Busch Stadium is synonymous with baseball, but the home of the St. Louis Cardinals will become the hockey capital of North America for the 2017 Winter Classic.
The St. Louis Blues and rival Chicago Blackhawks will meet in the first outdoor NHL game in St. Louis in the ninth annual Winter Classic on Jan. 2, 2017, the league announced Wednesday.
Blues Hall of Famer Brett Hull made the official announcement just minutes before the Blues-Blackhawks game on Wednesday at Scottrade Center, flanked by Blues Chairman Tom Stillman and Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III.
“You heard it, the Winter Classic is coming to St. Louis,” Hull said as the crowd roared.
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Stillman said the impact of the event will be far-reaching.
“I can tell you that probably the question I’ve been asked the most over the last 3 1/2 years has been when are we going to get a Winter Classic,” Stillman said. “Well, that may be ‘when are we going to do something else (win a Stanley Cup) might be No. 1, but it’s been something that our fans have been focused on for a long time and have wanted to do.
“I think the whole area, even fans who are kind of marginal St. Louis fans, are going to see what a big event this is. It’s going to be great.”
There’s a lot of symmetry involved with the matchup given the Blues will be in their 50th NHL season and the league itself will be celebrating its 100th season.
“That was our ideal situation,” Stillman said of the Blues’ 50th anniversary. “If we could get it in our 50th anniversary year that would just be perfect. It would have been perfect it had been the Stadium Series game. When it turned out to be the big one, the Winter Classic, it was even better.”
An avid hockey player himself, Stillman went to the Winter Classic the Blackhawks hosted as Wrigley Field. This will be the third Winter Classic the Blackhawks have been involved in.
“I was at the one at Wrigley and it’s just a great event,” Stillman said. “I’ve never talked to anybody who’s been to one who didn’t say that was the greatest sports event I’ve ever been to.”
Ten other NHL teams have participated in the first nine Winter Classics, some of them twice each. The Blues, who joined the NHL as one of six expansion franchises in 1967, have never been invited but now will be the home team at a Busch Stadium event expected to draw a sellout crowd of more than 45,000.
The NHL’s annual Winter Classic event began in 2008 at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium when the Sabres played the Pittsburgh Penguins before a crowd of 71,217.
Blues forward Troy Brouwer has played in two Winter Classics. He scored the game-winning goal for Washington with 12.9 seconds remaining last season to beat Chicago 3-2.
“I’ve got fond memories of the Winter Classic,” Brouwer said. “I’ve played in two of them and they’re a lot of fun. It’s a big spectacle. There’s a lot to the game. It can kind of take away from the actual game a little bit just with the whole event of it, but the NHL and the teams that I’ve been on have done phenomenal jobs promoting the game, making good hype for the game, hype for the cities.”
Brouwer thinks the Blues-Blackhawks outdoor game will be a huge hit. He’s seen the rivalry from both sides, having played for the Blackhawks from 2006 to 2011 and helping them win a Stanley Cup.
“They’re a team that’s won three Stanley Cups in the past six years,” Brouwer said. “They’re a team that has a lot of star players on their roster, a team that has a huge following throughout the NHL and fan base. I say why not (the Blues and Blackhawks)? If it’s a way to get more people to watch the games and sell the games, have more interest in the game, then we’re fine with it.”
While other outdoor games have been held, there have been eight Winter Classic games with the most recent one staged between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens. Besides being a big hit with fans, the Winter Classic also has been a big television ratings hit for NBC.
Another outdoor game is schedule for Jan. 1, 2017 featuring the Detroit Red Wings at Toronto’s BMO Field against the Maple Leafs, but that will be called the Centennial Classic. The Blues-Blackhawks game was moved to Jan. 2 since Jan. 1 is on a Sunday and also is the final day of the NFL’s regular season.
What swayed the NHL’s decision to finally award St. Louis its showcase event?
Stillman felt NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman may have been moved by the joint Blues-Cardinals puck drop ceremony that had Blues fans roaring not long after the Rams announced they were moving from St. Louis to Los Angeles.
“I had a conversation with him right after that and I think he was (impressed),” Stillman said. “Beyond the events of earlier that week, seeing that ceremony on video and the reaction of the fans and the unity of the two franchises in support of the city ... I think that influenced the decision, and Gary, personally.”
One thing Stillman or the NHL won’t be able to control is St. Louis winter weather. Days in January could range from snow to sleet and rain to unseasonably warm.
“Actually it’s a winter rain that makes me nervous,” Stillman said, “But the league has improved its abilities to put the game on in all sorts of weather conditions now. If they can do it in Los Angeles I think we’ll be fine.”
Asked to describe the ongoing rivalry between the Midwestern teams, Brouwer said “It’s pretty chippy. There’s been a lot of turnover in certain guys over the last couple years, but the core of both teams are still intact and for that reason that rivalry and that competitiveness gets rubbed off on everybody else.”