ST. LOUIS — Near the end of their first training camp practice Sunday, St. Louis Blues players raised their sticks high overhead in support of a crowd more than 5,500 strong that showed up to greet them at Scottrade Center.
The crowd roared in return.
"We hope they all come back out," Blues winger T.J. Oshie said when asked about what the players expected following the NHL's second lockout in seven years, this one costing the league nearly half its season. "It's completely understandable if some people turn the other way, but after seeing what we saw out there today it's very positive. It's great to see."
Thousands of fans made their way to Scottrade Center on Sunday morning for an 11 a.m. practice. They cheered as each player hit the ice and later were treated to question-and-answer sessions with the players at various locations throughout the arena.
"It's always an uncertainty when you wipe 30 games off the schedule and hear a lot of the banter about the people not coming back or asking for refunds," Blues captain David Backes said. "It's good that there's still the passion and people still care."
It was almost a game-night atmosphere, including the familiar opening guitar riff to Van Halen's "Unchained," which is typically played before the start of every home game.
At various times, the fans chanted "Let's Go Blues."
What do the players think it will take to rebuild the trust between the game and its fans?
"You don't assume they're going to come back," Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said. "You've got to go out there, battle every time you're on the ice and put your heart and soul out there. We all are in it because we love the game.
"The business side, it's one thing and it's over with now. We're able to lace up the skates and do what we were born to do. Putting a winning product on the ice is the only way to get the fans back."
Some Blues players seemed taken aback by the large crowd size. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said he and his staff heard loud noises before the start of practice thinking there was more construction work being done, perhaps on a new fans' club area being built right outside the entrance to the team's dressing room.
"We skated at 11 and about 10:45 you could hear all this noise, then we figured it was players going on to the ice," Hitchcock said. "That's when it registered there must a be a few more people than we thought out here."
At times, the crowd nose was so loud the players had trouble hearing Hitchcock's drill instructions.
"It was a little bit of a shock for all of us," he said. "You expect two or three thousand, not 6,000 or whatever. That's why we simplified some of the drills."
Don't expect the Blues to take their fans or community support for granted. Some weren't sure what to expect upon learning the practice would be open to the public at Scottrade Center instead of the smaller setting at their St. Louis Mills practice facility.
"You never know, especially after something like (the lockout)," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "You don't blame them if they don't show up, but it was great to see it. We were all humbled by it and very appreciative of how great our fans are here.
"It was a lot of fun. Andy McDonald was saying it was definitely the most people he's seen at training camp in his career."
For Blues forward Alex Steen, the fan-friendly session reminded him of being back home in Sweden. Steen played in the Swedish Elite League during the lockout.
"In Sweden they do it every year," he said. "The first practice of the year is always open to fans. There's one town way up north ... there's not a lot of people that live in the town but they usually have about 5-6,000 the first practice.
"It's fun. Maybe it's something that we should start with here."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.