInnis.
In the summer of 2000, it was MacInnis continued his friendship with the youngster, calling Jackman to suggest a workout routine that would make him better.
Or what it MacInnis -- or a friend playing a practical joke?
"The voice on the phone said he was Al. I thought it was a good friend of mine, messing around," a young Jackson said sheepishly. "But few seconds into the call I recognized Al voice. My ears kind of perked up.
"He told me about a physical trainer in Phoenix, Charles Poliaquin. Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Dallas Drake had gone to him. So, instead of working out on my own, I called him."
The invitation made Jackman feel a part of the Blues -- even though he wouldn't make his debut there until the last game of the 2001-02 season.
MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Weight, Pavol Demitra, Scott Young and Scott Mellanby some pretty fierce competitors -- all teammates came to mind when Jackman recalled his career with the Blues. All but Pronger is retired.
"It's been a quick 10 years," Jackman said. "You look back and I was the youngest guy on the team by four or five years. You kind of laugh. I just turned 31 ... and you remember being 22 of 23 and sitting in here with Al and Prongs and Dougie and Pav and Younger and Mel, it definitely feels like a long time, yeah. Great guys. Great in the community. And great chemistry within the locker room."
Poise. Confidence. Tough to play against. That Make-My-Day-Dirty-Harry-stare that Jackman has made famous.
"I've always kept it simple. I'm not a flashy guy. I'm not somebody who's going to be on the scoresheet every night," Jackman added. "Block shots and make simple plays and make the opposition by shutting down the opponent's top players."
Jackman is closing in on 600 NHL games. Like he said, you won't find his name on the scoresheet -- in 69 games this season, he has only one goal -- ending a 150-game scoreless streak -- 11 assists. But he been an amazing plus-22.
Mr. Fix-it, if you will on defense, with young guys such as Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk becoming stars for the Blues. You can see the handiwork of Jackman in their games.
You cannot tell a story about Jackman without going back the roots -- asphalt surfaces of Fruitvale, a tiny town of about 4,000 people not far from Vancouver. Mary Jane, his Mom, raised Barret and his two sisters, Danielle and Michelle.
"My parents split up when I was 12 and it wasn't easy for my Mom to take care of my two sisters and my hockey aspirations. But she was my hero. She always made time for me," Jackman told me. "She was a practical nurse and it was not unusual for her to work back-to-back 12-hour shifts, come home, grab a cup of coffee and go right back out the door and take me to a practice, game or tournament."
In other words, Jackman HAD TO grow up in a hurry and become the man of the household -- which he obviously did. But don't underestimate the kind of resolve and maturity Barret showed under such conditions.
Still ... he was a kid.
"I drove my Mom nuts the year she bought me my first pair of blades, flying around the house dreaming I'd someday make be skating in the NHL," Jackman remembered. "I was out playing street hockey. I can't lie, I'd be thing, 'It's Al MacInnis taking a slap shot from the point!' "
He is most proud of buying his Mary Jane an SUV and helping his sisters -- Danielle through veterinary college and Michelle with the trip to Australia.
The trip to Australia came as part of Jackman Rookie of the Year bonus.
Jackman remember often-times taking a seven-hour trip from Fruitvale and Calgary to watch his favorite player, MacInnis. Being drafted by the Blues brought his up-close-and-personal with MacInnis.
"I was a little in awe coming into my first camp," Jackman admitted. "I remember him shaken my hand and saying, 'I'm Al MacInnis.' I said, "Yeah, I know who you are. You don't have to introduce yourself.'
"Playing with a Hall of Famer your first year and getting quality minutes. Wow! He'd was always discussing play a play -- rather than telling me what to do."
Tough to play against. Those are not the usual adjectives that come up when you are talking about a rookie, particularly a defenseman -- a position that everyone agrees takes years to master.
"I played alongside Scott Stevens when the two of us were playing junior hockey at Kitchener," MacInnis recalled. "I had to do a doubletake the first time I played alongside Barret in training camp after his draft year. He was just like Scott, tough to play against and with a motor that runs about 200 mph.
"He might have been able to play in the NHL back in 1999, but the Blues brought him along slowly. He's very strong and mentally he's very tough. What I really like about him is he doesn't let little things bother him or worry him. He’s a quiet kid who listens and learns -- every day."
Continued MacInnis, "Barret is a throwback in a lot of ways. He respects the game, respects the older players. He's tough, rugged, good with the puck. The only difference at this stage of his career, he's a lot more composed than maybe a young Scott Stevens. It's hard to get under Barret's skin.''
In his rookie season, Jackman found himself head-up against the Vancouver Canuck and Todd Bertuzzi in the playoffs.
"How do I want people to think of me?" he said to a question after Game 1 when the in-fighting began with Bertuzzi. "Like I'm a jerk to play against."
A perfect opponent, huh! A perfect teammate.
"It's funny when we (Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart) came here, certain guys have that kind of control over the locker room," Shattenkirk said. "When Jacks stands up to talk to the guys and wants to convey his message to the team, everyone stops what they're doing and listens. Not too many guys have that. I think that kind of shows what a true leader is. Most importantly, it comes down to everyone respects him. On and off the ice, he's a great teammate. He does a ton for the community and for someone like me, that's someone who I aspire to be.
"He's a breeze to play with. It's pretty easy to go out there, especially playing with him knowing that you have such a reliable guy back there. He's hard on the puck. As far as 1-on-1 battles go, his tenacity is tremendous. He's fearless. He blocks shots and makes great plays out there that many people might look past."
In 2005-06, the NHL put in some new rules prohibiting hooking and holding. It was a zero tolerance. Many defenseman had to change their game. Barret Jackman was one of them.
"You beat yourself up over the way you play, when things don't go your way," Jackman said. "You let the little things get you down. You don't play with the same confidence that got you here -- and, for me, that's being a physical, in-your-face type of player, one that is hard to play against.
"The frustrating part of this season is that a lot of defenseman who like to play on the edge and be physical have been whistled for countless penalties. And it seems to be a different set of rules sometimes from game to game that don't allow us to do a lot of things defensively that we were taught to do and that got us to the NHL. Things that are just instinctual to all defensemen. The referees, for the most part, have been good in explaining what they are calling and why. I can't complain about that. But I guess what I'm saying is that the uncertainty has caused a hesitancy in the way I’ve played. And that's got to stop."
If we've learned one thing about Jackman in his career, it's that he's a make-my-day, do-unto-others impact player. A leader. Not a sit-back-and-wait-type of individual. That's why his Blues' teammates voted him an ‘A’ at just 24. He knows that defense partner Al MacInnis is no longer there as a safety net. But MacInnis is still there as a valuable friend and future Hall of Fame defenseman for advice ... or a little kick in the butt.
"Al and I sat down a short time ago and he told me to quit worrying. He said, 'Go out there and play my game. Don't worry about the officials,' " Jackman said.
Short by today's standards for a high draft choice on defense at 6 foot, Barret Jackman makes up for it with the heavyweight intangibles like heart and soul and a determination and passion to be one of the hardest players in the NHL to play against.
"I think if you ask players I've played against, they would say I hit like I’m about 6-4, 230," Jackman remembers telling me on draft day. "I like to make an impact in a game -- and whether I'm 5-5 or 6-5, I'm going to do it."
Still the same today ... Barret Jackman.