According to official NHL records, the Blues have been in this position before: in 1968, ’69 and ’70. Those three springs, St. Louis’s fledgling hockey team was the Western Conference’s representative in the Stanley Cup Final—which it lost each time, lost without winning a single game.
It would be heartbreaking if it didn’t make so much sense. Back then, in the first three seasons after the NHL grew from six teams to 12, the expansion franchises comprised their own division. It was a lesser tier, unestablished, emergent—and the Blues were the best it could offer, chum upon which the Original Six would feast.
It’s been 49 years since the Blues were last sacrificially offered to the Eastern Conference, and in those nearly five decades without a hope of a Stanley Cup in St. Louis, much has changed. The division misalignment is long over, and since their last Final berth, the Blues have competed in 338 postseason games, the equivalent of more than four regular seasons’ worth of playoff hockey. That’s how many tries it took to get back, back to right where they were on April 30, 1970: headed to the Stanley Cup Final against Boston.
This time, though, it feels new, and not just because of all the years that have passed. Expansion teams have won many a Stanley Cup, and the Blues have their first fighting chance. St. Louis is terrified, thrilled, nervous, confident—this amalgamation of contradictory emotions that can exist only for teams that have gone so inexplicably long without a championship. But among the confusion, something else exists: reflection.
First, consider this nugget of recent history: That the Blues even made the playoffs this year registers somewhere on the spectrum between improbable and shocking. On Jan. 2, the team was dead last in the Western Conference, loaded with talent and devoid of chemistry. By Jan. 17, St. Louis had snuck ahead of the Blackhawks and the Kings, but even in a division where more teams make the postseason than not, they still seemed destined to be done in early April. That day, Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel tweeted that he was “wondering if there is a more anonymous pro sports franchise” than the Blues. His comment set St. Louis ablaze with its special brand of Midwestern indignation, fueled by dozens of playoff runs that did nothing to build the team anything close to a national brand. Even locally, lessons in Blues folklore are taught with ugly footnotes: the destruction of the historic St. Louis Arena, the time the team almost moved to Saskatchewan, and what about the time Wayne Gretzky packed his bags after 31 games? A casual Blues fan might know more about those grisly details than the career of a beloved player like Bob Plager, the bruising defenseman who endeared himself to the city in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Three weeks ago, I traveled to my hometown to write about this year’s Blues during the second round of the playoffs. There, I talked with Brad Lee, the publisher of “St. Louis Game Time,” an exhaustive, fan-centric newsletter distributed outside of the Enterprise Center before every Blues game. Lee reminded me of a time in St. Louis sports history I remember through the lens of being a young child: the early 1990s. That’s when Lee fell in love with the team—in part because of the Cardinals’ struggles. After losing the 1987 World Series, the Cardinals didn’t make the playoffs again until 1996, leaving a vacuum. Enter the Blues—whose devotees would say had been there all along—as a victorious alternative. They made the playoffs in each of those nine years of baseball purgatory and won a postseason series in six. They had Brett Hull, Adam Oates and Brendan Shanahan, who were more than household names; they were worshipped. Lee loved the on-ice product, and he also enjoyed what the Blues front office was doing: upsetting the NHL old guard with massive (at the time) free-agent salaries to woo talent to town.
Throughout this year’s playoffs, Hull—the most storied player in Blues history who left as a 34-year-old free agent in search of a Cup, which he won in Dallas—has been a presence at games. He’s an executive vice president in the team’s front office, but lately, he’s looked more like a giddy, well-dressed fan, looming tan and large and wound-up on the jumbotron. The Golden Brett is 54 now, his face still chiseled, his hair gray. On Tuesday night, he did interviews from all over the arena: the locker room, an aisle near the ice. “I’m not a crier, but I’m crying,” he said on the Fox Sports Midwest postgame show, still buzzing as he talked about all the Blues legends he’d seen that day, how much the game meant to all of the men who wondered if they’d live to see this moment.
All spring, those former stars have been at the ready, for a quote or a smile or a tear. Kelly Chase, a ‘90s enforcer, recorded the pump-up video that played earlier in the playoffs. “I can’t imagine a bigger honor,” he said of the ask, and he rehearsed his monologue for hours on a trip to Puerto Vallarta, to the point that a vacationer on a neighboring boat suggested he’d heard the spiel enough. The team released another such jumbotron speech, this time from Hull, during the series against San Jose. Plager, who played alongside his brothers Barclay and Bill on those early Blues teams, has been unable to watch the games due to nerves, a move that’s been widely chronicled in local media. The Blues history books are open, and the characters are talking—about this rollercoaster of a season and about the past, rattling off names of men long gone from St. Louis, some even long-dead. They’re telling the Blues’ story, and St. Louis is listening, reliving 52 years of history that seems less like a dead end and more like—maybe, possibly—the path to a Cup.
I remember tuning out those lessons years ago, when my babysitter tried to teach me. She showed me how to braid my American Girl doll’s hair while Hull was racking up a hat trick, and that was fun, but I didn’t want to hear how the team on the TV had never won a Stanley Cup. I didn’t want to listen when my mother ranted about despised coach Mike Keenan and how he broke up the best Blues roster she could remember. History of wars lost is less appealing than tales of the good guy triumphing over the bad, but St. Louis had none of those. The Blues just broke your heart, and you kept on loving them.
But this? This is starting to look like a story worth telling. The story of the kid goalie, Jordan Binnington, purveyor of shutouts and steely glares. The story of the winning streak. The story of the ‘80s dance-club hit, “Gloria,” that’s become the Blues’ victory anthem. The story of the radio station that played it for 24 hours after the Blues took down Dallas in seven games, and again on Wednesday after eliminating the Sharks. Keep spinning the yarn, and St. Louis sounds a lot like a hockey town.
Local kids have become top draft picks, have played successful NHL careers. One, Pat Maroon, has a chance to win a championship this spring. If he does, he’ll be the first player born and raised in the Gateway City to hoist the Cup. Janssen, the first native St. Louisan to be drafted into the NHL, has watched the city evolve since he debuted in 2004, played for the Blues from 2007–11 and retired from hockey in 2016. He lives in a western suburb of St. Louis now, where he’s gone to the same gas station every morning he’s been in town for years. “I talk to at least one or two people [every day],” Janssen told me earlier this month. “The questions have evolved more and more. Why isn’t everybody fighting? That’s 15 years ago. Now: So, you have a left-handed defenseman, and you have a right-handed… stuff like that. They do their homework now. Blues fans have gone so much farther with their knowledge of hockey.”
They know the game. They love it. And finally, the game might love the Blues back.