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For long-suffering Blues fans and players, it's different this time

Written by 
Published in Hockey
Wednesday, 22 May 2019 03:59

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Blues fans didn't start chanting "We want the Cup!" until there was a three-goal lead and just over four minutes left in Game 6 against the San Jose Sharks. Not a goal less. Not a moment sooner. They've known too much heartbreak to assume victory. They've experienced too much disillusionment to have that kind of faith.

But with that chant, they finally believed what they were seeing, which was a St. Louis Blues team advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970 after eliminating the Sharks.

"I'm feeling excitement. This is as close as we've come in the last 50 years," said Dave Lamore, a longtime Blues season-ticket holder wearing a Bernie Federko jersey in the arena concourse. "And it's possible. This is a hell of a good team. It's solid. Four lines. Great goaltending. Team defense. We could do this!"

Optimism has a challenging relationship with St. Louis Blues fans. Take Eland Siddle, 34, born into Blues fandom and a die-hard for the past 20 years. He's been a believer before, and like many, he was burned for it. In 2014, he and his newlywed wife, Stephanie, postponed their honeymoon because they thought the Blues would go on a prolonged playoff run after a 111-point season.

They lost in the first round to the Blackhawks.

Should have just gone to the beach, in hindsight.

This year was different for Siddle and many Blues fans because optimism was annihilated not in the playoffs, but by New Year's Day. An active offseason seemingly positioned the Blues as a contender in the Western Conference. But things went horribly, horribly wrong: By the morning of Jan. 1, they were tied with the Ottawa Senators for fewest points in the NHL, with 34.

"Previously, you had high hopes each year. This year, by January, you didn't have hope at all," Siddle said.

Yet the relationship between the Blues fans and optimism is also a complicated one. Take, again, Eland Siddle. The Blues were in the basement. He was in Las Vegas. At 100-to-1 odds, and for no clear reason, he bet $25 on them to win the Stanley Cup. What looked like a donation to a sportsbook now looks like a shrewd investment -- not that Siddle was about to count his winnings yet.

"Let's just get tonight and I can believe," he said before Game 6. "After years and years of losing and losing, it's weird. It's surreal that this might actually happen."

It's happening, St. Louis.

Play "Gloria."

Every championship team seems to have its quirky bits of voodoo and backstory. The Blues' adoption of the late Laura Branigan's 1980s pop anthem "Gloria" as their victory song is a prominent one for them. As the story goes, a few players were watching an NFC playoff game in a bar in Philadelphia that kept on playing "Gloria" during commercial breaks in the game. The earworm festered in their minds, and "Gloria" was introduced as the team's jam of triumph.

But it's just one of the delightfully weird and undeniably heartfelt narratives orbiting this Blues team that just makes it feel different from previous editions. Stories like:

  • Laila Anderson, the young girl with a rare disease called HLH, which only 15 other children in the world have been diagnosed with. For four months, she could only travel from her home to St. Louis Children's Hospital for treatment. Before Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, her mother surprised her with tickets to see her favorite team. She's been a fixture since.

  • Charles Glenn, the team's vibrant anthem singer, who was stepping away from his job after 20 years due to challenges presented by multiple sclerosis. He made the decision to step away when the Blues were in last place. Now, the longer they play, the more Glenn sings.

  • Jordan Binnington, the 25-year-old rookie goalie, who was called up midseason and given the chance he'd been waiting for while getting buried on the franchise's depth chart. He won 24 out of 32 appearances with a 1.89 goals-against average, the best in the NHL and worthy of a Rookie of the Year finalist nomination. Oh, and he's one of the most low-key swaggering athletes in the city, what with his "Do I look nervous?" retort in the first round.

  • Patrick Maroon, the St. Louis native who took less money as a free agent to come home and live closer to his son. The same son that was weeping openly when Maroon scored the series-clinching goal in overtime of Game 7 against the Dallas Stars. In the dressing room, they hugged and both wept. "I taught him a few things," his son, Anthony, said. "I'm so proud of him.

  • The fact that this team was in the literal basement just over five months ago and is now playing for the Stanley Cup, only the fourth team in the expansion era to have reached the Cup Final after ranking among the bottom three in the standings at any point after their 20th game. Which is a long-winded way of saying that what the Blues have done here is indeed rare.

Forward Oskar Sundqvist had dinner with defenseman Colton Parayko on Monday, eating turkey burgers and reminiscing about something that used to cause them indigestion: the horrible first few months of the season, which cost coach Mike Yeo his job and reportedly had GM Doug Armstrong contemplating an "everything must go" solution for a last-place team. "We were talking about how crazy it is, to go from where we were then to where we are now," Sundqvist said, "and how great everyone in this room came together and started working for each other."

That's the recurring theme in the Blues' room: togetherness. The chemistry that grew among them on and off the ice this season was the actual remedy for their early-season failings.

"I've never been part of a team like this. It sort of reminds me of my rookie year. The team was really tight, just like this. But there's something special about this team, and I think it carries over to the ice," said defenseman Joel Edmundson, who entered the league in 2015. "When you're tight with each other off the ice, when you have a good time off the ice, you're going to play for each other on the ice. That's what it takes to win in this league."

But perhaps more than anything, this team is defined by a connection to the past during its pursuit of the Cup.

Like Brett Hull. Like Chris Pronger. Like Kelly Chase. Like Bob Plager. Like all the former Blues who are still around the team and were in the building during Game 6 and were seen embracing and weeping after the 2019 edition captured the West.

