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A Million Happy Faces: Watching the Blues and St. Louis celebrate their 1st Stanley Cup

Why the 2019 Stanley Cup was so significant to a town and fanbase that had never tasted glory(a) before.

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St Louis Blues Victory Parade & Rally
Trying to get out of the way...
Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

I had an up-close, personal view of the St. Louis Blues’ improbable rise from last-place team in January to Stanley Cup champion in June. I promised people here I’d share some thoughts from their ride, in hopes that the Islanders will soon enjoy a similar one.

So, fair warning up front (and obviously feel free to skip all of this): This may ramble, but for me it’s been a busy, crazy last 10 days — watching the Game 5 victory with longtime hockey buddies on our annual lake trip, exchanging calls and texts into the night after Game 7, getting showered with champagne by players as they celebrated at a pub popular with Blues players across the decades, and then getting an intimate view of the parade as I assisted with crowd safety while player after player took the Cup to the people.

(That’s me in the bottom right corner of the photo at the top of this post, in a yellow parade vest (over my Brian Sutter jersey) trying to get out of the way of all the fan pics.)

Preamble: Why I’m here, telling you this at an Islanders site

Many longtime readers of Lighthouse Hockey, which I founded in 2008 as an avenue to connect with Islanders fans across the land, know that my route to Islanders fandom came via my late father, through a surrogate city and team that predates the Islanders: See, we were St. Louisans, and he was a Blues fan since their 1967 founding, which meant he was a big Al Arbour fan too. (Arbour was the Blues’ original captain, and later coach, before being canned as part of a long Blues tradition of firing coaches who would later guide other teams to Stanley Cups.)

So when I came along, as soon as I was old enough to grab his cane as a hockey stick to shoot a stray tennis ball, my father told me stories about Arbour and how he was coaching the defending Stanley Cup champion Islanders. We also talked about Wayne Merrick, one of many who donned both the Blue Note and the NYI, but just like so many Blues, Merrick won his Cups elsewhere.

(As I’ve explained many times to podcasters and head-scratching partisans, I simply grew up watching both teams. The Blues were hardly on TV back then, while the Islanders at least drew national playoff coverage. The teams rarely faced each other, were rarely peaking at the same time, and each provided enough torture and suffering to assure you I’d have to be a masochist before I could possibly be a front-runner.)

Arbour is a Good Place to Start: Cups, But Elsewhere

Anyway, in terms of what this victory means to St. Louis and Blues fans, Arbour is probably a good place to start: Because the franchise’s history is filled — FILLED — with beloved legends, many of whom stayed/returned to town after their playing days, who nonetheless only found Cup success elsewhere.

There were the aging Cup winners who arrived for the expansion years like Canadiens legends Doug Harvey and Jacques Plante, Black Hawks “Mr. Goalie” Glenn Hall (a rare Conn Smythe winner on a losing finalist), and of course Arbour, who won Cups as a player with the Maple Leafs and Black Hawks. There are the Plager brothers, Barclay (captain and later coach), Bobby (a legendary hip checker) and Billy, who couldn’t crack the six-team NHL but became part of the Blues’ franchise identity.

A word about Bobby Plager that’s cool even if you just don’t care: His brother Barclay was the better player, and captain, and later coach, but he died way too soon of cancer in the ‘80s. Barclay’s #8 was retired because of everything he did, but Bobby’s #5 was just “honored” — not retired — despite him being with the organization in some capacity every year since its founding. That is, until a couple of years ago, when the current ownership finally took #5 out of circulation. The moment in the retirement ceremony at around 1:23 in this video is a tear-jerker: In a surprise to Bobby, his #5 stops halfway as they bring Barclay’s #8 down from heaven the rafters to carry Bobby the rest of the way up!

Over the years there were other fan favorites like Red Berenson and Gary “Ironman” Unger; the first Sutter brother, Brian, (elder to Islanders Cup winners Brent and Duane), Bernie Federko, Mike Liut, and Hall of Famers who won Cups after being dumped by the Blues like Joey Mullen, Doug Gilmour, Brett Hull, Brendan get the idea.

The city/region has been yearning to have that consummate connection with these guys for decades. Then, through one unbelievable half-season turnaround, they got it.

NHL: St. Louis Blues - Stanley Cup Championship Celebration
All route long.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you are old enough to have enjoyed the entire Islanders dynasty or too young to know anything of it beyond the stories, for every beloved Islander in your memory there is a similar one in Blues history...except: The Blues never had that one point of pride that brought everyone together, that championship banner to look to as a nexus for all that came before and all that will come after.

