BOSTON — It’s Jan. 2, and the St. Louis Blues are the worst team in the NHL. They’re porous defensively and underwhelming offensively. Their meticulously crafted roster has failed the chemistry test. They fired their coach, Mike Yeo, 43 days earlier, but haven’t improved under interim coach Craig Berube. For lack of a more clinical term, they stink.
Brayden Schenn thought about that dour moment in the season as he lifted the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night, after the Blues ended a 52-year drought with their Game 7 win in Boston. He thought about what the Brayden Schenn who was in last place on Jan. 2 would say if he received a message from Brayden Schenn, Stanley Cup champion, telling him to just hang in there for a few more months.
“[He’d say] you’re a liar. We’re in last place,” Schenn said. “But you keep on fighting. You keep on believing.”
Schenn glanced around the ice at his teammates as they hugged loved ones and took photos with the Stanley Cup on the Bruins’ home ice. “This doesn’t feel real,” he said. “It’s absolutely incredible. It feels like a video game we’re in.”
Here’s the thing about video games: When they don’t go your way, there’s a remedy. You hit the reset button.
Down to one life on the first level? Finish fourth in the first race? Give up three goals in the first 10 minutes of a game? Hit the reset button.
Lingering in last place on Jan. 2? Hit the reset button.
“We put everything on the line from Jan. 3 on, and we deserve this,” winger Patrick Maroon said after Game 7. “All these people, all these media, they doubted us all year long. And we shoved it right up their ass.”
From Jan. 3 through the end of the regular season, the Blues went 29-10-5. Berube unlocked something in this team through straightforward communication and a north-south forechecking game that eventually was like a wrecking ball swinging through the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Blues’ doldrums were a distant memory. Step by step, they walked away from them.
“The coaching change happened. The other guy was a good guy. But then he’d come to practice, and I don’t think he had the players’ attention,” said Bob Plager, an original Blues player who now works in their community relations department. “Then they get the new coach, Berube. You gotta love him. He’s old-school, I think. He played over 1,000 games, but he had to work every year. He was the kind of player we were. You went out there and you worked and you learned the game and you understood. You made the mistakes. You corrected them.”
And then you forget about them.
If there’s anything that defined the Blues in their successful quest for the Stanley Cup, it was their uncanny ability to move beyond adversity. Devastating losses were quickly followed by victories. For example, the consecutive losses in the series against Winnipeg and Dallas that were followed by consecutive victories to close out those matchups.
Calamitous moments were overcome through obliviscence. Such as that undetected hand pass that led to a San Jose Sharks win in Game 3 of the Western Conference final, then led to three straight St. Louis wins to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
“After the game, I just came in [the dressing room] and talked,” Berube recalled. “We talked about how you just gotta move on. The call, you can’t change it now. It is what it is.”
The Blues experienced deflating moments such as the devastating losses in Game 3, the first Stanley Cup Final home game in franchise history since 1970, and Game 6, when they had a chance to win the Cup in front of those starved fans. They followed each with a win, including in Game 7.
“Every guy on our team has a ton of character,” forward Zach Sanford said after Game 3. “We’re a really close group, and we all have each other’s backs. A tough loss like that, I think [on] a lot of teams, a lot of guys would have started throwing each other around the bus, blaming other people and doing this and that. With this group it’s all just boosting each other and having each other’s back.”
Each time adversity hit, the Blues hit the reset button. “Things don’t really seem to faze us,” captain Alex Pietrangelo said.
That’s especially true for their goalie, rookie Jordan Binnington, who was 14-2 this season with a 1.78 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage after losses. This was a rookie goalie who, when asked whether playing front of a hostile crowd in Winnipeg made him nervous, shot back with, “Do I look nervous?”
He won all three games in Winnipeg. He won three more in Boston. He did this all season, from the moment he won the crease.
“It’s just his calmness and his mannerisms more than anything,” Berube said. “I think he goes back in there and he feels really confident about himself.”
Between Berube and Binnington, the Blues resurrected their season.
“I think the guys realized with this coach and that goaltender, there are games going into the third period where they’re tied or a goal behind,” Plager said. “And they start to realize, hey, this goaltender is giving us a chance to win some games. So we started winning games. The players became believers.”
And they believed they were playing for more than just one another.
This Cup is for Bob Plager.
He was on the first Blues team that existed in 1967-68 and played 616 games with the franchise. He paced the hallways during playoff games, too nervous to watch. He stood in their locker room, teary-eyed, after the Blues eliminated the Sharks to advance to the Cup Final. His face adorned the giant video screen before home games against Boston, telling fans and the team, “Hey buddy, let’s make history.”
