Monday, August 12, 2019

Sports Nostalgia: The Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues

            Two months ago, to the hour and possibly the minute, I was watching the St. Louis Blues celebrate their first Stanley Cup championship in 51 years as a National Hockey League franchise.

            The Note was part of the league’s first major block of expansion franchises and they accomplished a lot of things along the journey, but never could find that extra gear. They went to the championship round their first three years in existence, once strung together 24 consecutive seasons of post-season qualification, won a President’s Trophy (best regular-season record), had some Hall of Famers on their rosters, and, well, played a lot of really good hockey.

            I climbed on board in the 1993-94 season and had access to very little Blues hockey from Pittsburg, KS, but consumed a fair amount of the playoffs. I remember fellow ’67 expansion club Minnesota North Stars sweeping my newfound love in the opening round, except for the fact that the franchise had been plucked from the hockey heart of American and plopped in that turd of a state known as Texas. So Dallas, in actuality, eliminated my team. Beyond that I remember three other details: 1) feeling like it was a pretty heavy Original Six post-season; 2) feeling like it was a pretty heavy east-coast playoffs; and 3) thinking that it was kind of cool -- for the sole reason that, at, at the time, the International Hockey League’s Kansas City Blades were a San Jose Sharks affiliate -- that the Sharks were in contention (Note: The emphasis there on “kind of” could have a footnote numeral attached to it. If it did, and you were inclined to scroll to the bottom of the page to read the footnote’s contents, it would probably say something along these lines: Fuck the Sharks.).

            Anyway, the first couple of rounds are over and you’re playing catchup when you live in small Kansas town and are pretending to go to college, but I recall feeling bad for the New York Islanders as they’d been dispatched by the New York Rangers in embarrassing fashion. I also recall gloating at the fact that Stars got owned in the ensuing round and was pleased that San Jose would not be in contention for a title this early in their existence. I remember nothing about either Conference Finals series, but that Cup Final was one for the ages. It had everything: the first installment of the modern-day, crowd-littered rally towel was represented, the series Goliath taking an overly confident series lead, the David coming back and smashing them in the mouth in Games Five and Six. It had the first player-spoken guarantee I can remember, and it had the culmination of the Rangers expunging the 50-year drought, the epic Messier-with-the-Cup images, to boot.

            I was sold for life. An incredible tournament had me feeling as though I’d walked 1,000 miles in the shoes of a hockey fan. I’d been raised on gridiron, hoops, and the diamond. Those would all, in essence, take a permanent back seat.

            For the last three years I’ve been writing for a fan-run print newspaper called Game Time. It’s sold outside of Blues home games in St. Louis, and it’s really been a blast being a part of it. In my columns I’ve visited the notion of hope on more than one occasion. I’ve quoted Red from The Shawshank Redemption: “Hope,” he says, “is a dangerous thing.”

            While this is true in all sports, I have felt it to be particularly true as a hockey fan, and I’ve felt the particulars of being a Blues fan to have a more complex flavor profile than what I imagine it being like for fans of other teams. What I mean is that hockey is nuts. It’s fast, physical, and grueling. You’ve got to be good enough across 82 regular-season games to get into the playoffs and then you’ve got to win four straight best-of-seven rounds to reach the mountaintop.

            My Blues-fan blinders have been securely fastened for two and-a-half decades now, so it’s not like I can envision what it’s like for fans of other teams, but in my best estimate: Fewer teams have had most of the necessary pieces in place to make a serious run at a title and fallen short in so many ways. They’ve had prolific scorers, stout defenses, legendary names between the pipes, and, all in all, good collections of forward lines. They’ve literally fired two of the best coaches in N.H.L. history, both of whom promptly went on to win a combined 12 -- 12! -- Stanley Cups. They, as a franchise, have been bought and sold a couple of times and even had no ownership group for part of one year. They’ve changed buildings and the one they currently call home has seen four name changes.

            They’ve lost to lesser teams, not shown up at all after excellent regular seasons, watched high-stakes goalies turn to sieves, and even -- in one not-forgotten series -- put a puck in their own net. All this to say that when seasons upon seasons upon seasons stack up, it becomes increasingly hard to reinvest that dangerous hope. And in some cases it’s been more a matter of inventing new reasons to channel that hope.

