St. Louis Blues' Stanley Cup Parade Felt Like Redemption

St. Louis turned up to celebrate the Blues, and the Blues flipped the script, celebrating the city crazy enough to believe this was all possible.
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ST. LOUIS — It wasn’t the noise or the beer, not the music, not even the Stanley Cup. The best thing about Saturday here in the shadow of the Arch wasn’t any of the trappings of the Blues championship parade. Instead, it was what the parade turned into: a party where lines blurred and heroes mingled with crowds, where the distance between a sports fan and his favorite player shrunk until it was nothing at all—a high five, a hug, a can I put my baby in the Cup?

I forget, sometimes, about that distance. As someone who’s spent her adult life traipsing in and out of locker rooms and press conferences, the mystique surrounding athletes gets lost on me. I ask questions that yield the quotes, and even though I haven’t lived in my hometown for 13 years, I was lucky enough to get to write about several of the Blues’ postseason games this spring.

Saturday, though, I didn’t want to be a journalist. I wanted to be a kid from St. Louis at her first championship parade. (I was in my sixth-grade classroom when the Rams partied, in college in 2006, at my first job in 2011.) I wanted to crack open a beer with my best friend and take it all in, to step back from the awesome proximity my job affords. There’d been something special about this Blues team, about its worst-to-first trajectory that’s now woven in with St. Louis’s history, now an inspiration for a city that’s trying to do something similar. This year, this championship, feels so different from when the Cardinals won two World Series in five years, and not just because those rings were Nos. 10 and 11 for the franchise. Winning was what the Cardinals did, and it was fun, but those championships felt like little more than baseball.

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This one felt like redemption. For me, at least, it was impossible to quiet the little voice in the back of my head cheering—for a city, not a sport, for the people in the place I love more than anywhere else on earth, not a team. The morning after the Blues won the Cup, I drove to St. Louis from Chicago, blasting “Gloria” at intervals along I-55 and resolving that on Saturday, I’d try to see this team through the eyes of a St. Louisan—something I still claim to be, but worry I’m not.

It would be fun, I thought, to see these men as legends, not just a bunch of hard-working, talented guys who get a few inches shorter every time they take off their skates. But almost as soon as I pulled into my parents’ driveway, I heard the Blues were partying at a bar across from the YMCA where I used to take swim lessons. O.B. Clark’s was closed for the Blues’ event, but no one—not bar management, not the players—seemed to care that fans were assembled in the parking lot. On a second-story patio, players partied with the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Cup, catching merchandise from the fans below, signing it, throwing back hats and shirts and whatever else, now bearing priceless ink. Later in the night, Colton Parayko descended into the crowd.

The distance between fan and hero was narrowing, the next night, even more. Friday, the party moved to a downtown bar, where the Blues danced on the wooden counter, shirtless and drenched in alcohol and surrounded by admirers. By Saturday, distance was eliminated altogether. The Blues and the city were one dizzied mass, and though the team put on the trappings of a parade—floats, trucks, cars—it would have done better to just let players loose downtown with the Cup and the Conn Smythe and the crates upon crates of alcohol they tore through in the mounting humidity.

I posted up near the start of the route, right where Pat Maroon first decided to exit the truck that was supposed to serve as his chariot. Maroon is a St. Louis native, almost exactly my age, who moved away from this city at almost the exact time I did to pursue his crazy longshot of a career. There’s no mystery in why I’ve enjoyed his story so much this spring, and when his truck stopped and he jumped out, an entire swath of crowd began to scream. Somehow, the truck’s driver didn’t notice he’d lost the only passenger that really mattered, and as he began to drive forward without Maroon, the rest of the truck’s occupants had to reach into the cab to stop him. My best friend and I laughed, and I assumed this was a one-off, a funny moment we’d remember from a wild day.

But then the parade neared its end, and the float carrying Ryan O’Reilly and the Conn Smythe passed. My friend swore she’d glimpsed the Cup, but I told her it had to be riding with Alex Pietrangelo, the team captain whose 771st game as a Blue yielded the trophy. But then where was Pietrangelo, we wondered—and we couldn’t spot the Cup anymore. We inched forward toward the barricades, and we realized the captain and the Cup had been on Market Street all along, on foot—which was about how things would proceed for the rest of the event. Cars be damned, and barriers too. The Cup was for passing around, for drinking and baby-cradling. The parade devolved into a show-and-tell, a meet-and-greet. Jordan Binnington rode a too-small motorbike. Brayden Schenn, in a fireman’s hat, sprayed the crowd with champagne. Parayko behaved almost exactly as he had at O.B. Clark’s, hugging fans, jumping up and down and allowing himself to be drenched in Budweiser. St. Louis turned up to celebrate the Blues, and the Blues flipped the script, celebrating the city crazy enough to believe this was all possible.

At the rally on the newly renovated Arch Grounds, Brett Hull addressed fans. The best player in Blues history had been something like a beer-fueled mascot all postseason, the loudest, most emotional fan of all. Wearing a shirt screen-printed with a photograph of himself flipping off the Bruins bench in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, Hull seemed less like a Hall of Famer and more like one of the 500,000 or so assembled fans. Off key, in his gravely baritone, he began to sing into the microphone: “Gloria. Gloria. I think they’ve got your number.” It was dissonant, in the best possible way—just like this entire spring in St. Louis.

When I first arrived downtown, before the parade had begun to roll, I wondered if I’d cry. Though I’ve never been an emotional person, almost everything about this team has reduced me to a puddle: Laila Anderson, the 11-year-old superfan who suffers from hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, a rare immune disorder; Charles Glenn, the longtime anthem-singer who’s retiring after a multiple sclerosis diagnosis; Bobby Plager, the wildly superstitious original Blue who was too nervous to watch most of this improbable run. So really, let’s be clear: I expected to cry. And then I didn’t come close.

Saturday was less about tears and more about wonder, in a city that badly needs the latter. I was wide-eyed at a downtown transformed, too focused to feel that familiar watering. Of course the city was going to look different on parade day, but the contrast was just so stark: empty to bursting at the seams, struggling to alive. The hometown I love so much has had a rough go of it over the course of my 31 years, and some of its problems are too politically charged to warrant mention in an essay that’s really about men slinging little discs into netting. But consider this: In 1980, the city was home to 23 Fortune 500 companies (adjusted for the current methodology, which changed in 1994). Now, there are 10, up from nine a year ago. The once-local company whose hops fueled much of this week’s madness and made special, Gloria-edition bottles for Saturday, Anheuser Busch, is now part of a Belgian conglomerate. Three years ago, the Rams bolted for Los Angeles after their owner—a Missourian named for Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter—deemed the city a backwater. Downtown St. Louis has issues with crime and homelessness and a flagging economy—which Saturday didn’t change, of course. The parade, the end to this magical Blues season, just suspended those problems, at the very least distracted from them.

But that’s not quite the point. The point is that Saturday was a reminder of what this city can be, what it should try to be on days and years when it has no trophy to hoist. It reminded me that no one’s home is perfect. But for an afternoon, when the heroes and the fans were all dressed in the same jerseys and drinking the same beers and singing the same song, St. Louis came close.