PHOTOS: Gateway Locomotives play at Scottrade Center
ST. LOUIS - A foghorn blares, the organist plays "When the Blues Go Marchin' In" from the upper bowl and public address announcer Tom Calhoun's voice carries over the loud speaker as fans cheer from the stands and players celebrate on the ice.
That was the scene at Scottrade Center on Sunday afternoon, except the St. Louis Blues weren't on the ice for any of it.
Instead, it was the Gateway Locomotives - a group of developmentally-challenged hockey players - who got to experience what it felt like to be a Blue for a day.
The Locomotives arrived at the Ice Zone at St. Louis Outlet Mall thinking they were there for their typical weekly practice, but instead were introduced to Blues legend Bob Plager, who told them they would be taking a bus to Scottrade Center to experience what being a Blue was like.
When their bus arrived downtown, the team was greeted by former Blue Kelly Chase, who helped get ice time for the Locomotives at Brentwood Ice Rink when the program was created in 1994. Chase led the players to the locker room, where Blues forward Robby Fabbri was waiting to show them around and give them their new jerseys, which featured a new team name and a new logo: the Blues Special Hockey Club.
But the best was still to come.
After suiting up, the team took the ice for a game at Scottrade Center in front of more than a thousand fans who cheered them on from the stands.
"One of the (kids) turned around and said she was living the dream," said Jim Hermann, who serves as the administrator for the Gateway Locomotives and has been with the organization since its inception in 1994. "That's what this is. For the Blues to treat these kids the way they were treated today, that's something they will remember for the rest of their lives."
"When we started talking about doing this, my expectations were the Blues would just allow us to use their name. We would even buy our own jerseys and create our own logo," Hermann added. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think the Blues would do what they did today. It's outstanding. It goes to show you what class this whole organization has from top to bottom."
While the Locomotives got to experience what it felt like to be a Blue for a day, they're actually now Blues for good. With the team being renamed and rebranded, the club will now represent the St. Louis Blues in tournaments for the disabled athletes.
The Locomotives actually began 23 years ago when Tony Sansone Jr. learned of a disabled hockey team that was competing in Toronto. Sansone and his wife brought that idea to St. Louis, establishing the Gateway Locomotives as the first hockey team in the United States for the developmentally-challenged. The organization currently serves 45 players, including some from the original roster. Many have been diagnosed with autism or down syndrome. Now, 60 clubs similar to the Gateway Locomotives exist across the country.
"I have seven healthy children, and not withstanding that, I have all healthy nieces and nephews, just blessings beyond what anyone would expect to experience," said Sansone. "We wanted to give something back more than just from a monetary standpoint, but with our time and energy. All my kids are involved, and this is a really special (organization) to my family."
"The Blues, under the leadership of Tom Stillman and his ownership group, showed everyone what they're all about," Sansone said of Sunday's event. "They're local people that understand how important it is to be part of the landscape. They've certainly showed that with everything they've done, but more in particular with what they have done today. Words can't describe the value they bring. Just look at what they've done from an inspirational standpoint for all of our athletes and their families."