The Great One, the honorary captain for the Pacific, talked about how far hockey had come here since the St. Louis Blues entered the NHL as an expansion team in 1967.
Five players from St. Louis were selected in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft. The Blues hosted the 2017 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Busch Stadium, won the Stanley Cup for the first time last season, then opened a four-sheet, $80 million practice facility and completed a three-stage, $120 million renovation of Enterprise Center before this season.
"Everything's been incredible," said Gretzky, who played for the Blues at the end of the 1995-96 season. "Of course, winning the Stanley Cup was icing on the cake, and this weekend and festivities have been just tremendous here. Everybody's really enjoyed it. These players are such great athletes. It was a great show and a great weekend."
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It was the first NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis since 1988, and it was the first time since 1989, when Gretzky returned to Edmonton as a member of the Los Angeles Kings, that the defending Stanley Cup champion hosted the NHL All-Star Game.
Fans soaked it up from the 2020 NHL Fan Fair at Union Station, the historic train station that recently completed its own $187 million renovation, to the game itself.
"Being here for the Stanley Cup and then coming back for the All-Star Game, I can't tell you the energy that is infused in the city," said actress Jenna Fischer, who is from St. Louis and was the honorary captain for the Atlantic Division.
"I was down at Union Station today as part of the Fan Fair, and that was amazing. Having the Stanley Cup on display in our city for people to see, I mean, there was a line out the door."
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The line was 5 ½ hours long.
"Everything was awesome," said Brett Hull, who is the Blues all-time leader in goals with 527 and was the honorary captain for the Central Division. "Can't have better timing to win the Cup, to have the All-Star Game, for these fans who have been through so much for this city."
Nothing could have set the tone better than this: When it was time for "The Star-Spangled Banner," out walked Charles Glenn, the longtime Blues anthem singer who had retired after last season. The crowd roared, and he belted out a beautiful rendition, drawing out the word "free."
Actor Jon Hamm, who is from St. Louis and was the honorary captain for the Metropolitan Division, well, hammed it up in an introductory video. At one point, Oilers captain Connor McDavid said he was "truly the Jon Hamm of hockey," but while his lips moved, it was Hamm's voice.
When the players were introduced, the Blues came last, and out came Laila Anderson, St. Louis' superfan who is battling hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, a severe systemic inflammatory syndrome, and became part of the team last season. She called out their names on a red carpet on the ice, and she did it with feeling.
Video: Laila Anderson introduces Blues All-Stars
Goalie Jordan Binnington, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and forwards Ryan O'Reilly and David Perron each stopped to give her a hug or a fist bump.
"She was really good," Perron said. "She had a good voice and pretty loud. She had fun doing it, so it certainly was special for all four of us."
After the Atlantic Division defeated the Metropolitan Division 9-5 in the first semifinal, Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie did an in-arena interview on the bench. He was selected by the Blues in the first round (No. 24) of the 2005 NHL Draft and played for them from 2008-15. He said he had been part of some heartbreaking seasons and it was "very exciting for them to finally get that Cup."
Craig Berube, coach of the Blues and the Central Division, used an all-Blues starting lineup, of course, and the fans treated the Central Division as the home team, chanting "Let's go Blues." Even Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, who was booed all weekend for representing a division rival, was cheered when he scored. At least for a moment. He put his hand to his ear.
However, the Central lost to the Pacific in the semifinal 10-5.
"It doesn't even matter," Hull said. "It was so great."
The championship still featured Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk and Ottawa Senators forward Brady Tkachuk, the sons of former Blues forward Keith Tkachuk. They grew up in St. Louis tagging along with their dad, skating on this very ice, wrestling in the locker room. They went to a couple of All-Star Games with their dad, and now here they were making their NHL All-Star Game debuts at home.
The fans even sang John Denver's "Country Roads" like they do at Blues games.
"It's just so good," said Kelly Chase, who played for the Blues from 1989-94 and 1997-2000. "It's a perfect storm here right now. I hope everyone goes home and has a great perspective [on St. Louis], with the job not only the Blues did here, but also the whole city and the way that they respond to these kind of events. You witnessed it at the outdoor game a few years back, and you just see it continues in this city."