To many outsiders, the Blues are the NHL’s equivalent of wallpaper, always present but rarely commented on. They make the playoffs with frequency but never do much with the opportunity. Ask someone what “Blues culture” is; at worst, you’ll get a blank stare, at best, they’ll assume you’re talking about B.B. King.
Plager, naturally, pushes back on that notion. Buried in the franchise’s DNA, obscured by decades of mediocrity, are the building blocks of a champion. Those first Blues teams had Hall of Famers like Dickie Moore and Doug Harvey, who’d made names for themselves with the Montreal Canadiens. They set the example for Bob and Barclay Plager and Red Berenson, who set the example for Brian Sutter and Bernie Federko, who set the example for Brett Hull, who set the example for Chris Pronger. It continued with David Backes setting the example for Alex Pietrangelo. It continued further with Ryan O’Reilly setting the example for this team, from the moment he arrived via trade from Buffalo last July.
“You got a guy like O’Reilly that comes in here at the start of the year. Every shift, he played,” Bob Plager said. “There’s no cheating in his game. That rubbed off on some of the players. They saw the way you’re supposed to play.”
In Plager, O’Reilly saw an honorable ex-player and an important link to his new franchise’s past. Last August, when the Blues unveiled their new third jerseys, Plager handed one to O’Reilly. Plager recalled whispering to him: “You know, I need my parade.” He said O’Reilly responded, “Well, we’re going to get you one.”
And he did.
These Blues are connected to previous generations of players, and intentionally so. For example, a pair of Plager’s hockey gloves from the 1960s were used as the “player of the game” trinket in the Blues’ postgame celebrations this season.
“It’s just a tribute to guys who built this thing to get us where we are,” Pietrangelo said. “I think we all know what Bobby stands for in this organization and this city, so it’s fun for us to get him to be part of our group in some way. Nobody loves this organization more than Bobby, especially with the effort and time he gives.”
This Cup is for Bernie Federko, too.
He played all but one of his NHL seasons in St. Louis, scoring 1,130 points in 1,000 career games and making the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2002. He reached the playoffs 11 years. He reached the conference final once. He has lived vicariously through this year’s team.
“You always want to feel a part of it,” he said as he stood in the middle of the Blues’ Cup celebration. “I’m proud to be a Blue. More than ever. I’m always proud. But this makes one step higher on the totem pole. Because now you feel that we, as an organization, that we, as a carrier of the Blue Note, get to achieve this goal. It’s so surreal to be standing on this ice right now. It blows me away.”
This one is for Brett Hull and Chris Pronger and Kelly Chase and every other Blues alum who remained around the organization and acted like a booster club for this team during the playoffs.
Pietrangelo said his teammates are playing for not only themselves but also the Blues who came before them. “Those guys have built the foundation of this organization, and they represent the Blue Note pretty well. We try and carry that on,” he said.
The Blues are a family. One that extends all the way to the stands.
Lalia Anderson gingerly walked on the ice toward her friend Colton Parayko. The Blues defenseman spotted her, skated over and dropped to his knees, his arms spread wide. He let out a jubilant laugh as he embraced her and she gripped him tight.
Anderson has hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, a disease with which only 15 other children in the world have been diagnosed. Her love of the Blues, she said, is one of the things that has helped her through treatments and recovery.
Blues players Alexander Steen and Parayko befriended her at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Parayko took her trick-or-treating inside that facility. They became fast friends, and Laila would text him after games.
After a bone marrow transplant in January, Laila was confined to her house and the hospital. But during the Western Conference final, she was cleared to finally attend a Blues playoff game, and the video of her ecstatic reaction quickly went viral. She attended every Blues home playoff game after that, and the team flew her out to Game 7 in Boston, perhaps the best sign of her recovery.
“I thought it was 100 percent a joke. I didn’t really think I was going to be here,” she said on the ice in Boston. “When I got on the plane … I wasn’t ready for this night to start, because I’m not ready for it to end.”
Parayko has been open about the perspective Laila has given him. The kind of perspective that allows him to process, say, a playoff loss and move past it.
“We get to show up to the rink and be with the guys, do things like that,” he said before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. “But you go to the hospital, and you speak with her, and you watch her go through all that stuff. I can’t imagine what she’s going through. What kinds of things they’re putting in her body to try and help her recover. She continues to have a strong attitude. A positive attitude. It’s so special. We might lose a hockey game, and we’re frustrated or go home really upset. But there are people out there trying to battle for their lives.”
