Vahe Gregorian

Blues’ season has lifted a city, but chance to win Stanley Cup will wait for Game 7

St. Louis Blues fans get warmed up for Game 6 of Stanley Cup Finals

The atmosphere was festive as St. Louis Blues fans gear up for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins.
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The atmosphere was festive as St. Louis Blues fans gear up for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins.

Forty-seven years ago this weekend, Kansas City was awarded an NHL franchise that would become the slapstick Scouts. They left in 1976 for Colorado (and ultimately New Jersey) after losing 110 games in their only two seasons in Kansas City.

Glitzy Sprint Center and all, the future of the NHL on our side of the state has remained a dubious prospect since.

Until anything changes, the most recent expansion fee (a pesky $650 million for the franchise awarded to Seattle last year) and the 2017 words of NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly sum up the state of the union.

In evaluating potential locations for NHL teams, he wrote in an email to ESPN, the league typically considers the facilities in the market, whether demographics suggest an ability to support an NHL franchise and, finally, “whether there is qualified and interested ownership to own and operate the franchise.”

“While the Sprint Center certainly checks off the first of those boxes, the other two issues remain a work in progress,” he said.

Unless and until Lamar Hunt Jr., owner of the minor-league Kansas City Mavericks, reconsiders what he calls “an unrealistic reach” while he focuses on growing the sport locally, or someone swoops in out of nowhere, the NHL isn’t going to get any closer than 248 miles from Sprint Center any time in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, though, at least there is this on the other end of that: The St. Louis Blues’ pursuit of their first Stanley Cup since the inception of the franchise in 1967.

With the chance to win the cup on home ice Sunday, the quest was deferred once more in a deflating 5-1 loss to the Bruins at the Enterprise Center, forcing a series-deciding game on Wednesday in Boston.

“Game 7,” original Blue Bob Plager said in a corridor after the game, smiling as if that was the way this was meant to play out.

Because what we have here still is a captivating tale that any sports fan might appreciate … with the obvious exception of those pulling for Boston and the “never St. Louis” crowd (even against Boston!) in Kansas City.

The stakes and proximity are why Chiefs sensation Patrick Mahomes showed up here in a Blues jersey earlier in the series and explain how Kansas City has had the fifth-highest TV ratings for several of the finals games, and why hundreds in Blues gear again on Sunday swarmed The Blue Line hockey bar in Kansas City’s River Market.

And the impact in St. Louis has been a renewed testament to the galvanizing, even healing, power of sports.

In its own distinct way, with the team the talk everywhere you went, thousands in the street outside and a Blues jersey over the statue of St. Louis founder Pierre Laclede, the air of anticipation here on Sunday was familiar — reminiscent of the feeling around Kansas City and at Kauffman Stadium during and after the Royals’ magical 2014 and 2015 postseason runs.

Like this, that lifetime of memories was all the more meaningful because of the context and what had preceded it.

The Royals hadn’t so much as made the postseason since winning the 1985 World Series. For that matter, at that time the Chiefs hadn’t won a home playoff game since 1994 (a streak that just ended in January when the Chiefs beat Indianapolis before an overtime loss to New England denied them their first Super Bowl since 1970).

While St. Louis typically has enjoyed perennial postseason runs by the Cardinals, who have won two World Series this century, and a relatively recent Super Bowl champion in the form of the Rams’ 1999 championship season, it also had to contend with the anguish of losing the Rams back to Los Angeles in 2016 … worsened by owner Stan Kroenke’s gratuitous and even false jabs at St. Louis in a 29-page relocation proposal.

That wound was reopened with the Rams’ Super Bowl berth. Now the Cardinals are 31-32 and in danger of missing the postseason for a fourth straight year for the first time since a drought between 1987 and 1996.

Enter, improbably, the Blues, who hadn’t been to the Stanley Cup Final since 1970 (their third in a row with a boost from being in an all-expansion division).

Their disastrous start to this season led to coach Mike Yeo being fired in November. They woke up with the fewest points in the league on Jan. 3 before an abrupt turn of fortune.

In a bar in Philadelphia to watch the Eagles-Bears playoff game the night before taking on the Flyers, a handful of players were amazed at how the song “Gloria” got fans dancing during commercial breaks.

So they made a command decision that the 1980s Laura Branigan tune would replace Dion’s “Runaround Sue” as their victory song, and shazam: The next day, rookie goalie Jordan Binnington made his first career start, a 25-save shutout in a 3-0 victory over the Flyers.

Dismiss it as coincidence or treasure it as a meaningful superstition, but the story of the Blues’ new anthem has paralleled what defined their way here under a still-interim coach, Craig Berube, in a season that had appeared doomed.

Instead, it proved to be the start of one of the most remarkable turnarounds in major sports history: The Blues are the only team among the traditional four major North American sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL) to be mired in last place after a quarter or more of a season and reach the league’s championship game or round.

As the Blues started to find themselves, which is to say summoning a throwback grit in the image of their coach, they had another sort of force accompanying them on a comeback journey.

Laila Anderson, an 11-year-old girl who had been a fixture at Blues games, has become their face of inspiration as she contends with HLH. Attacked by the rare immune system disorder, she struggled to walk and talk, and required chemotherapy.

Blues defenseman Colton Parayko, who remembered her frequently giving fist bumps as they’d come off the ice, visited her at a Halloween event last year that began a sweet friendship and relationships with other Blues, like Alexander Steen.

After beginning to recover from a bone-marrow transplant in January, she told her mother, Heather, that she was noticing the Blues were starting anew as well.

As she was getting new life, her mother, Heather, told NBC Sports, it was almost like the Blues were, too: “As they kept winning and winning,” she added, “there was just this parallel between the boys and Laila.”

Months later, she finally was well enough to return to the Enterprise Center for Game 3 of the Western Conference final, and she celebrated with the team after it advanced to the Stanley Cup Final … and after which Steen called her “our lucky charm.”

In a perfect world for St. Louis, the story would have culminated with a victory Sunday at home — especially after a publishing glitch in the e-edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch briefly blurted out a congratulatory messages, including one from Blues chairman Tom Stillman intended to be released later if the Blues won.

The Post-Dispatch on Twitter apologized for what it called a “sneak peek” and added that it hopes to share their messages on purpose soon.

After waiting more than 50 years for this, Wednesday still would be plenty timely.

“Listen,” Berube said, smiling, “if you told me four months ago we were going to be in the finals (with) Game 7, I think I’d take it.”

Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.
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