            This past season had all of the familiar smells and sounds, the reasons that the skin on your arm would light up with goose bumps. Then it got underway and it was far from pretty. As the story has been told and retold: By the midway point they were in dead last in the league. A coaching change, however, provided a spark. Then along came a rookie netminder and the randomest of road-trip, late-night outings. As the final week of the regular season approached, the St. Louis Blues had earned a chance to win their division. They fell a point shy of doing so, but they had done a thing I’d watched so many teams do over the years: peak at the right time. It wasn’t too early down the stretch, which oftentimes results in a fizzle before the playoffs begin. And it wasn’t too late that their fate had already been sealed.

            They opened the playoffs against a fast and furious Winnipeg Jets club that should’ve put the fear of God in them. Instead they took the first two games on the road and closed the series out with a pair of 3-2 wins in Games Five and Six. Up next? The goddamned Dallas Stars, a team whose only championship has a weeping, pus-filled asterisk next to it, a permanent black eye on the face of the greatest league and the greatest championship tournament in sports. And Dallas’ firepower should’ve been able to send St. Louis home in typical-for-the-Blues, second-round fashion. St. Louis, though, had other ideas. Five games in they found themselves down in a series for the first time of the playoffs, and they came out with an impressive win to send the thing to a Game Seven. That final contest was gripping and stressful, teeming with sweaty palms and too many drinks, and the Blues clinched it in double overtime.

            Their Conference Finals draw? Those stupid Sharks. They were, in some sense, a post-season darling, and they owned the Blues in Game One. St. Louis had a Game Two rebound, lost an overtime heart-breaker the next, and then put the teeth of the Sharks on the curb for the remainder of the series. And it. Was. Phenomenal. San Jose took the ice for Games Five and Six with rubber bands and glue sticks holding themselves together. The Blues outscored them 10-1 in those final two games.

            Then for all the marbles it was the Boston Bruins. All three contests the Blues lost in that series were losses that made it look like the Western Conference champions didn’t belong. And their first three wins were all narrow-margin victories.

            As Sunday evening’s Game Six approached, the Blues had the opportunity to win it all on home ice, to set the Gateway City ablaze with intoxicated joy. Instead they got their faces kicked in. Early, often, and all night, posing not only a worst-case scenario for all Blues fans, but a major personal conundrum for me, who would be leaving town in two days to go to St. Louis for two Phish shows. Summer-Tour kickoff shows, no less. And guess who would not be there? The Blues. They’d be in Boston preparing for the biggest game of not only their lives, but the lives of all Blues fans across five decades.

            The first night’s show was a blast. The city was buzzing. The band came out and wasted little time finding their legs. Between second set and encore the venue erupted into a “Let’s Go, Blues!” chant. And all day Wednesday I was nauseous. Our crew was fighting hangovers and I felt a down-the-middle split tearing at me all day. Do I skip the show to watch a possible loss on television? I was away from home, which meant I would not be able to watch in my spot, which (standing in my family room, just off-left of the television, within arm’s reach of the couch). I wouldn’t be able to do my pre-game, in-game, and post-game rituals, and wherever I’d be, I’d be fighting crowds and noise and anxiety amongst a city of strangers.

            The quiet appeal of being amongst fans and in the city was on my one shoulder; on my other sat one more opportunity to see the greatest band of my lifetime. Heading in to St. Louis my last show had been my Mario (#66) Lemieux. Were I to skip Wednesday, I’d be delaying my Jaromir (#68) Jagr, all of which doesn’t mean anything, really, beyond a fun marriage of two of my favorite loves: assigning an all-time-great hockey-player jersey number to the show I’m seeing at the time. And if you’re following along, this great, 36-year ride that Phish is on has a shelf life. Nobody knows what it is, but we’re nearing the epilogue with every tour that comes and goes. The chances of ever seeing my Gretzky are pretty slim.

            Anyway, we rolled with our guy so he could claim a table for his crew at their viewing spot of choice. We ate some food and forced a couple of drinks down before getting in to an Uber for the venue and that’s where I really started feeling like shit.

            I should’ve taken a Xanax to calm my nerves and instead opted for a stale, overpriced, double-tall parking-lot drink, which did precisely zero favors for my gotta-puke feeling. Nevertheless, we were inside the venue and I was in the beer line when the Blues scored the game’s first goal. Not long after I was in the poster line when they tallied the second.

            I kept tabs on the game across 95 per cent of Set One, and having observed a scoreless second period transpire and a third period approaching the midway point, I left my seat and returned to the concourse where hundreds gathered around every available monitor. I watched Brayden Schenn bury a puck; Zach Sanford followed suit. And with just over two minutes remaining the Bruins got on the board, which was obviously too little too late.