For Islanders fans, no matter how young you are, on some level you can point to those Islanders Cup banners and say “I remember when,” or “my parents told me about,” or “we have a proud history and one day we’ll do it again...”

Blues fans have never had that. Despite half a century of trying.

Imagine your love for Bobby Nystrom, or Billy Smith, or (my childhood idol along with Brian Sutter) Mike Bossy — except with them never having won a Cup. Imagine emerging post-Dynasty and worshiping Pat LaFontaine or Pierre Turgeon or Ziggy Palffy or Adrian Aucoin or {gulp} John Tavares, except in your narrative the highest point in franchise history was that nice ‘93 run or the insane ‘02 series with the Shawn Bates penalty shot that ended in a first-round loss.

That’s what it was like for Blues fans, across two and three generations, until Wednesday night. They had Cup finalists that were swept all three years in the expansion era. They had semifinalists in 1986...and 2001...and 2016. They had a President’s Trophy in 2000. That’s it.

So that’s what became clear to me over the last two months as I processed what might be and what now, finally, after 52 years, is real: I found myself not so much pulling for this current Blues team — beloved though it may be — as I was pulling for an entire city, an entire fanbase, and all the players and employees and executives and family members who’ve poured their heart and sweat and hopes into this team and community represented by the Blue Note.

I mean...investing so much emotion and meaning in a pro sports team is kind of crazy, right? Except it’s the bonds we form along the way that provide that meaning, isn’t it? My dad’s connection with me was rocky but for hockey. We had a close family member die suddenly this spring, but the last thing he did — the last salient memory his sons will have of him — was taking his boys to the Blues’ Game 7 double-overtime win over the Stars. They’ll have that memory forever.

For all of these family members, all of these fans, all of these employees, this is relief. This is euphoria. And for the Blues this is a bridge that — no matter how many Cups may or may not come in the future — can only be crossed in this way once.

St Louis Blues Victory Parade & Rally
Every one of them knows what this means.
Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Players and Fans on the Same Page: This is Bigger than the Cup

That is why, I think, you may be seeing stories about how Blues fans are celebrating like nothing the region has ever seen before. How they’ve broken the merchandise sales record set by the 2018 Capitals — themselves a first-time Cup winner after nearly 50 years — and how many alumni* were pulling for this team.

*like Chris Pronger, a Blues Hart and Norris winner who was dumped by one of the many stupid owners in Blues history, went to the finals as an Oiler and as a Flyer, won the Cup as a Duck, and now works for the Panthers. He was there last week, celebrating with Hull and so many others like they themselves had won. Like he’s still part of the team, four organizations later.

Speaking of the idiot who ordered them to trade Pronger at his peak, this post originally had a full narrative how many Islanders-esque ownership circuses Blues fans have had to endure, but it was too long, so I added a quick cheat sheet to the bottom, if you want to see how Blues fans just might understand your pain.

Anyway, I think it helps that this is the first Stanley Cup for every player except Oscar Sundqvist, who was a part-time callup on the 2016 Penguins. It’s like the players’ lifelong dream, and the city’s generations-long dream, all came true at once, you know?

Because now people are going around town punctuating random, unrelated conversations with “Oh and by the way...the Blues won the Stanley Cup!” For 52 years, this was not a statement that could be true in any sense, you see. (Not even in a “Well, back in the day...”) It’s elation and relief and bewilderment all at once. Never again will an elimination game or playoff overtime intro include the words “and the Blues have never won the Stanley Cup, so...”

If you follow baseball, you may know the St. Louis Cardinals are historically successful, with I believe the second-most World Series titles behind the Yankees and at least one championship each generation. (Their fans probably annoy you...same city, different sports, totally different identity and fan generalizations — weird, right?!) Much for that reason, St. Louis is seen as “a baseball town.”

Except pretty much anyone remotely aware in the city and any Blues player alumnus would for years have told you, and maybe did tell you, something like: “Man, we’ve had World Series and a Super Bowl win, but if the Blues ever win the Stanley Cup then St. Louis is going to party like this city has never seen.”

They did.

NHL: St. Louis Blues - Stanley Cup Championship Celebration
This is just one section of the rally under the Arch, which drew a different crowd than the parade.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a quote via The Athletic from keeper-of-the-Cup, Philip Pritchard:

The Athletic asked Pritchard if the team’s and city’s 52-year wait for the Cup had made their reaction any different from those of other clubs.

