NHL team enjoying trip to Lowcountry

The Junior Stingrays, a local youth travel ice hockey team, got a chance to skate the with National Hockey League's St. Louis Blues over the weekend. (photo by Vin Duffy, South Carolina Stingrays).

St. Louis Blues captain David Backes doesn’t get many days off during a hectic 82-game season in the National Hockey League.

A week between games is almost unheard of in the NHL.

Instead of returning to St. Louis last Friday night after their game against Winnipeg, the Blues flew down to Charleston on a four-day team bonding trip.

The Blues, who got into town early Saturday morning after a charter flight from Winnipeg, will hold one more practice Tuesday morning at the Carolina Ice Palace beginning at 9:30 a.m. The practice is open to the public.

When Backes, an avid outdoorsman, found out the Blues were headed to Charleston for some much-needed R&R, he wanted to take full advantage of everything the area had to offer. Like most of his Blues teammates, Backes enjoys golf but tries to stay away from the game during the season.

Backes was looking to go fishing, but couldn’t settle on a charter or a captain. By chance, he stumbled onto Yates Sea Charters. David Yates, the owner/captain, took Backes and seven teammates 25 miles off of Charleston for some deep-sea fishing. What Backes didn’t know is that Yates fancies himself an ice hockey player as well. The trip ended up being a perfect diversion from a long NHL season.

“The fishing was out of this world,” Backes said. “We caught a ton of fish, including some king mackerel and just had a great time. You don’t get many days like that during the regular season. Captain Yates was fantastic, and him being a hockey fan just made our experience even that much more enjoyable.”

The Blues are spending four days in the Lowcountry as part of a team-building trip, which in Canadian translates roughly to: golf vacation.

“I know a lot of the guys have been going all over the place trying to get tee times,” Backes said. “They have some world class courses down here.”

Although Backes had never been to the Lowcountry, he did receive a good scouting report about the area from former Stingrays star Travis Morin. Backes and Morin, who led the Stingrays to the Kelly Cup title in 2009, played three years together at Minnesota-Mankato and have remained close since college.

“Travis just raved about the area, and so far it’s been everything he said it would be,” Backes said.

On Sunday, the Blues were greeted by more than 150 fans at the Carolina Ice Palace as they stepped onto the ice for their first practice in South Carolina. It was an unexpectedly warm reception for a team that plays its home games nearly 900 miles from Charleston. With parents back at work on Monday there were about 50 diehard fans to watch the hour-long workout.

“Who knew there were so many Blues fans in Charleston?” St. Louis defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said.

Just before the end of Sunday’s practice, the Junior Stingrays, a local youth travel team, got on the ice with the Blues for a quick skate and an impromptu scrimmage.

“It was an incredible experience for the kids to get on the ice with NHL players,” said Matt Mons, the Junior Stingrays coach along with former Stingrays defenseman Jason Hehr. “It was awesome. The Blues didn’t have to do that, and they were more than happy to stay out on the ice a little longer.”

It was no big deal, Backes said.

“I don’t know who had more fun, us or the kids,” Backes said. “It’s not every day you get to give back a little bit, and it was the least we could do.”

For one person on the Blues’ staff, assistant trainer Chris Palmer, it was a homecoming of sorts. Palmer moved to the Lowcountry when he was in the fifth grade and graduated from Summerville High School in 1981. Palmer said he couldn’t remember the last time he was in Charleston and spent most of Sunday wandering around the area, which included a visit to the house he grew up in.

“Charleston has changed so much since I lived here,” Palmer said. “I was able to get back to my old house and the lady that bought it from my parents still lived there. She was great. She invited me in and just a flood of memories came back to me. This was such a great place to grow up.”

For St. Louis native Doug Davinroy, who brought his wife, Jeanne, and three kids to the Ice Palace for Monday’s practice, it was a thrill to get to see the Blues up close and personal. The Davinroy family moved from St. Louis to Charleston a year ago.

“We are huge Blues fans and we haven’t seen them in person since we moved here,” Davinroy said. “We got a puck from one of the players, some autographs. It was a great time.”

The idea of getting away from St. Louis and having a team- building trip isn’t new for the Blues. A year ago, they went to Whistler ski resort in British Columbia, Canada. This year, head coach Ken Hitchcock was looking for a warmer climate, with plenty of off-ice activities for the players. Buffalo held a portion of its preseason training camp in Charleston in 2001, and Phoenix spent two days in the area in 2008.

“The city was recommended by a bunch of teams,” Hitchcock said. “There were about four or five teams that had been here before. They told me from a facilities standpoint, location, things that the players could do off the ice and weather, this was the No. 1 spot. The practice facility — the Ice Palace — has been everything we had hoped for and more.

“I talked a good bit with Lindy Ruff (former Buffalo Sabres coach) and he said this was the best off-site place he’d ever been, and so far he’s been spot on. This has been better than advertised.”

Hitchcock is a notorious history buff and has spent most of his free time visiting the Revolutionary War and Civil War attractions in the area. Hitchcock has been out to Fort Moultrie and on Tuesday was headed for Fort Sumter after practice.

“I’ve gone on a couple of carriage tours downtown,” Hitchcock said. “I know I’ve gotten my fix on all the historical stuff around here.”