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St. Louis riding high into All-Star Weekend

Blues' Stanley Cup title helped cement city's status as hockey hotbed

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

ST. LOUIS -- The 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend couldn't come at a better time for the St. Louis Blues.

"I don't think there's any question it is the best time in Blues history to be a Blues fan," Blues TV broadcaster John Kelly said.

St. Louis won the Stanley Cup last season for the first time since entering the NHL in 1967-68 and has the second-best record in the League this season (.694 point percentage) behind the Washington Capitals (.724).


[RELATED: Complete NHL All-Star Weekend Coverage]


Coach Craig Berube, goalie Jordan Binnington, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, center Ryan O'Reilly and forward David Perron will give them five representatives at the 2020 NHL All-Star Skills presented by New Amsterdam Vodka on Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS) and 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

The Blues also opened a new four-sheet, $80 million practice facility called the Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights, Missouri, and completed a three-stage, $120 million renovation of Enterprise Center before this season.

All this after they hosted the 2017 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Busch Stadium, defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 before 46,556 fans, and five players from St. Louis were selected in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft.

One of them was forward Matthew Tkachuk, the son of former Blues forward Keith Tkachuk. He went No. 6 to the Calgary Flames then and is coming home to play in his first NHL All-Star Game now.

"To take a little longer perspective on it, it's a process of a number of years of working to build a franchise and make it one of the better franchises in the League," Blues chairman Tom Stillman said.

Video: STL@COL: Perron wires home wrist shot for PPG

"We've been lucky to have really strong people, led by [general manager] Doug Armstrong on the hockey side and [president and CEO] Chris Zimmerman on the business side, and they've built an organization, and just as important a culture, under which we want to do our best at everything.

"It does seem like over the last whatever it is, year, year and a half, it's been kind of a perfect storm of things coming together."

* * * * *

The Blues used to be good, but not great.

They made the Stanley Cup Final in each of their first three seasons. But that was after the NHL expanded from six teams to 12, and one of the new teams was guaranteed to play for the Cup. St. Louis lost each time.

The Blues made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for 25 straight seasons from 1979-80 through 2003-04, tied for the third-longest streak in NHL history with the Detroit Red Wings (1990-91 through 2015-16), behind the Boston Bruins' 29 seasons (1967-68 through 1995-96) and the Chicago Blackhawks' 28 (1969-70 through 1996-97). But they reached the Western Conference Final twice, in 1985-86 and 2000-01, and had never made the Stanley Cup Final.

Stillman bought a minority stake in the Blues in 2007. He and an all-local ownership group acquired a majority share in 2012 with two main goals: "win a Stanley Cup for St. Louis and secure the long-term health of the franchise." They raised the standard on and off the ice, improving the team, improving the facilities, landing big events.

"It speaks volumes to the ownership," said Pietrangelo, the captain, who has played for the Blues since 2008-09. "They've really made an effort to make this organization a top-end one. … We all take pride in the city and the organization, and when you have these people around who've been here from Day 1, you can see the pride that they have when you're trying to show all this stuff off."

Funny how things work out.

On Jan. 1, 2019, when the NHL announced the All-Star Game was coming to St. Louis for the first time since 1988, no one knew the Stanley Cup was coming. The Blues were at the bottom of the NHL standings. Binnington hadn't yet started an NHL game. "Gloria" was still just an oldies song by the late Laura Branigan.

Video: PHI@STL: O'Reilly puts home his own rebound

"It was important primarily because it's such a good event for St. Louis, and it's such a reward to your fans when you bring something like that," Stillman said. "Also, when pulling together the funding sources for the arena renovations, we made clear that one reason we need this is that we want to be able to be competitive to bring major events to St. Louis, and this was one way of coming through on that as well."

The Blues came through, all right.

A group of players watched an NFL playoff game at a private club in Philadelphia on Jan. 6, 2019, and a club member kept requesting the same song, shouting, "Play 'Gloria'!" The next night, Binnington made his first start and 25 saves in a 3-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Flyers.

The rest is history.

St. Louis finished the regular season on a 29-9-5 run, including an 11-game winning streak from Jan. 23 to Feb. 19, and "Gloria" became their victory anthem.

Kelly said he felt an energy around the team he never had before. The Blues defeated the Winnipeg Jets in six games in the Western Conference First Round; the Dallas Stars in seven in the second, with forward Pat Maroon, a St. Louis native, scoring the winner in double overtime of Game 7; the San Jose Sharks in six in the conference final; and the Bruins in seven in the Cup Final.

"People, to me, still to this day are almost in disbelief in a way," Kelly said.

The Blues went from good to great.

"It's put St. Louis on the map at a championship level, not just, 'Boy, this is nice. This is the Midwest. The Blues fans, they love their hockey,' " said Darren Pang, Blues TV analyst and former NHL goalie. "No, this is a different level. They've gotten over the hump. They're feeling like all those other organizations are feeling."

* * * * *

The Blues don't play "Gloria" anymore, preferring to leave it in the past. The song will forever be the soundtrack of 2018-19. 

But the glory has lingered in St. Louis. 

"You get a lot of people and fans that come up and thank you," Berube said. "I just, like, laugh. I kind of giggle, because you don't have to thank me. I mean, thank the players. They're the ones who go out and play the game and do the winning. But they're just so happy that the Blues got a championship. That's really what it boils down to."

Fans have been packing Enterprise Center. If the Blues are behind, they believe they can come back and win like never before. If St. Louis is ahead, they enjoy it to the end, standing and chanting, "Let's go Blues!"

"I mean, we've had a lot of great fans, but I think we've created more now because the team won," said Hall of Famer Bernie Federko, who played for the Blues from 1976-89 and is now a TV analyst. "They've created new fans. There's more excitement. Everyone wants to come and see a winner. This team has proved it's a winner now. They're Stanley Cup champs. So everybody wants tickets. There's no tickets available."

Same for the All-Star Game.

Video: St. Louis gets ready to host 2020 All-Star Weekend

The fans who make it into Enterprise Center will see five of their Stanley Cup champions mixing with stars from all over the NHL in the newly renovated arena. Those who don't can attend the 2020 NHL Fan Fair from Thursday through Saturday at Union Station, the historic train station blocks away that has undergone its own $187 million renovation.

Among its attractions: a 200-foot-tall observation wheel and a world-class aquarium with a rare blue lobster named "Lord Stanley." 

"The city will be buzzing," Pang said. "They're big fans of hockey. They'll take the All-Star Game in. The players are going to feel really good about coming here for the All-Star Game. It's not just going to be a little brush off in our society here in St. Louis. People get excited about this stuff."

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