Despite limited history, St. Louis’s hockey roots have grown deep
ST. LOUIS — At its core, the 2017 Winter Classic was constructed as a citywide celebration of hockey. There were the musical notes dancing through the outfield at Busch Stadium, and the electric guitar cutting through the makeshift rink in shallow center. There were the signs hung in shop windows and at bar counters—LET’S GO BLUES!—and the Cardinals jerseys redecorated in blue and yellow. There was Saturday’s alumni game, featuring plenty old names who didn’t need to travel very far, and Monday’s main event, in which two goals from Vladimir Tarasenko lifted St. Louis past the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-1.
The story of how the Gateway to the West became puck-mad contains countless characters. It begins before the Blues’ arrival as an expansion franchise in 1967, back when neither rinks nor youth programs existed, and blossomed through the team’s early success, with three conference finals appearances in its first three seasons. It continued into the heyday of Hull and Oates, who inspired a generation. It features transplants paying it forward, locals making it big, and a trainer nicknamed Crash. It burst onto the worldwide radar last June, when four local products went in the top 15 of the NHL draft, matching the count from the entire nation of Canada.
So consider this a peek into hockey’s history here, a Winter Classic clip show of sorts, through the eyes of those who know St. Louis best.
The off-ice official sits in his press box perch, looking at the foggy drizzle blanketing Busch Stadium, wearing his NHL vest, NHL jacket, NHL credential, NHL pin…
Terry McKenna has worked Blues games since their expansion season, though none quite like this. His crew took a test-run New Years’ Day during the alumni game, when 40,000-plus stuffed the seats to watch Brett Hull, Adam Oates and others. “That was pretty amazing,” McKenna says, though here he predates them all.
Back in 1961, six years before the Blues rolled into town, a former minor-leaguer named Ed Olson—who played for the old St. Louis Flyers—had his eye on the future. With the help of some ex-teammates, Olson began building the first-ever youth hockey program in the city. The Globe-Democrat ran a picture of several debut players, baby-faced on the ice at Steinberg Rink, including Terry McKenna.
At first, with no available ice in St. Louis, Terry would load into Olson’s car and schlep to Springfield, Ill., just to skate for an hour each Sunday morning. The initial teams had no jerseys, only pinnies they handed after each game to whomever was playing next. “Nowhere to buy equipment except through Montgomery Ward’s catalogue,” McKenna says. “No sporting goods store in town carried equipment. It was the ground floor. Pretty rudimentary.”
Decades later, Terry’s son, Mike, came up in a different world. More public rinks had been built, like Kirkwood Ice Arena where Bill McKenna, Terry’s father, worked as rink manager. Hull arrived in ‘87, capturing imaginations with three straight 70-goal seasons. For aspiring goalies like Mike, a journeyman who now plays for the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds, Blues like Curtis Joseph and Greg Millen offered masked muses up close. “I’d be in the basement working on hockey sticks with my dad, shaping them, filing, curving, and watching the Blues on a black-and-white television set,” Mike says. “As a kid, I didn’t realize that hockey wasn’t always there. It was a real undertaking of passion for people that wanted to do it back then.”
Which is to say that what Terry now sees out the press box windows—Busch Stadium filling to the brim with hockey fans, to watch a game that Terry will work—seemed an impossible thought in the early 1960s. But the ascension has been swift. The number of local rinks has more than doubled over the past 40 years, according to NHL.com. The list of area youth players has increased 47 percent over the past decade. The Blues have seen the postseason five straight times, and just reached the conference finals for only the second time this century.
“The Blues showing up was the first non-linear growth,” Terry says. “That was big. They started being around town, kids saw them on TV, stuff like that. They were just so important to the whole game. Mike, everyone else born in that 1980-to-1985 period, somewhere in there, those were all basically kids of Brett Hull basically.”
The players waited offstage at their alma mater, dressed in their old hockey jerseys, wondering if the 800-plus audience members even cared about the surprise. “At first I thought that no one would know who we were,” Paul Stastny says. “The kids were just pumped because they got to get out of class for 45 minutes.”
On Aug. 25, 2014, students at the all-boys Chaminade College Preparatory School were herded into an assembly hall, under the ruse of reviewing the new block schedule. Instead, Blues GM Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock appeared for an impromptu Q&A. Then out came Stastny and Chris Butler, both former Red Devils, both offseason free agent signees of the hometown team, and pretty soon they were slipping on their Blues sweaters for the first time. “Looking back now,” Stastny said after practice Sunday at Busch Stadium, “it was pretty cool.”
Stastny had come to St. Louis at age 7, when his father signed with the Blues, and now follows in Peter’s footsteps as their top-line center. Butler’s dad, meanwhile, played Division I hockey at St. Louis University and settled there to work in commercial irrigation. When they were kids, no established road toward the NHL existed for locals. Today, along with Pat Maroon (Edmonton), Joe Vitale (Detroit), Brandon Bollig (Calgary) and Ben Bishop (Tampa Bay), they represent the first generation of St. Louis products to pave the way.
“We just didn’t have the competition, we didn’t have the exposure,” Butler explains. “If we wanted to get seen or get noticed for whatever that next level was, we had to go on the road. A lot of times it wasn’t pretty. I remember a tournament in Canada, playing a Canadian team. I don't know if it was 8-0 or 8-1, but it almost felt like a moral victory to us because we thought it was going to be twice that.”
