Monday, June 3, 2019

St. Louis Blues Fans: Hope Hard

Posted By on Mon, Jun 3, 2019 at 8:59 AM

This is a column about optimism and possibilities, at least in the realm of sports. It's also a column about patience, the most frustrating, maddening "virtue" on the spectrum of human emotion. If your team of choice wins championships regularly, you might move on to our dining coverage, perhaps our calendar of (non-sports) events. Boston sports fans have no business here. But if, say, you've chosen to ride with a still-young professional franchise — to date, title-free — or a college program that has gotten this close but not quite . . . well, read on.
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I adopted the St. Louis Blues upon landing in the middle of hockey country (Vermont) in 1982, a 13-year-old boy choosing to root outside the regional box of Boston Bruin and Montreal Canadien fans. I'd been raised on Cardinal baseball, and if I needed to speak hockey to survive, I might as well track another St. Louis team in the NHL standings. Upon their arrival in my winter thoughts and prayers, the Blues had played 15 years in the NHL without winning the greatest trophy in sports, the Stanley Cup. They had been gifted trips to the Stanley Cup Final their first three seasons, the result of a bizarre alignment strategy in which six expansion teams comprised the same division, its champion to face the best of the Original Six in the final series. (Imagine the PCL-champion Memphis Redbirds facing the Boston Red Sox last fall.) St. Louis was swept all three times. When they lost to the Bruins in the 1970 Final, I was in diapers and certainly couldn't say "Plager brothers."

Fast-forward 49 years, and 37 years from my adoption of the Blues. Several life stages there: high school, college, marriage, parenthood, firstborn to college. The Blues have still not won the Stanley Cup (17 other franchises have). They've suited up Hall of Fame-bound players: Joey Mullen, Doug Gilmour, Scott Stevens, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Pronger. Each of those players has his name engraved on the Cup, but under a team he played for after leaving St. Louis. (Think it hurt for Pau Gasol to win an NBA title with the Lakers? What if brother Marc does so with the freaking Raptors?) The greatest coach in Blues history (Joel Quenneville) has won the Cup three times . . . for the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blues won division titles and made the playoffs every year from 1980 through 2004, but departed every postseason by shaking hands with a team that was better. They reached the conference finals in 1986, 2001, and 2016, three painful teases of what might come should the Blues achieve one more elevation on this all-too-steep mountain.

Then 2019 arrived. The first week in January, St. Louis had the worst record in the 31-team NHL. But a rookie goaltender (Jordan Binnington) and interim coach (Craig Berube) proved to be historic boosters. The Blues reeled off the longest winning streak (11 games) in franchise history. They upset Winnipeg in the opening round of the playoffs, beat Dallas on a goal in the second overtime of Game 7 (patience, remember?!), and then — cue angels — knocked San Jose silly in the Western Conference finals to earn a berth with Boston in the Stanley Cup Final.

I haven't handled this as "professionally" as a longtime fan should. My highs have been among the puffy white clouds (in the clear Blues sky). My lows (the Bruins are formidable) have reminded me of crushing, season-ending losses of days gone by. I've come to recognize that winning the final four games necessary to raise the Cup is every bit the challenge of winning the 12 playoff games necessary to play for it. I never had this perspective before. And I'm so grateful for the perspective.

Your team will win a championship. It's gonna happen. Or you know what? It won't happen. (A 90-year-old Chicago Cubs loyalist who died in 2015 personified die-hard fan.) The math is very much against you. Only one playoff team ends its season with a victory. The vast majority of fan bases in your sport of choice are actually brethren, suffering the same abrupt termination to one season after another. But let me emphasize: Your devotion is worth the wait, however long. That notch on the mountain — the one you can sometimes see, however distant — is yet attainable. Don't take your eyes away. More importantly, and no matter the scars, don't take your heart away.


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