I never knew whether the day would come. And honestly, that’s a lot tougher than thinking the day would never come.
Saturday, I made the trek to St. Louis to see my beloved Blues march down Market Street and show off the Stanley Cup to hundreds of thousands of devotees who bleed blue.
It’s the first time the Blues have brought home Lord Stanley in their 52-year history. I’ve been alive for 34 of them, and I’d seen enough heartbreaking losses to make me question whether this franchise was cursed.
And yet, they gave me enough hope to keep coming back. Admittedly, it was much harder earlier this season when the Blues were floundering in last place in the NHL just days into 2019.
That’s the thing about being close so often: You know that, just mathematically, it has to eventually happen.
The Blues have been around for 52 years. They’ve made the playoffs in 42 seasons. They won at least one playoff round in 23 of those.
There was often enough reason to make you believe, year after year, that this would be the time that it’d be different.
But for 51 years, it wasn’t.
As a tortured Blues fan, I started having doubts as early as Round 1.
After taking a 2-0 series lead by winning both games on the road versus the Winnipeg Jets, the Blues lost the next two games at home. In Game 5, they fell behind Winnipeg 2-0 before mounting a comeback, ending with a Jaden Schwartz game-winning goal with 15 seconds to go.
The Blues would win the series the following game, not without more familiar Blues dread. This time, Schwartz notched a hat trick to give the Blues a 3-0 lead. The Jets scored two unanswered, but the Blues held it together to advance.
I felt the doubts once more against the Dallas Stars. The Blues fell behind in the series 3 games to 2 before getting a Game 6 win in Dallas to set up a winner-take-all showdown in St. Louis.
The script felt like many Blues losses I’d seen before: They get an early lead, and the opposition ties it up on the flukiest of goals. Then the Blues thoroughly outplay the opponent for the remainder of the game, except for a goalie who’s playing on a different level.
It all happened again.
It took a deflection off a referee’s skate for the Stars to get on the board. Dallas was a non-factor in the second and third periods, save for St. Louisan and former Blue Ben Bishop who stopped everything in his path.
I was anticipating another soul-crushing loss in overtime, and it nearly happened when the Stars were about half an inch away from being the epitome of “better lucky than good.”
Then, in a moment Hollywood would reject as too cliché, hometown boy Pat Maroon cleaned up a rebound in double overtime to get past the fellow hometown boy Bishop and send the Blues on to the Western Conference Final.
I did quite the happy dance in my living room.
My dogs must have thought I’d been possessed. It’s a wonder my wife didn’t wake up out of terror with the scream I let out.
This would be the second time in the last four years the Blues advanced to the Conference Final.
For 30 years, they’d make it to this round once every 15 years like clockwork. This certainly wasn’t the end goal, but it also wasn’t nothing.
I was starting to get my hopes up.
I felt like regretting that hopefulness by Game 3 against the San Jose Sharks. After splitting the first two games in California, the Blues had again outplayed their competition, but a late goal by Logan Couture sent the Sharks and Blues to overtime.
It was at this point where the sense of doom — and if you’re a Blues fan, you know it all too well — kicked in.
The Sharks’ Timo Meier made an illegal, uncalled hand pass to Erik Karlsson who got his shot past Jordan Binnington to give San Jose the game-winning goal and a 2-1 series lead.
The officials didn’t review the play. (The league would later admit it could have, using a rule that’s never been used before — I would think a series where the winner goes to the Stanley Cup Final would be a perfect time to do so, but that’s just me.)
I’ve seen my Blues fold like a Motorola RAZR in past instances. You’ll forgive me if I thought it’d happen again.
It couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The Blues would win the next three against the Sharks, outscoring San Jose 12-2 in those final three games to win the conference for the first time in my life.
I was watching the game from our FOX4 control room. I was monitoring our live shots from the Blue Line Hockey Bar, and I still am amazed at how incredibly Kansas Citians backed the Blues.
It was, truly, the first time I’d ever seen this team that got so good at breaking hearts just like mine for decades win anything truly worth celebrating.
And of course, I felt the dread when I knew they’d be playing the Boston Bruins.
I’m a native St. Louisan, and St. Louis teams haven’t exactly owned Boston teams in the playoffs.
From watching a then-unknown Tom Brady pull off an upset against the Greatest Show on Turf-era Rams, to seeing the Red Sox snap an 86-year World Series drought against a heavily favored Cardinals squad in 2004, to being obliterated by David Ortiz in the 2013 World Series.