"I saw Chaser in the hallway crying after the game. You know, it's almost making us cry too. It's unbelievable to see these guys happy. It gives us goosebumps," said forward Vladimir Tarasenko. "When you see those guys crying, it means a lot for us too. They're probably more excited than us. It gives us really huge support, too."

Bob Plager wants his parade.

He said as much last August, when the Blues unveiled their new third jerseys. He handed one to O'Reilly, who had yet to play a game for St. Louis after being acquired from Buffalo. Plager recalled whispering to him: "You know, I need my parade."

He said O'Reilly responded, "Well, we're going to get you one."

Plager isn't a household name in the NHL, but he's as synonymous with the St. Louis Blues as The Note. A defensive defenseman, he's a St. Louis lifer: an original Blues player in 1967, he played with them through 1977 and then joined their front office. He appeared on three straight Blues teams that made the Stanley Cup Final from 1968 through 1970, when NHL expansion divvied up teams in an Original Six group of death and an expansion conference from which the Blues emerged three times. The Blues are the only team in NHL history to appear in multiple Stanley Cup Finals and not win a single game.

Off the ice, Plager has been a ubiquitous presence in the community for decades. And this season, his gloves were a presence in the Blues' dressing room.

A pair of his hockey gloves from the 1960s were used as the "player of the game" trinket in the Blues' postgame celebrations this season. "It's just a tribute to guys who built this thing to get us where we are," Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. "I think we all know what Bobby stands for in this organization and this city, so it's fun for us to get him to be part of our group in some way. Nobody loves this organization more than Bobby, especially with the effort and time he gives. And he loves wins more than anyone else."

He was there when the Blues won their first game of the season, walking over and placing a game puck in a cabinet that houses each one from their victories this season. "I told them I want to put the [final] one on up there too. The first puck and the last puck," Plager said after Game 6, his eyes still watery from the emotional win.


Bob Plager reacts to Blues' Game 6 victory

Original St. Louis Blues alumnus Bob Plager on what seeing this team play for the Stanley Cup means to him.

Pietrangelo said that his teammates are playing not only for themselves, but for the Blues who came before them. "Those guys have built the foundation of this organization, and they represent the Blue Note pretty well. We try and carry that on," he said.

The Blues are a family. That's been the selling point for the franchise for decades, as former players remain a part of the franchise and the city. After Game 6, Pietrangelo goofed on David Perron having multiple stints with the Blues, but there's a reason he keeps coming back. It's the same reason Bob Plager has stuck around. It's about the community.

"You look at the fans when we scored that [empty net] goal, and it's like I said before: This city, and what's gone on here ... you see the baseball players here at the game with their Blues sweaters on. We went to the Finals three times. We didn't see any Cardinals at our games," said Plager.

But this season's different.

Ryan O'Reilly hears "Gloria" playing in his head.

It's something he admitted before Game 6. That sometimes, after a win on the road, he'll climb on board the Blues' team charter and have their victory song pumping through his mind. "It's our anthem here," he said. "It's so cool how it's brought the team and the fans that much closer."

He's sensed that connection growing for the past few months. The car flag population has grown. So have the number of cars blaring "Gloria" at traffic stops. O'Reilly said that when he's shopping at Whole Foods, fans are coming up to him to offer him fist bumps of encouragement. "It's so cool that people are a part of this. That's what this is all about. It's not just the guys in here. It's a city that's together. We're all trying to win."

The city's been on this journey, too. Edmundson recalled the awkwardness of conversations with friends back in January. "The first half of the year, the conversations were like, 'We still believe in you. Rough year, but you'll get 'em next year,'" he said. "Now the conversations are like, 'Let's go get the Cup. Play 'Gloria.' It's definitely changed, and for the better."

So it's never "Don't screw this up?"

Edmundson laughs. "No ... no. I don't want to hear that," he said. "But there's a buzz around this city."

That buzz? It's saying that this time, it's different.

"I'm kind of an optimist anyway. Maybe I'm a little bit too high on this one. But there's something magical here. There really is," said Lamore, the Bernie Federko fan.

What comes into focus the more time one spends around this team and in this community is that there are generations of Blues fans who weren't sure if they'd see this opportunity come around, which is a reality that might not be perceived by those outside of that community.

Think of the most infamous championship droughts in the NHL.

The New York Rangers, going 54 years without a Cup. The Washington Capitals, who went from 1974 until last season without one, shattering their fans' championship dreams in increasingly gruesome ways. The Sharks, who are basically "Capitals West" when it comes to dashed expectations. Teams like the Philadelphia Flyers (1975) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (1967), whose detractors bring up their postseason ineptitude with the frequency that many of us discuss the weather.

But the St. Louis Blues? They're the NHL's wallpaper, always there and rarely commented on.

Perhaps that's because they've only missed the playoffs nine times since coming into the league in 1967. Yet they've been searching for the Cup as long as the Leafs have, without any of their Original Six laurels on which to rest, and they're rarely listed among the NHL's prominent championship famines.

"I've noticed that, too," said Edmundson. "Hopefully this year we can change that. And then never talk about it anymore."

Since 1967, the Blues have searched for this moment, when the drought ends and the Stanley Cup celebration begins. For this moment when the team and its alumni and its fans aren't just four wins away from it, but this moment when there's a belief they could earn those four wins, without burdens of pessimism and history clouding it.

"Maybe I will get my parade," said Plager.

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