ST. LOUIS — The secret plan was unveiled over FaceTime. It was midway through the first round last month, around the time that Blues forward Zach Sanford learned that he was getting benched for Game 4 against Winnipeg after appearing in the first three. Chatting with his close friend and former roommate at Boston College, as they do every single day, Chris Calnan detected some disappointment in Sanford’s voice. So he laid out a vision of ultimate triumph.
“I said, ‘Dude, keep your head up,’” Calnan recalls. “I told him, ‘Be ready, because you’re going to get in. You’re going to be playing the Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals. And you’re going to dangle Zdeno Chara for the Game 7 winner in Boston.”
Onscreen, Sanford just laughed. It must’ve seemed nearly impossible then: A son of New England, toppling his beloved childhood team, deking past its venerated captain, hoisting the trophy in front of friends and family … But look at him now. Upon receiving the news that he would replace suspended fourth-line center Oskar Sundqvist in Game 3, returning to the lineup after 18 straight postseason scratches with the series tied at 1–1, Sanford dialed Calnan again. “We both freaked out,” Calnan says. “I was like, ‘This is it, man. The plan’s coming together.’”
As with any secret scheme, there are code words too. Calnan keeps his simple. Throughout this spring he has been repeating the same thing to Sanford, a single-name reminder that playoff heroes often come from unlikely sources. “Next man up,” Calnan will tell him. “Malcolm Butler.” Five years ago, the little-known rookie cornerback jumped a slant route and intercepted Russell Wilson at the goal line, clinching Super Bowl XLIX for New England. “He loves that analogy,” Calnan says of Sanford, both of them Patriots diehards. “That’s his chance right now.”
Well, in a way. Raised an hour or so from the city in Manchester, N.H., the 24-year-old Sanford had always cheered for the Bruins. He attended games at TD Garden, idolized Glen Murray, bought a Brian Rolston stick at the pro shop, celebrated their 2011 Stanley Cup victory over the Canucks at a friend’s house. “Watched every game growing up,” he says. But while the current Boston lineup is speckled with New England natives living out their black-and-gold dreams—from Charlestown defenseman Matt Grzelcyk to Weymouth’s Charlie Coyle—Sanford is experiencing a unique funhouse mirror version of that fantasy on the other side.
“It’s a little weird playing against your team growing up,” says Sanford, only the second Mass.-born player to face the Bruins for the Cup (ex-Vancouver goalie Cory Schneider). “I was even talking to my mom, she was at the games in Boston and she caught herself cheering for the Bruins here and there. Had to fix that. But it’s pretty crazy how things work out.”
Crazy does not begin to describe what Sanford has endured to reach the sport’s biggest stage. Shipped from Washington to St. Louis around the ‘16–17 trade deadline, the former second-round draft pick suffered a dislocated shoulder on the first day of the following training camp, resulting in a six-month absence. Aiming for roster spot in ‘18–19, Sanford grinded away in the gym last summer, earning rave reviews from the training staff at Edge Performance Systems (fittingly enough based in Foxborough, Mass., where the Patriots play). “He got so much better, he was the best guy on the ice, and he was so looking forward to having a great season,” says Calnan. “And then—BOOM—that stuff happens.”
The morning after the Blues’ first preseason game last fall, Sanford awoke to a battery of missed calls from his older sister, Melanie. “When I called her back,” he would write later, “she told me that dad had a heart attack in his sleep and was in the hospital.” Mind racing, Sanford weighed his options. Then he considered how Mike Sanford would’ve reacted. “He would have told me not to come home at all,” Zach wrote. “He knows how much I love hockey and love being here, and that I had work to do if I was going to make this team.”
Sanford stayed. Word of his father’s passing arrived the next day, Sept. 20, after the Blues finished practice.
Mike Sanford had a tireless ethic, cooking seven days a week at a restaurant before opening a furniture repair business because he wanted more time to coach Zach’s youth hockey team, the Manchester (N.H.) Flames. “I see that in Zach,” agent Jerry Buckley says. “He’s a big guy, second-round draft pick, went right to the NHL [after leaving Boston College at the end of his sophomore season to sign with the Capitals]. But Zach’s had to work for everything he’s gotten.”
“Nothing fazes the kid,” Calnan says. “That's why he’s where he is today.”
Sanford ultimately started the season with the Blues’ minor-league affiliate, but earned a quick callup and finished with 20 points over 60 games, establishing himself as a skilled bottom-six presence with a feisty streak. Perhaps most noteworthy in this regard was the scuffle that broke out between Sanford and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo during a mid-Dec. practice, though Calnan wasn’t surprised: Once he and Sanford wound up taking two-handed swings at each other’s shinpads during a captain’s scrimmage at B.C. ... before Sanford threw him into the net.
Calnan is currently based in New York City, working in real estate and marketing, but he has been there for Sanford when it counts. Early into what became a franchise-record 11-game winning streak in February, the Blues held their annual father’s trip. Sanford asked Calnan to come along. One night, they stole away from the group and went for dinner at a waterfront steakhouse in Ft. Lauderdale, catching up for several hours while cruising through a bottle of red wine. “I know how tough it was for him,” Calnan says. “It was a special moment.”
Calnan also attended Games 1–2 at TD Garden, visiting Sanford at the Blues team hotel after the series opener. Sanford was staying positive, but Calnan could tell that it was tough. After all, Sanford had gotten a taste of the Stanley Cup experience during warmups, whipping around the Boston ice with loved ones in the seats, only to watch the Blues lose, 4–2, from the press box.
Across the hotel room, Calnan looked at his friend.
“Dude, Malcolm Butler,” he said. “You’re going to get in, you're going to get your chance.”