Former Chicago Blackhawks star Jeremy Roenick never played a game for the St. Louis Blues.
Now part of the NBC television hockey coverage, Roenick seemed like just the kind of unbiased person to ask what he thought about the first NHL Winter Classic at Busch Stadium hosted by the Blues and St. Louis Cardinals.
“St. Louis did it right here,” Roenick said after visiting the Blues’ dressing room following their 4-1 victory over the Blackhawks. “This was awesome.”
Roenick has been to many of the NHL’s outdoor games over the years, and he was in a working capacity again Monday.
“Because of the elements it had and the way the fans came out, the way the guys played and their attitudes ... to me I’d say this is one of the top two best ones that I’ve been to,” Roenick said. “The one in Chicago when it was snowing was amazing, but this one just had an aura to it. The fans were so into it, with more than (46,000) people that were out here ... it was great.”
There is no doubt the Cardinals are at the top of the St. Louis sports hierarchy. They probably always will be, but Roenick senses a shift of momentum for hockey that has been accelerated by the Blues’ success and stockpiling of young talent led by Vladimir Tarasenko.
“It’s gotten a lot bigger,” Roenick said. “I think through the ’90s they got so good, and this team has been so good for so long that they’re just scratching at the surface of a (Stanley) Cup run. I think a lot of people in here smell that the Cup is close. It’s up to these guys to make sure it happens, but that’s what makes it exciting here.
“There’s great fans in St. Louis. Obviously it is a baseball town, but if these guys can find a way to win a Cup, it can become a hockey town really quick.”
Even since before the NFL Rams left town for greener pastures in Los Angeles, there was a special synergy between the Blues and the Cardinals.
Blues chairman Tom Stillman and Cardinals president Bill DeWitt III are close friends and have worked together on several projects. One of the loudest ovations in Scottrade Center history came when the pair walked out to center ice to drop a ceremonial first puck not long after the Rams’ move was announced.
It seemed fitting that the largest crowd in Blues franchise history — 46,566 strong — came a few blocks east of Scottrade Center in Busch Stadium.
Fans filled the downtown area more than three hours before the opening face-off, tailgating and talking hockey and celebrating, getting ready for the first outdoor NHL game they had ever seen. They were a part of history, and along with the fabulous Blues-Blackhawks Alumni Game that drew more than 40,000 fans two days earlier, were creating memories they will never forget.
Even local notables such as Cardinals players Lance Lynn, Kolten Wong and Kevin Siegrist were in attendance for the special event, as were many ex-Blues led by Hall of Famers Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger and the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky.
From the entertainment world, St. Louis musical artist Nelly put on a concert at Ballpark Village and had his own customized Blues jersey. Noted actor and well-known Cardinals and Blues fan Jon Hamm was in the crowd wearing a Blues jacket and hat.
Yes, the Winter Classic finally visited St. Louis and despite dire weather forecasts and the specter of a potential loss to the rival Blackhawks, everything turned out great.
About all that was missing was “he shoots, he scores!” from former Blues announcer and legendary Hockey Hall of Famer Dan Kelly and an “Oh, baby” from former Blues announcer Ken Wilson.
Hockey outdoors? We’ll take it — even in the rain.
“Once the puck’s dropped it’s 85 by 200, and it’s a glassed-in hockey rink,” said Hitchcock, who was sporting a sharp, navy blue Stetson Fedora from the Levine Hat Company located in downtown St. Louis. “You can’t help but look around; it’s almost overwhelming. The feel I got from a baseball standpoint is I could hear what everybody was saying to us as we were coming on and off the ice.
“It would be really interesting if you didn’t have a good baseball team here. It’s an amazing atmosphere because the people are right there with you.”
On Monday, as they have been since the team joined the NHL in 1967, the fans were squarely behind their Blues.
Norm Sanders has covered the Blues for the Belleville News-Democrat since 1995.