ST. LOUIS, USA – The Toronto Maple Leafs are often mocked for their lengthy Stanley Cup drought. But the St. Louis Blues haven’t won a Cup in 42 seasons either.
In fact, the Blues are in the same boat as the Los Angeles Kings. These two franchises entered the NHL during the 1967 expansion that saw the Original Six double in size. They also share a history with the greatest forward of all time, Wayne Gretzky. He played seven seasons for L.A. before going to the Blues as a trade deadline rental in 1996. Yet neither club has done better than losing in the finals (St Louis thrice between 1968 and 1970, L.A. once with Gretzky in 1993).
Speaking of untapped potential, Bob McCown’s 2007 book McCown’s Law: The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments includes a list of eight teams that failed to achieve their Stanley Cup potential, and two are incarnations of the Blues. The latest one was the early new millennium version headlined by Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger in their Norris Trophy-winning prime.
Blues fans once toasted the NHL’s longest active playoff streak: 25 years between 1979-80 and 2003-04. But in the post-lockout era, they’ve only cracked the playoffs once (2008-09).
So even though excitement rippled through the Midwest U.S. city when star Slovak goalie Jaroslav Halak was signed as a free agent last summer, coming off a magical playoff run with Montreal, expectations for a Cup victory this spring are hardly as high as the iconic, 630-foot-tall St. Louis Arch.
It’s partly because St. Louisans – like many of their fellow Americans – can get distracted by other sports. In particular, baseball, as this writer discovered during a visit. The St. Louis Cardinals have a winning history, with 10 World Series titles since 1926.
“As much as they’re great hockey fans here, it’s a baseball town,” said former Blues defenceman Jeff Brown, who now coaches the Tier II Junior A St. Louis Bandits of the North American Hockey League.
Yet it’s not as if hockey gets completely drowned out by baseball hysteria here. Sure, Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin can stroll unnoticed through the lobby of the Westin St. Louis when the Washington Capitals are in town. But a capacity crowd of 19,150 is the norm at the downtown Scottrade Centre, and that’s what Ovi and Company got during their last visit, a 4-1 win.
Despite only dating back to 1994, the emphatically blue-themed arena is awash in atmosphere and history. Banners commemorating the six retired Blues jerseys – Barclay Plager, Brian Sutter, Brett Hull, Bernie Federko, Al MacInnis, and Bob Gassoff – hang from the rafters, and Hull, Federko, and MacInnis have their own life-sized bronze statues outside the main entrance.
Take a guided arena tour, and you discover many other cool quirks.
The press box is named after deceased Blues broadcaster Dan Kelly, who famously called the 1987 Canada Cup. There’s a lower-level door that ex-Blues coach Mike Keenan allegedly had installed so that he could dodge the media when not in the mood for interviews. Spectators are encouraged to interact with the organist and make song requests. The food court hosts table hockey tournaments periodically, as well as selling “Big Dawg” hot dogs for $9.50. The concourse features the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame, exhibiting everything from Red Berenson’s stick (he scored six goals in one 1968 Blues game) to video footage of ex-U.S. Olympian Keith Tkachuk’s retirement ceremony. And interestingly, Scottrade Center, which hosted the 2007 NCAA Frozen Four tournament, can expand its ice surface to traditional IIHF dimensions (61 metres by 30 metres) for such occasions.
Of course, to truly assess a city’s hockey culture, you have to see what lies beyond the arena doors. St. Louis measures up quite nicely in that regard. It’s not like Toronto or Montreal, of course, but hockey seeps into all corners of this city.
In December, the club organized a free outdoor skating party for fans at the Steinberg rink in Forest Park, where their road game versus Edmonton was shown on a 10.7-metre screen.
Stanley Cup champagne may not flow freely as the Mississippi River does in St. Louis. But beer sure does. In an area brimming with Germanic heritage, the monolithic Budweiser headquarters displays an autographed stick from Blues forward and native son Cam Janssen in its lobby. Stop by the Square One microbrewery for a hockey fan’s customary beverage in Lafayette Square, and the brewmaster mentions that former Blues coach Andy Murray (a three-time World Champion with Team Canada) used to enjoy coming in. Current forward T.J. Oshie has appeared at the 1904 Beerhouse in the new River City Casino, a popular place to watch games.