“You know what, although the St. Louis Blues won it on the ice, it feels like the whole community won the Stanley Cup,” Pritchard said. “It’s more than the team on the ice, and I think that’s what St. Louis seems to be all about so far. We landed on Thursday morning, and I couldn’t believe the amount of people that were at the airport. It was raining that night, and they were all at the (watch parties) and came and met their team, and of course, the players get off the plane and what do they do? They walk right over to the crowd. At OB Clarks, they were taking it into the parking lot and sharing it with them. Fifty-two years is a long time, but the community has stuck with them and, everywhere you look, everybody has a Blues shirt or Blues hat on. They’re all in on this. It’s really special.”

The aforementioned OB Clark’s is a completely unremarkable sports bar (sorry, guys!) in an unremarkable inner-ring suburb, but it’s long been a favorite for Blues players — in fact, maybe that’s what makes it great: It’s as popular among rec league slow-pitch softball players as among millionaire professional hockey players. It’s just real. So naturally the players and staff hang there

The morning the team arrived home from Boston after Game 7, word and assumption got around that some players were at OB’s. People started trickling into the mostly empty 40-car parking lot. Players and the Cup did, too. They found each other and partied. All day, until closing.

It was a “private” party and the place was closed to the public, yet they let the public in because it’s the FREAKING CUP. My brother got Craig Berube to sign his USA Herb Brooks sweater. (Two coaches of “miracles,” get it?)

While my brother and his wife were among the lucky allowed inside, I was with my hockey teammates who trickled in after work that day. We watched player after player lead the crowd in chants of player nicknames to get another one to come out to the balcony and raise the Cup. “Barby, Barby, Barby...[rooooar as Ivan Barbashev emerges to raise the Cup]” “Schwartzy, Schwartzy, Schwartzy...[ROAR as Jaden Schwartz emerges]” “Steener, Steener, Steener...[rrrrrRRRROOAR]” for Alexander Steen.

Again and again, this happened. For hours. Fans tossed hats and jerseys up to the balcony, where players signed them and passed them back.

Look at these jokers
Blues fans celebrate as players hoist the Stanley Cup on the balcony of OB Clark’s in Brentwood, Missouri

Joel Edmundson and Colton Parayko went out into the parking lot to dance and jump and sing and spray beverages with fans (something they repeated during the parade). In the afternoon. In the evening. After dark. Finally, police cleared the lot at closing time.

Anyway, 36 hours later for the parade, people had set up camp on the streets downtown already the night before, despite rain that night and a (very accurate, it turned out) forecast of thunderstorm downpours in the morning. They lined every surface, ledge, window sill or statue they could find. The rally at the Arch on the riverfront filled up before the parade had barely begun, so every spot was packed on the parade route and on the riverfront grounds.

Through a bit of fortune, I worked the parade and ended up walking the whole route in the vicinity of the Cup, helping keep barricades safe as players brought the Cup to the fans. (I tell myself this was my important role, which kept me following the Cup and photobombing numerous news agencies.)

St. Louis Blues celebrate 2019 Stanley Cup
Some spots were uncomfortable...yet had to be held for hours.
Dominik - Lighthouse Hockey

An unexpected thing happened on the parade route that made it take much longer than planned, and had people waiting in the rally area longer than they expected: Captain Alex Pietrangelo decided it’s silly to keep hoisting the Cup from atop his brewer-sponsored wagon, so he got off the wagon, took the Cup down to the street and walked the whole parade route with it.

Word of this appeared to filter around to the other players who were ahead in the parade, so one by one they’d come back and grab the Cup and bring it to the barricades to allow fans to touch it, or pour beer in it, or put a baby in it.

Instead of a parade of floats to praise from afar, the parade became individual players just partying with fans for a mile and a half. With a shiny silver guest all one million people were ecstatic to see.

St. Louis native Pat Maroon took the longest, visiting every fan he could and stomping on a NFL Rams (a football team whose tool owner trashed the city as he moved the team) towel someone placed in the middle of the road, while Vladimir Tarasenko made sure he got a full family photo with the Cup in front of the courthouse dome, and several younger players took their turns jaunting around with the Cup at the end of the route.

Even those who didn’t have the Cup at a given moment were just running around high-fiving fans (or riding a mini-bike), having a blast:

This was my first Stanley Cup parade, so I don’t know how normal or unique any of this is.

What I do know is that the “floats,” such as they were, became an afterthought. The players were no longer on display up above but rather at street level and one with the fans, partying with them. I can’t tell you how many fans I saw almost collapse like they’d touched a rock star’s hand. Except the rock star was the Cup, and individual players were the ones making the introduction.