            When the boys leaped that bench wall and rushed their goaltender with air-born gloves and bouncing sticks, I think I was in tears for the fifth time in under 10 minutes. I hugged and high-fived strangers and tried my best to take it all in while firing off dozens of thank-you text messages. Having remained in my spot through almost the entire intermission to watch as many individual Cup hoists as possible, I was back in my seat just in time for the band to take the stage and open second set with their debut version of a cover of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” the unforeseen love child of that random outing on that destiny-riddled January road trip. They transitioned into a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup,” which was the perfect amount of cake icing.

            A fan launched an inflatable Cup onto the stage and the band let it lie there til encore. Drummer Jon Fishman threw a couple of shoutouts into the refrain of the set-closing “Suzy Greenburg,” and frontman Trey Anastasio congratulated fans at encore.

            As we filed out and rejoined our buddy (still at said viewing spot), the vibe of the city had spread far and wide. My personal glee had given me perma-grin, and my head became clouded with a sense of the surreal.

            I was happy for Blues fans everywhere, but above all I was happy for that college freshman who had taken a blind dive 25 years ago. I was happy to shed the whipping-boy material, the butts of so many hockey jokes, and maybe more than anything, I now enjoyed the ability to wave an invisible middle finger to all Kansas Citians that love hockey but hated the Blues based solely on a mostly fictitious rivalry that pre-dated most of the people that subscribed to said hatred. Idiots, if you will. Or maybe smart-and-talented people that subscribe to one particular channel of idiocy. Who knows.

            Anyway, when all of the dust had settled and close friends and loved ones had it register that I was at a Phish show when the Blues won the Cup, more than one person said to me, “That might be the most Blair thing imaginable.”

            And to be honest it really hasn’t set in all the way. It started to once I’d come home and rewatched the game. I acquired a little bit of merch’, which made it realer. I’ve been watching the players have their days with the Cup on social media, and that’s moved the needle a bit, too.

            I think the sealant on that deck will be the first home game, though, when they unveil the banner in the barn. That’ll be fantastic.

            Back on that hope, though. I’ve adopted some superstitions along this long, winding road to glory, and none of them have seen fruition. There’s my spot. There’s my fluctuating feelings about keeping tabs on games I can’t watch live in my spot. I’ve gotten my kids in to the Blues not only for the love of the game and the sheer joy of rooting on this team, but also with the stifled belief that a second generation, a new dose of Johnson blood could or would spark a championship. I’ve bristled at the facing of top-tier foes in the post-season, even though I, years ago, adopted the belief that you have to beat the best teams en route to a title. I’ve put on and removed hats and jerseys and other paraphernalia mid-game and firmly believed that doing so could affect the outcome.

            Maybe the biggest one began seven years ago when we bought this house. It didn’t take long to discover that my then-next-door neighbor was not only a hockey fan, but a lover of the hated Chicago Blackhawks. He was quick to buy a sign and mount it above his garage door. I retaliated with my team’s version and displayed it above the gate to our backyard, an all-but-guaranteed assurance that he’d see it every time he pulled in his driveway. And then there’s the ivy that has always grown along the fence that leads to that gate.

            I’ve literally urged that ivy to grow up the gate’s post for most of a decade. I’ve trimmed it (sometimes too much) in a fashion to attempt to highlight and surround the sign, lost my mind when lifeline roots have been accidentally severed (by me), had a fit of rage when my kids’ mom randomly ripped down a bunch of vines on it one morning. I’ve cursed and treated for these nasty bugs that inhabit it when the summer finally grows hot. And I’ve longed for the opportunity to gaze upon that sign, dressed nicely in manicured ivy and a championship cologne, pride supporting undeniable greatness.

            For years, I felt convinced that getting that sign to presentation level would translate to a Stanley Cup for the St. Louis Blues. Turns out it would happen the other way around.

            Sports’re funny. I thought and believed that that Cup could complete me in some sense, if it one day had a handsome Lombardi Trophy for the Chiefs on display next to it. And maybe it still will.

            All I can say for now, though, is that that championship came out of the blue. It blindsided all of us Blues fans, I think. It was the wildest of exhausting rides, the most excruciating of journeys filled with hiking-shoe heel blisters, irritated throats, tired next mornings, and all-alone fist pumps.

            At long last we can finally say that the St. Louis Blues are Stanley Cup champions.

            What a season. What a group. What an experience.

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