Ever since the announcement was made last March, the reality of an NHL Winter Classic outdoor game at Busch Stadium seemed almost rooted in fantasy. The Blues watched 22 other teams participate in outdoor games before the league finally selected them to host one.
The fantasy become reality at noon Monday when the St. Louis Blues take their long rivalry with the Chicago Blackhawks to the outdoor rink at Busch Stadium for the Winter Classic.
“Yeah, it seems like when they announced it, it was 15 years ago,” Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko joked on Sunday. “Then time goes so quick. I still couldn’t believe the game was (Monday). It’s a good experience for us and it might be once in a lifetime, so we’ll try to enjoy it every second and get a win.”
Eleven World Series championships and near constant sellouts at Busch Stadium say St. Louis is a baseball town, but the local hockey squad has been popular since joining the NHL in 1967 as an expansion franchise.
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More than 40,000 fans flocked to Busch Stadium on Saturday for the NHL Winter Classic Alumni Game and more than 45,000 are expected Monday for the nationally televised game on NBC.
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and his teammates felt the tradition and history while using the Cardinals clubhouse as their locker room. Some of the Blues, including Tarasenko, even took a few cuts in the Cards’ batting practice cages beneath the stadium.
But people here love Blues hockey, and I think everyone in St. Louis knows it’s a hockey town. People outside are starting to figure that out, and after (Monday), it’s going to be a pretty big indicator to a lot of people around the country.
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk
“We’re kind of blessed to have such a great baseball team, and they’ve been here for a long time; there’s a longstanding tradition there for that,” Shattenkirk said. “But people here love Blues hockey, and I think everyone in St. Louis knows it’s a hockey town. People outside are starting to figure that out, and after (Monday), it’s going to be a pretty big indicator to a lot of people around the country ... a lot of people around the hockey world, that this is a great place to play hockey.”
Ready for the show
St. Louis prepared well for its time as the temporary center of the hockey universe. The Winter Classic pregame area at Ballpark Village gave fans without tickets to either game an opportunity to experience the event right along with ticket-holders.
While the Blackhawks have played in five outdoor games since 2009, this is still a completely new venture for the Blues and St. Louis.
The bulk of that experience is four outdoor games each for forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Corey Crawford has been the starter in three straight outdoor games for Chicago.
The only Blues to play in an outdoor game are defensemen Carl Gunnarsson, Jay Bouwmeester and Robert Bortuzzo.
“From a hockey purist standpoint and being involved in the game so long, I think the crowd yesterday shocked the world,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the more than 40,000 fans watching the alumni game. “I don’t think people expected that many people to come to the vent.
“This one tomorrow, I know it’s going to be a great show.”
The Blues-Blackhawks game has spanned four arenas and is about to enter a baseball stadium. The action was just as intense during the old days at the St. Louis Arena and Chicago Stadium as it is now at Scottrade Center and United Center.
The Blues eliminated the Blackhawks in a raucous seven-game playoff series last spring to help add a bit more fire to the festivities. Chicago (23-11-5, 51 points) leads the Blues (19-13-5, 43 points) by eight points in the Central Division standings.
“Our playoff run last year and the first round win against (Chicago) kind of set the tone for this game coming up,” Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson said. “I know everyone in this city and Chicago is just buzzing about it. Everyone back home in Canada is going to be watching.
“It’s a big deal back in Canada, too; they love their outdoor games so it’s going to be fun to be part of that.”
Shattenkirk talked about the adjustment the players will need while going at game-speed with no roof overhead and playing on a rink encircled by a sold-out baseball stadium.
“It felt like you were skating on a lake or skating on the pond again,” he said after Sunday’s practice session. “It’s a very weird feeling not having the fans right on top of you and the stands right on you, but it’s great.
“That will hit home tomorrow when we walk out of the dugout and you see thousands of fans there. Then you realize what’s going on. That’s when everything will start to sink in, that it’s still a game.”
Not just any game, but Blues vs. Blackhawks.
“The first couple shifts might be a little strange with the sightlines and taking in the speed of the game, but after that it will turn into a regular Blues-Blackhawks game,” Shattenkirk said.
Hitchcock couldn’t help but get emotional thinking about growing up in Western Canada.
“I grew up on an outdoor rink,” Hitchcock said. “My dad was a caretaker for two outdoor rinks back in Edmonton. It just brings you back to the old days.”