Parayko grabbed Laila’s arm and led her to where the Stanley Cup was being hoisted. He grabbed the chalice and helped her hold it. Laila planted a kiss on its rings, wiping away a tear from her eyes with a mitten.
This is what she held on for. This is what she overcame to experience.
“I’m going to remember this until the day I die,” she said.
Eleven-year-old Blues fan Laila Anderson hoists the Stanley Cup with Colton Parayko and gives it a kiss.
There are over 50 years’ worth of stories to tell from St. Louis, of fans who never thought they’d see this day.
Some are young, like Laila. Some are older, such as Charles Glenn, the team’s anthem singer who has multiple sclerosis and decided this would be his final season. He then watched as the Blues kept winning and winning until he sang in what was, mathematically, the most home games in which he could have sung during the season.
Some are like Allan, an Uber driver in St. Louis. “I waited 50 years for this,” he tells me. “I was a kid, and I was turning the dial on my television, with the antenna. And I came across this hockey game. I had never seen one before. It was the Blues against somebody, and here were two guys just beating each other in the face, and they’re just letting them. This was back when they let them fight, mind you. And I could not … stop … watching it. I was hooked.”
He was never worried they’d fall short of the Cup.
“They can’t. Not this time,” he said.
Some are like Scott Berry, the Blues fan who put a $400 wager on St. Louis to win the Cup at 250-1 odds, refused to hedge his bet and is now $100,000 richer after their Game 7 win. “This has been an incredible ride, to say the least. In my opinion, the $400 I spent was well worth this experience,” he said, adding that even if the Blues hadn’t won the Cup, “I’ve already won.”
Some are like the fans who filled Enterprise Center and packed Busch Stadium on Wednesday night just to watch the game on television. Or the ones who crank “Gloria,” the 1980s pop hit that became their victory song this season, at red lights in town. Or the ones who would come up to O’Reilly in Whole Foods to give him fist bumps of encouragement.
“It’s so cool that people are a part of this. That’s what this is all about,” O’Reilly said. “It’s not just the guys in here. It’s a city that’s together. We’re all trying to win.”
In a season defined by the reset button, O’Reilly personifies it.
He collected the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP one year, two months and three days after telling the hockey world that he lost his love of the game while playing with the Buffalo Sabres.
“We’re stuck in this mindset of just being OK with losing,” O’Reilly said on locker cleanout day in Buffalo. “I feel it, too. I think it’s really crept into myself. Over the course of the year, I’ve lost myself a lot, where it’s just kind of get through, just being OK with just not making a mistake. That’s not winning hockey at all.
“That’s how I kind of fell out of love with it, and I miss that. I want to get back to myself.”
At that point, a trade was deemed a necessity for the Sabres, who shipped O’Reilly to the St. Louis. Blues GM Doug Armstrong had long coveted the center, tracking him back to his draft year. O’Reilly tried to put Buffalo behind him, telling Armstrong in their first conversation, “Let’s go win a Cup.”
Then the losing started.
“It was frustrating,” O’Reilly said. “I was coming off a bad year, I come to a great team, and then they get off to a bad start. I was worried I was a big part of why they were losing — that I had to something to do with it.”
Instead, he was part of the solution.
“Looking at his play all year long, his worth ethic and his production for us all year and then throughout the playoffs, he was just a relentless hockey player for a long time. Never quits. Such a smart two-way player. He’s a special player,” Berube said.
And now he’s a playoff MVP.
“It’s tough to describe,” O’Reilly said. “The Cup is the ultimate goal, and just trying to go out there and be the spark and try to make a difference, and looking at the names on this thing and to be a part of that group — most of these guys on here I pretended I was as a kid and now to be on there with them, it’s an incredible feeling.”
One of those names is Larry Robinson, who won the Conn Smythe in 1978. He has now been a part of 10 Stanley Cup championships as a player and a coach. And he’s absolutely blown away by the resiliency of the Blues.
“This is a special group,” he said as the Blues paraded with the Stanley Cup. “We’ve been counted out at times all year in certain situations, and every time we were counted out, we came back. We had calls go against us in this series and other series. Most teams might have panicked and did something stupid. But they showed a lot of will and a lot of heart.”
And a short memory. Which, in the end, is why the Blues won the Stanley Cup. Every loss was forgotten. Every injustice was dismissed. The burden of 52 years of futility didn’t ultimately crush them. Jan. 2 was ancient history.
They hit the reset button, again and again, until they finally beat the game.