St Louis Blues Victory Parade & Rally
I lost count of the number of fans the players pulled out to help hoist the Cup.
Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Likewise, I can’t tell you how many babies, how many people with disabilities or special needs, how many just random emotional strangers, that players pulled from the crowd or reached out to just to give them a moment with the Cup. It was the most ridiculously beautiful, egalitarian, and yet simple gesture of celebrity-turned-”we are one of you” experiences I’ve ever seen.

I know hockey players have the reputation of being the most down-to-earth of North America’s four major pro sports, but...every player on this day lived up to that. Longtime Blue Alexander Steen kept pointing to his heart, then the fans, then back to his heart as the crowd cheered him on. “We did this for you, too, and we couldn’t have done it without you” appeared to be the message, from guys who’d worked their entire lives to attain this euphoria for their own dreams.

It really felt like each player appreciated what this meant to people, and were in awe at their own individual part in making it happen. On that note, the parents of players who were on several of the floats beamed with pride too, as in: “That’s my boy! And my boy helped make this possible for all of these people?!”

Final Thoughts

I guess I’m sharing this with you because so many Isles fan readers and friends were pulling for the Blues and have dropped a sincere note or a congratulations to me knowing what this means to my family and friends in St. Louis. For me it was all that as well as a jolt to realize what a Stanley Cup means in this era. (I remember snapshots of the ‘82 Cup, and have powerful memories of the ‘83 Cup and ‘84 dynasty end, but I was way too young to really appreciate what was happening, what it entailed, and how rare it was.)

Indeed, a night after the Cup win my older brother swung by just to take it all in. “I still can’t believe this happened,” he said.

“And we were still alive to see it!” I countered. Our dad wasn’t, he missed it by over a decade, but we felt his presence in the memory.

So I guess I also wanted you to know what the Cup experience is like in 2019. There were several moments where I saw a Blues player elating with fans and for a moment my mind’s eye thought I was looking at Casey Cizikas, just remembering his pure expressions of joy after big Islanders moments in recent years.

Because the other thing the last week has made clear to me? Next time the Islanders get this far to capture Cup #5, I’m dropping everything to be there for the parade and party.

I hear they know how to do those pretty damn well on Long Island.

Philadelphia Flyers v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

*. *. *. *

Appendix - Blues Ownership History: They’re like the Midwestern Islanders

  • The founding Blues owners, the Solomons, were beloved and treated players well. They established a family culture that endures among the players to this day. But they ran into financial strain and meddling in hockey ops by the son: They had a falling out with Bowman, then they fired Arbour, and things ended poorly.
  • In the late ‘70s the St. Louis-based Purina company saved the Blues, renamed the historic Arena “Checkerdome” in an early bit of corporate branding (based on the Purina logo), but then sold the team to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. When the league barred that sale, Purina abandoned the team and had no one show up for the 1983 Entry Draft. The Blues lost an entire draft class.
  • In the mid ’80s Harry Ornest saved the Blues, but let his wife add an arched B-L-U-E-S over their iconic crest and add red to the uniform (and almost silver!), then pinched pennies so much they dumped Liut, they dumped Mullen, they lost Jacques Demers — another future Cup-winning coach — to their division rival, all over money.
  • Mike Shanahn saved the Blues after Ornest and led the bold era where they acquired Brett Hull, signed Scott Stevens as a free agent (almost unheard of back then), signed Brendan Shanahan as a free agent (so the league made them pay, by taking Stevens away). But St. Louis is a small big city, so Shanahan didn’t impress the right rich white guys, who under the Owellian banner of “Civic Progress” forced him out. They weren’t Gang of Four bad, but they were a faceless bunch who, let’s just say, weren’t in it for the hockey. They also jerked around with Mike Keenan, adding payroll uncertainty to an already volatile Iron Mike mess.
  • Bill Laurie was a basketball fan who married a Wal-Mart heiress. He bought the Blues as a way to own the arena and hopefully get an NBA team. He spent on payroll for a little while — evidently in rivalry with his fellow Wal-Mart-heir-in-law Stan Kroenke who owned the Avalanche, but once the NBA rejected Laurie he bailed on hockey, with brilliant thinking like “Trading Chris Pronger for scraps makes the franchise more attractive for a sale.”
  • Dave Checketts swooped in with a piecemeal group to save the team, naming MSG broadcaster John Davidson as president, but he’d leveraged highly to get it done — and reportedly sold concession rights in another Islanders-esque SMG short-sighted move — and eventually had to bail. So, frugal, but at least he was here. Kind of like Charles Wang.
  • At least Checketts brought some stability before the current ownership group, which is truly local and into it, took over. For once. I can say that the current ownership group, led by Tom Stillman, is a happy parallel to the Islanders’ current regime. A good sign?