Watching future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur at a recent St. Louis Blues alumni team workout session, defenseman Jamie Rivers was blown away.
“He was standing on his head,” said Rivers, who will join a star-studded Blues alumni team to take on the Chicago Blackhawks alumni team in the NHL Winter Classic Alumni Game at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Busch Stadium. “He made a couple of post-to-post back-door saves, glove saves and a save on a breakaway where he’s throwing out the poke check, throws it down and plays the puck.
“I was like ‘Marty can still play.’ I know he hasn’t been retired all that long, but it just goes to show you that’s the level of a Hall of Famer.”
Some of the greatest players in Blues history will be on display at the game, including Hall of Famers Brett Hull, Bernie Federko, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Adam Oates and Peter Stastny. All-time great Wayne Gretzky will also play, though he spent only half a season with the Blues.
“The perfect storm”
Rivers said seeing St. Louis become the center of the hockey universe for an event of this magnitude is truly special. More than 40,000 fans are expected for both the Alumni Game on Saturday and the Winter Classic at noon Monday, creating a hockey synergy unlike any the St. Louis downtown area has ever experienced.
“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “It’s long overdue but kind of perfect timing for everything. It’s the perfect storm, and it’s great for the city of St. Louis.”
I think it’s awesome. It’s long overdue but kind of perfect timing for everything. It’s the perfect storm, and it’s great for the city of St. Louis.
Former Blues defenseman Jamie Rivers on the city hosting the NHL Winter Classic
While the Blues were popular before Hull joined the team in a 1987 trade with the Calgary Flames, his scoring exploits created legions of new fans. He also made hockey a much bigger part of the local landscape, paving the way for new ice rinks to be constructed; eventually, the Blues got a new home at Scottrade Center after St. Louis Arena became outdated.
Hull, now 52, had a franchise-record 527 goals along with 936 points in 744 games with the Blues. Hull’s 936 points are second only to Federko (1.073) in Blues history, and Hull’s NHL career totals include 741 goals (fourth in NHL history) and 1,391 points (22nd all-time) in 1,269 games.
Gretzky joined the Blues late in his career in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings. He was here for only 31 games in 1996, contributing 10 goals and 37 points while helping the Blues reach the Western Conference semifinals.
While the Blues eliminating the Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs last spring helped add more fire to the rivalry, Rivers thinks it was even more intense in previous decades.
“The rivalries were so much more heated,” he said. “I don’t mean any disrespect to today’s rivalry, but there were wars that were fought back in the day — and it wasn’t always on the ice, either. The fans were going at it in the stands, and the players were going at it on the ice.
I don’t mean any disrespect to today’s rivalry, but there were wars that were fought back in the day — and it wasn’t always on the ice, either. The fans were going at it in the stands, and the players were going at it on the ice.
“It was a rivalry in every sense of the word. There’s still a lot of dislike for each other’s logos.”
Current Blues broadcaster Darren Pang will recreate his role as a Blackhawks goaltender in the game, though another ex-Hawks goalie Blues fans loved to hate — Ed Belfour — is not on the roster.
Forward Jamal Mayers played for both teams, but will be wearing a Blackhawks uniform this time.
Rivers said Blues fans he has talked to are filled with excitement for the two outdoor games at Busch Stadium.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be a part of something like this, whether you go to both games or one or the other, it’s an opportunity that probably won’t present itself ever again,” Rivers said.
Rivers credits the early founders of the Blues Alumni Association as a reason so many former Blues players continue to live in the St. Louis area even after their playing careers end. Many also deserve credit for coaching area youth hockey teams and the growth of the talent level in the region, which hit its zenith last summer with five St. Louis area players chosen in the first round of the NHL Draft, including Swansea’s Clayton Keller.
“You end up growing up while you’re in St. Louis, and although it’s a big city, it’s a small circle of people, especially in the hockey world. It’s really a special feel in St. Louis the way you are embraced by the fans and the hockey world.”
NHL Winter Classic Schedule of Events
Saturday, Dec. 31
NHL Winter Classic Alumni Game: Blues vs. Blackhawks, 1:30 p.m. at Busch Stadium (TV: Fox Sports Midwest)
Monday, Jan. 2
NHL Winter Classic: Blues vs. Blackhawks, noon at Busch Stadium (TV: NBC, KSDK Channel 5; Radio: KMOX-AM 1120)
Sunday, Jan. 8
One Nation Classic: Blues skills competition, St. Louis' Greatest Pickup Hockey Game, Police Officers vs. Firefighters game, 11:30 a.m. at Busch Stadium