FROM MY SEAT: A Hull of a Night 

I’ve long been convinced that a healthy passion for sports is a key ingredient to staying young. The vigor, suspense, emotion, and drama of the games we play are a healthy booster to both mind and body. Play them — and cheer them — and age becomes a much less imposing antagonist. If my belief holds true, 2006 has turned into a proverbial fountain that will do for me what Ponce de Leon so wished Florida might do for his band of explorers.

I grew up with heartfelt loyalty to a single franchise in each of America’s four “major” team sports. During football season, it’s been the Dallas Cowboys (thank you, Roger Staubach). This affection made it easy for me to adopt the nascent Dallas Mavericks when they drafted my college basketball hero, Dale Ellis, in 1983. And it was my baseball blood — St. Louis Cardinal red now for four generations in my family — that led me to adopt the National Hockey League’s St. Louis Blues shortly after my family’s move to New England in 1982. (This was survival, folks. Between all the Canadiens and Bruins fans in Vermont, I had to make up for pronouncing Guy LaFleur’s first name as though it rhymes with “buy”

Considering the four corners of my sports-cheering foundation, the current calendar year has been, beyond question, the happiest of my life. The Mavericks beat their longtime nemesis — the San Antonio Spurs — on their way to the franchise’s first appearance in the NBA Finals. In August, I witnessed the induction of not one, but two Dallas Cowboys (Troy Aikman and Rayfield Wright) into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Then in October, pure bliss: St. Louis won its first World Series in 24 years, and the 10th in franchise history.

Which leaves you wondering (if you’re paying attention): what about that hockey team? Well, I’m taking care of this part of the equation Tuesday night, when I’ll be at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis to see the jersey retirement of my Staubach on skates (my Wizard on ice?), Brett Hull.

The St. Louis Blues are in recovery. Having reached the NHL playoffs for an astounding 25 straight years, the team collapsed last season, a victim of< the wiped-out 2004-05 season and a drawn-out sale of the team by one Bill Laurie (he of the Wal-Mart family and the 1973 Memphis State Tiger NCAA basketball runners-up). They finished with the league’s worst record last spring, and only appear to be marginally better this season under new owner Dave Checketts and new team president John Davidson. Which makes memories of a certain Hall of Fame-bound right wing — who wore number 16 for 10 years in St. Louis — all the more precious.

With Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux still very much in their primes, Hull lit up the all-too-dim world of hockey when he scored 72 goals in 1989-90, then followed that season up with 86 more and an MVP trophy in 1991. While he didn’t win the Stanley Cup until he moved on to, ahem, Dallas (and later, Detroit), Hull gained a popularity in St. Louis that to that point had been reserved for the likes of Stan Musial and Ozzie Smith. His 527 goals in a Blues uniform are 175 more than the second-most prolific scorer in team history.

Like Musial and Ozzie, Hull will have his moment of honor Tuesday night, one where his number will be permanently reserved for story telling and legend making. And I’ll be there, cheering the Golden Brett like I would if he, one last time, drilled a goalie-killing slapshot into the back of an opponent’s net. The four-hour journey north is the least I can do for a decade of winter memories.

Two championship series (one victorious), a pair of Hall of Fame inductions, and a number retirement. I’m counting my sports blessings with each keystroke. And wondering — as my heart thumps to a beat I’m not likely to feel again anytime soon — where do I turn in 2007?

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