And of course, the last time the Blues were in the Stanley Cup Final, they got swept by Boston in 1970 to run their record in Finals games to 0-12.
I didn’t want to lose to Boston again, but I also had made my peace if it was going to happen.
And then it didn’t.
Somehow, I saw the Blues win their first Stanley Cup game ever. Then, their first Stanley Cup home win. Then, a series lead… followed by a disappointment in Game 6 to set up one last game in Boston.
It had never been easy for the Blues this season, so why would we start in the ultimate game?
Then, in what I had not prepared myself for at all, it seemed Game 7 went exactly opposite to the script I imagined.
The Bruins outworked the Blues for the first period, but Binnington kept them off the board.
The Blues were the ones who weren’t getting many shots, but thanks to a deflection by Ryan O’Reilly and a late-period goal by Alex Pietrangelo after noted villain Brad Marchand got caught in no man’s land gave the Blues a 2-0 lead after one.
I thought at this point, in traditional Blues fan fashion, the kick to the gut (or points lower) was inevitable.
It’s nice to be wrong sometimes.
The Blues eventually found their sea legs in the second and third periods. Brayden Schenn got the dagger goal in the third, and Boston native Zach Sanford tacked on one for good measure. The Bruins got one late, but it didn’t matter by this point.
The clock hit zero, and my guys — the ones who’ve come so close but never once got to the top — were winners.
I saw fans watching the game on the big screen at Enterprise Center to those attending the spillover party in Busch Stadium to an even wilder-than-usual scene in Ballpark Village to those diehard Blues fans who again packed the Blue Line Bar in KC all going nuts, just like I was in our control room.
You’ll forgive me if I still seem like I don’t believe it. I’m not sure I still do.
The least I could do at this point was go to the parade.
I arrived four hours early. I still wasn’t in the first row (at least I got close). I answered every “Let’s Go Blues!” car horn honk from passing traffic. I heard “Gloria” 28 times before I stopped counting. I was drenched to the bone.
It didn’t matter. It’s still on the first hand of “best days in my life.”
I saw Carl Gunnarsson ride past my spot just outside Union Station, and I wondered how many fans would appreciate the stay-at-home defenseman’s Game 2 overtime winning goal; I wondered how many remembered him sweeping a puck out of the crease in a tight Game 5.
I saw Tyler Bozak, a man who said the reason he signed with St. Louis was to win a Stanley Cup, doing exactly that.
I got a champagne bath from Schenn. I got within an arm’s reach of Schwartz, a man whose career I’ve been following since he was just a teen and I was working part-time as a replay operator in Nebraska for the Tri-City Storm.
I saw Maroon, the so-called “Big Rig,” ride in on an actual big rig, only to get off every few feet just to high five every fan he plausibly could. He called himself a hometown hero later in the pep rally, and he’s not wrong.
I saw Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Steen, the only two players on the team older than me, celebrating their first Stanley Cups as differently as possible.
Bouwmeester, in his standard reserved fashion, seemed to politely smile and wave to the crowd, hardly even drinking his Bud Light like many of his teammates. Steen, actively looking to rile up the crowd with the Campbell trophy for winning the conference.
I saw Vladimir Tarasenko, one of the only guys on the planet who can score 33 goals and have it be considered an “off year” show his appreciation for the hundreds of thousands who wanted to say thank you.
I saw O’Reilly, the major acquisition of the offseason, coming in with his Conn Smythe Trophy for Stanley Cup Playoff MVP. I (and the many, many others) joined him for a rousing rendition of “Country Roads, Take Me Home.”
Not that there was any doubt, but that playoff performance solidified every bit the trade for him was worth it. He didn’t look right for much of the playoffs, but then got it in gear the last four games. It would later come out he played through a cracked rib.
And he still was, by the opinion of hockey experts, the best player in the 2019 playoffs. I still think back sometimes at how little the Blues gave up for him and can’t believe it.
And last, I saw Pietrangelo, the captain fans were calling on in January to ship off to a contender, riding in with the Budweiser Clydesdales and the Stanley Cup, proving the Blues really were contenders after all.
My wife got an incredible photo of him hoisting the Cup over his head. It’s probably going to be my phone’s lock screen for the next decade, at least.
I know at some point I’ll come down from the parade high. At some point, the Blues will have to make some difficult decisions about which 2019 heroes will get priced or spaced out. I don’t have to think about that now.
And I don’t have to think about whether this day would ever come ever again.