ST. LOUIS – The ice at Scottrade Center is mostly quiet these days, except when it’s lent to local youth hockey clubs for practices or games. Nowhere to be found is the sellout crowds and exciting hockey the Blues brought last season when they won their first playoff series in a decade.
Some Blues have headed overseas to play during the lockout while others meet at the Hardees Iceplex in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield each morning to run through drills and scrimmage against each other.
But a group of Blues prospects are playing less than three hours from St. Louis in Peoria, Ill., honing their skills and preparing to battle for a roster spot whenever the lockout does come to an end.
The Blues’ AHL affiliate the Peoria Rivermen boasts ten players that appeared in at least one game for the Blues last season and many others who could be there in the near future. It’s not the NHL, but right now it’s the closest thing to it.
“To suggest that this is the best league in North America right now is not an understatement,” said defenseman Ian Cole, who is projected to play a major role on the Blues defensive unit whenever the lockout ends. “There are a lot of players throughout the league on every team who had a shot to make NHL teams or have played in the NHL the last couple of years.
“The competition in practice, the competition in games in games is more than you can find unless you go overseas. It’s a great league.”
Cole has two goals and five assists in 16 games for the Rivermen, who are 5-8-2 on the year and in 14th place in the 15-team AHL Western Conference. Others on the Peoria roster who played in at least one game with St. Louis last year include Jaden Schwartz, Phil McRae, T.J. Hensick, Adam Cracknell, Stefan Della Rovere, Evgeny Grachev, Cade Fairchild, Taylor Chorney and Jake Allen.
With labor talks going nowhere the NHL canceled additional regular season games and the All-Star Game on Friday, which was Day 69 of the lockout. More than a third of the season has now been canceled, including the annual New Year’s Day outdoor Winter Classic.
“It’s definitely not what we wanted and not what the St. Louis blues organization wanted and it’s not what the city wanted,” said Schwartz, who has four goals and three assists in 16 games with Peoria. “We’ve got great fans in St. Louis and obviously the team had a really good year last year with winning the division and making a good run in the playoffs and I think everybody is excited to get back and get another season going and obviously that’s not the case.
“It’s pretty disappointing for everybody but hopefully the lockout can end soon and everything can get back on track again. Hopefully the fans don’t wait too much longer. The fans there are really passionate from what I saw and we sold out every game I was there. Obviously the Blues are going in the right direction and they want to keep that momentum going hopefully as soon as possible.”
The Blues went 49-22-11 a season ago and finished with 109 points, winning their first Division Championship since the 1999-2000 season. They beat the San Jose Sharks 4-1 in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, winning their first playoff series in a decade.
But instead of riding the momentum wave from the city and fans into this year, the Blues have instead had to put things on hold while waiting for the two sides to come to an agreement.
“Obviously it’s frustrating for everybody, especially the fans who have no real stake in the negotiations,” Cole said. “I’m fortunate that I get to play right now. I would probably be a whole lot more frustrated if I was just sitting around practicing with nine guys for three months straight. Fortunately for me I have somewhere to put my frustration. I get to play hockey. Some other guys aren’t so lucky.
“I miss watching hockey on TV. I hope more than anything the season gets started soon but I’m way down on the proverbial totem pole. I don’t have much say, I just have to live with what happens.”
Blues players David Backes and Kevin Shattenkirk were among those from the NHLPA to sit it on negotiations with the NHL during recent talks. Both are among the group of local Blues and NHL players that skate daily at the Hardees Iceplex to stay sharp.
Those playing in Peoria stay up to date on the labor talks as much as possible, but mostly watch from afar at the daily proceedings and grandstanding. They said traveling and playing a full minor league schedule keeps them too busy to sit and pout about what’s going on.
But the NHL canceled the entire 2004-05 season due to a lockout and all parties involved are hoping the same thing doesn’t happen again this time around.
“I’m just taking it day by day,” Schwartz said. “You can’t control the lockout. Obviously nobody wants it and it’s not ideal to not have the NHL going, but at the same time I’m just looking to get better. It’s a chance to improve and I’m playing a lot and we have a good group of guys here.
“I had a little time in St. Louis but for the most part its my first year of pro hockey and just getting used to the pro life and I’m playing a lot and taking advantage of the time to play and improve. The lockout is something you can’t control, but I’m playing hockey and that’s what I like to do so I’m having fun.”
The Blues hope the fun can return to St. Louis in the near future.