BARRET JACKMAN had put on his trademark steely-eyed stare, but Al Maclnnis was determined to make his defenesive partner crack. One recent morning before practice, the two St. Louis Blues backliners were posing for a photograph when Jackman, standing right behind Maclnnis, flashed a mean mug for the camera, prompting Maclnnis to do some stand-up. ¶ "Garlic last night, eh, Jacks?" said Maclnnis. "I took a picture with a horse in Calgary once. Horse had better breath." ¶ Jackman tried to maintain his scowl but couldn't suppress a giggle.
Maclnnis, who usually leaves opponents speechless with his stickwork, was getting laughter with his shtickwork instead.
Consider it another rookie moment in a season's worth of them for the 21-year-old Jackman, who plays alongside the 39-year-old Maclnnis in the Blues' top defense pairing. Their styles are complementary—the 6'l", 200-pound Jackman is a stay-at-home bruiser; the 6'2", 208-pound Maclnnis is the game's most dangerous offensive blue-liner, a lethal shooter who through Sunday ranked second among NHL defensemen with 42 points—and they go together with a distinctly St. Louis flavor, like Budweiser and toasted ravioli.
They have anchored a Blues defense that was expected to struggle because captain Chris Pronger, who won the Norris and Hart trophies in 1999-2000, has been sidelined this season with knee and wrist injuries. In Pronger's absence the Blues (26-15-6-4) had vaulted to fourth in the powerful Western Conference."That was our biggest concern entering the season, how we'd hold up without Pronger, knowing there would be a big void," says coach Joel Quenneville. "But Jacks has been rock solid from the outset, and Al's experience with Jacks's freshness is a nice mix. They enjoy playing together."
Maclnnis and Jackman first crossed paths at the Blues' training camp in September 1999. Maclnnis, then entering his 19th season, was the reigning Norris winner, coming off his finest season; Jackman was a bonus baby, St. Louis's first-round pick in that summer's draft. They exchanged small talk, and Maclnnis was impressed by Jackman's maturity and respectfulness, his deference to the veterans around him. Both had been standout juniors, both were from working-class families in tiny towns, albeit at opposite ends of Canada. (Jackman grew up in Fruitvale, B.C., pop. 2,025; Maclnnis in Port Hood, Nova Scotia, pop. 1,000.) Jackman was in awe of the defenseman whose paint-peeling slap shot was considered the hardest in hockey. "Just being in the dressing room with him, I always had an eye on him," Jackman says. "I watched what he did, the way he tied his skates, everything."
Both knew Jackman was in camp only for a taste of pro life and that he would be sent back to his junior team in Regina, Saskatchewan, before the NHL season began. Over the next couple of years they kept in touch and were aware of how the other was doing, but they did not speak at length until two seasons ago. Maclnnis had watched Jackman win a bronze medal with Team Canada at the world junior championships in Moscow in January 2001 and had heard television commentators gush about the blueliner who was playing despite having a separated right shoulder. Impressed with Jackman's courage and potential, Maclnnis called him and suggested he join the handful of Blues who were working with Charles Poliquin, the Phoenix-based fitness consultant whose high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet and specifically tailored conditioning routines have attracted many NHL disciples. Maclnnis doesn't make a habit of offering such advice to prospects—he had recommended Poliquin only once before, to a then 21-year-old Pronger—but he felt Jackman would take full advantage. "I don't know if it was because he was a defenseman, or came across as a guy everybody liked, I just felt he had such a big upside, such a chance to become a great pro, that I wanted to help him," Maclnnis says. "He was a big part of the franchise's future."
Within a week, Jackman had consulted with Poliquin—"When someone like Al Maclnnis tells you to do something, you do it," Jackman says—and was on the program, scrapping pasta, bread and beer for fish, chicken and green vegetables. He stopped training like a bodybuilder, instead switching to squats and sprints. In two months his body-fat percentage dropped from 18 to 8.5. Meanwhile, Jackman and Maclnnis kept in touch through Poliquin, checking on each other's progress and leaving messages for each other. After Pronger tore his right ACL in a collision with Detroit Red Wings center Steve Yzerman in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals last May, Jackmari was activated and played in the Blues' season finale (a 4-0 defeat) as Maclnnis's partner, giving a performance that floored his club. "He played outstanding," says general manager Larry Pleau, "but that was one game. Everybody said, 'If he plays like that every game, boy, what a season he's going to have.' But you couldn't expect that. It just doesn't happen."
When this season began, Quenneville made Maclnnis and Jackman his top defensive pair, matching them against the opposition's best line at even strength and keeping them on the ice for half of each penalty kill. From the outset Jackman was implausibly good. At week's end he had 11 points, was +12 and had averaged 18:56 of ice time, third-most among rookies. "Coverage, tying up guys, clearing guys, body position, controlling plays around the corner, strength on the puck—those skills aren't acquired right away," Quenneville says. "Those are areas in which young guys get exploited. But Jacks is so effective in those areas, it's like he's been around for years."
Jackman will also fight anybody, a habit he picked up in juniors. "He was like the new dog on the playground," says Regina general manager Brent Parker. "He went out and pissed on every tree he could." Last month Jackman threw three right hands that cracked an orbital bone below Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre's right eye. But on Jan. 9 at San Jose, Jackman absorbed three punches—one from wing Scott Thornton, two from wing Owen Nolan—without retaliating, and on the ensuing five-on-three power play, St. Louis scored the game-winning goal.
Jackman's discipline and dependability have given Maclnnis the freedom to improvise offensively in a way he hasn't been able to since winning that Norris Trophy. "If I'm playing with a guy who I'm not sure about, then I have to be safe and stay back," Maclnnis says. "But knowing that Jacks is capable of handling the puck or breaking up the two-on-one, as soon as I get a step on a guy I go."