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Blues, Upshall have Fort McMurray on minds

Thinking of Alberta city being destroyed by fire as they prepare for Game 4 against Stars

by Amalie Benjamin @amaliebenjamin / Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS -- The flames flicker through the images, the TV screens and still photographs and through the minds of the men in both dressing rooms. There are so many connections to Fort McMurray here, to the oil city in the northern reaches of Alberta, to the city that has been evacuated in the past day because of raging fires.

But no one is closer than Scottie Upshall; the St. Louis Blues forward was raised in Fort McMurray, a place that his brother and his fiancée and his three nieces still call home. There are friends and relatives there, for him, for Dallas Stars center Vernon Fiddler, for Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, for so many others.

And so they watched and listened and sent text messages and checked up on people and tried to ignore everything that was happening in order to focus on a hockey game, in order to quell the images of flames engulfing trees and businesses, forcing more than 80,000 people to flee and destroying 1,600 structures, according to reports.

"There was a lot of things going through my head yesterday when I woke up from my nap," Upshall said Wednesday. "Most of my family was trying not to overplay it at all, but there was nothing to really overplay when something like that happens.

Tweet from @AMHQ: The #AlbertaWildfire became explosive as residents #evacuated their #homes. #ymmfire

"[I'm] just worried about the safety of friends and family, more so [because] at the time my nieces were still in Fort McMurray while my brother and his fiancée are here watching us play. It was a difficult time for a lot of people yesterday."

The Blues will be doing their part to help during Game 4 of the Western Conference Second Round on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). They announced Wednesday that the team and the Blues alumni will raise money for the victims of the wildfires, with the proceeds from a 50/50 raffle and Blues for Kids bid-by-phone silent raffle going to help families that have been displaced.

"There's probably a lot of people that are this morning waking up in someone else's home or in someone else's bed, having their kids really not understand what's going on," Upshall said. "That's tough. We have a good group here. Everyone last night kind of sent their thoughts and their prayers. It's tough when it becomes national and global news for a city of 80,000. It's pretty upsetting.

"But the good thing is the city will get through it. I'm sure they'll get more help and get these fires under control."

It was, for him, like a movie in some ways; watching the images, seeing what was happening to places that were familiar from his years in Fort McMurray. There were places he knew, places that no longer existed.

"A movie," he said, "that I don't want to watch.

"I saw the freeway that I used to usually drive in from the airport, and both sides of the road were kind of just 100-foot flames. I saw a couple restaurants that I used to go eat at, and those were gone. It's crazy."

Upshall didn't quite know the extent of the situation on Tuesday, as he and his teammates prepared to face the Stars in a game they would win 6-1. Information had just started to filter in, so at that point there appeared to be no consideration at leaving Upshall out of the lineup.

Video: Upshall comments on fires in Fort McMurray

Instead, he got to focus on hockey for a couple of hours before again facing the realities of the situation.

"We're here to win games and we're in a real great spot here in the playoffs, but at the same time, when lives are at stake and a community kind of [has] their back against the wall, trying to fight for survival, it is tough," Upshall said. "It's really hard to explain. It's a unique situation, very devastating.

"It's been a great city, a city that's survived for many years through some tough times and for me, growing up there doesn't seem too long ago. The places that probably aren't standing anymore will be really, really tough to take. But as long as everyone's OK, that's the main thing."

Fellow Alberta native Hitchcock interrupted his press conference after the win Tuesday, saying, "I know we're playing hockey but a lot of us that are born in Alberta. Our thoughts and prayers right now are for the people of Fort McMurray. The fire's in the town, and obviously [Upshall is] from there. We've all been there many times. So as much as this is a hockey game, a lot of our thoughts, especially us born and raised in that province, are with the people in that town."

It was the same for the others; for Fiddler, who's from Edmonton, and for Dallas coach Lindy Ruff, who was born in Warburg, as they watched and listened and tried to keep up with the developments, all while preparing for and playing a hockey game. Some cousins of Fiddler, who is a close friend of Upshall, lost their house in Fort McMurray and are staying in Edmonton with family. Fiddler said the same had happened to Upshall's brother, whose home was destroyed, and with whom he had spoken after the game.

They are not alone.

"That's tragic," Ruff said. "That's close to home for me, and it makes losing the game seem irrelevant to the people in danger up there and the people who have lost their homes. That stuff sits close to the heart with anybody. When you hear some of the stories and what people are doing for each other. It's heartbreaking what is going on up there."

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