In the revitalized Loop neighborhood, full of record shops and clothing boutiques, hockey gets a hilariously eclectic treatment in the memorabilia displays at the well-known Blueberry Hill restaurant. Most patrons gape at the photos of owner Joe Edwards with celebs like Barack Obama, Clint Eastwood, and Chuck Berry. Hockey lovers, though, revel in the sight of a 45 record – “Tips on Hockey with Barclay Plager and Garry Unger” – issued by the Shakey’s pizza chain. How about a Pepsi bottle celebrating the Blues’ sixth playoff appearance, or a Ron Schock hockey card? It’s all clustered near a Canada-USA bubble hockey game.
The stately Missouri History Museum offers similar surprises. Most visitors come for, say, exhibits on Transatlantic pilot Charles Lindbergh or the World’s Fair and Summer Olympics, both hosted by St. Louis in 1904. (At those Games, the city indirectly contributed to IIHF history, as gold, silver, and bronze medals were handed out for the first time.) Tucked away on the second floor, however, is a hockey display that ranges from a St. Louis Post-Dispatch photo from the 1968 finals against Montreal to a puffy, mulleted 1991 Brett Hull doll made by the Ace Novelty Company.
Kids get their due in St. Louis’s hockey culture. The Magic House, the city’s children’s museum, features an entire Blues Zone, the only pro sport so honored. Youngsters can play hockey-related games on a big video screen, and sit inside a hockey net while reading such books as Girls Play Hockey Too! By Kimberly Jo Simac and Zamboni: The Coolest Machines on Ice by Eric Dregni. There’s even a working organ with transparent, bubble-producing pipes on which aspiring musicians can plunk out W.C. Handy’s original 1914 tune, The St. Louis Blues.
The Build-A-Bear teddy bear store chain originated in “The Lou,” and you can make your own Blues bear at the outlet in the Saint Louis Science Center. Also there, December visitors might spot a Christmas tree donated by the team, its blue-and-gold bulbs autographed by the likes of Swedish forward Alexander Steen (“God Jul!”).
So, unlike some American cities, the Blues are hardly out of sight or even out of mind. But do they have the on-ice wherewithal to deliver a championship any time soon? Supporters will point to young, international talent like Oshie, Steen, Patrik Berglund, and new trade acquisitions Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk. And of course, there’s Halak and NHL All-Star Game participant David Backes. Still, questions remain as the Blues hover on the fringe of the 2011 Western Conference playoff picture.
“We’re a big, blue-collar team that likes to skate and play aggressively,” said now former captain Eric Brewer, in words that reflect the Blues’ long-term identity. “We lack a little experience, but we make up for it with our effort.”
“Because of the good start we had in October, it seems like we haven’t played up to our potential lately,” added forward Matt D’Agostini. “But this conference is tough, and every game is a battle. I don’t know what the expectations are in St. Louis. This is my first year here after coming in from Montreal. Still, we have four solid lines, guys that can put the puck in the net, and a great goalie. This team can go pretty far if we stick to our plan.”
Time will tell. At the grassroots level, meanwhile, hockey’s future in St. Louis looks promising. Visit the Hardee’s Iceplex in the suburbs, and you’ll discover hordes of minor hockey players enthusiastically learning their trade at the arena’s Olympic- and NHL-sized rinks.
It’s also the home of Jeff Brown’s Bandits, the three-time NAHL champs. They draw about 800 spectators at home games, and while the action is less organized and physical compared to Canadian junior, the passion is palpable from the moment the P.A. announcer bellows: “God Bless America, and let’s play some hockey!” Hot rivalries with Detroit and Chicago teams motivate local kids.
“Here the vision is to get a Division I scholarship in the NCAA,” said Brown. “We’ve averaged eight kids going on to Division I each year.”
Someday, if all goes well, one of those homegrown talents may help the Blues raise the Stanley Cup for the very first time.