Among the first-gen crew, only Stastny had the fortune of appearing at home in the Winter Classic, the first outdoor game St. Louis has hosted. (Butler currently plays in the minors with Chicago’s affiliate, and therefore narrowly missed out.) In the win over the Blackhawks, Stastny recorded two shot attempts and 20:13 of total ice time, tops among St. Louis forwards, a long way from getting pummeled against youth teams across the border, a long way from Chaminade.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen,” Butler says. “It was just that little chip on your shoulder that you needed to let people know that St. Louis hockey is here. It’s neat to be part of that first generation that hopefully paved the way for this next one.”
The radio host takes the mic to tell a story. Long before he became the first born-and-raised St. Louis export to reach the NHL, even longer before he retired to move into media, Cam Janssen was six years old and headed to the Ozark Mountains, where his family owned lakeside property. There, Cam’s mother had promised a surprise. (Maybe a go-kart!) But when they pulled into the cove, only scores of boat hulls were in sight, none of them noteworthy. Well, except for the one Cam instantly recognized.
“I look, and Brett walks up onto the bow of his big-ass boat,” he says. Meeting his childhood hero—that was the surprise. The crowd laughs. It’s the night before the Winter Classic, at FOX Sports Midwest Live! across from Busch Stadium, where Janssen was invited to speak on a panel for fans. To his right sits the ship captain, Brett Hull, with Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito further down the line.
At first blush, it might seem strange to include Janssen, he of 336 career regular-season NHL games (165 with the Blues), 14 points, 774 penalty minutes, and two steel-knuckled fists, alongside three Hall of Famers. But, in many ways, the 32-year-old’s place in St. Louis hockey is just as permanent. “It’s like a trifecta of the coolest thing you could possibly imagine,” he says later, nursing a beer at the bar. “From being a fan with my family, to living the dream and bleeding and fighting, to now being on the radio. Still a part of it, but you’re a part of the show in a different realm. That’s kind of cool, right? Who else has done that?”
Some like Pat LaFontaine reached the NHL as St. Louis natives, but they moved away young and spent their childhoods elsewhere. Other transplants stuck around, like Kelly Chase, the longtime Blues forward who’s in his 14th season analyzing games on KMOX radio. Janssen, meanwhile, played junior A hockey with the St. Louis Sting while at Eureka High School, then later for the Jr. Blues, sporting whatever jerseys the NHL club donned that year. Then he bought a house next door to his parents’ at 19, using the signing bonus from his entry-level deal with the Devils, and returned home full-time when New Jersey traded him there in Feb. 2008.
“I remember going next door and reading articles about myself while your parents cook you food and you’ve got a game that night,” he says. “My dad would look at me like, ‘Put on a show tonight.’ I’d walk back to my house, get in my suit, get in my Corvette, drive to the rink, bring like 30, 40 people with me, every single game.”
After one season abroad in England with the Nottingham Panthers, where punches and personality made him a popular figure, Janssen again came back to St. Louis. He now co-hosts sports show on 590 The Fan called The Line Change, the expert who’s been there before. He taps into his Blues connections to secure interviews. This year he’s getting inducted into the St. Louis Amateur Hockey Hall of Fame.
“If you bleed for this team, the fans will love you forever,” he says, “especially if you’re a hometown kid.”
The trainer looks at the framed pictures, arranged in two rows across the modest, nondescript gym wall in suburban St. Louis.
“Thanks for all the help over the years!!” reads one from Bishop.
“The best trainer in St. Louis,” says another from Vitale.
“Elevated Performance,” wrote Ottawa defenseman Chris Wideman, “the only hockey gym in St. Louis.”
The gym’s proprietor, who graciously opened the office for a tour on New Years’ Day, is a fitness guru named Jon Benne, but everyone calls him Crash. He earned the nickname as a teen, when he began working as a stick boy for the Blues. One Tuesday morning after practice in ’96, Benne was leaving the parking garage and spotted Brett Hull in the rearview mirror, behind the wheel of a Mercedes. Impossibly nervous upon seeing the superstar, Benne made a left and struck the yellow pole next to the parking meter with his 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix. At the rink the next day, there were Hull and Chris Pronger yelling at him, “Hey, Crash!”
The moniker stuck around, and Benne did too. He kept working for the team while studying at Missouri Baptist University, then got hired as an assistant strength coach. After ownership asked him to move full-time to Peoria and train minor-leaguers, Benne instead decided to open his own shop in town. The setup isn’t much—a spacious area for weights, a sheet of synthetic ice for shooting pucks, two lanes of short track beneath the wall of pictures—but no other local gym has seen more stars pass through. Bishop, Vitale, Wideman, Butler…The best trainer in St. Louis.
Need more proof? Look closer at the wall. This June, five locals all went in the first round of the NHL draft, including four in the top 15: Matthew Tkachuk (No. 6, Calgary), Clayton Keller (No. 7, Arizona), Logan Brown (No. 11, Ottawa), Luke Kunin (No. 15, Minnesota), and Trent Frederick (No. 29, Boston). All five played for the AAA Blues, and all five trained with Crash at Elevated Performance. Whenever new kids come in, Benne always points them toward the pictures on the wall. Then he tells them, “You can be up there too.”
The father followed his daughter’s advice and danced the dab. “I don’t know what it is,” Keith Tkachuk said via NHL.com, after scoring at Saturday’s alumni game and busting a move at Taryn’s behest. “But I had to do it because she told me.”
Late last week, the rugged former forward called for an interview, after he and other ex-Blues had finished preparing for the Winter Classic exhibition by scrimmaging some local teens. “We got our butts kicked by a bunch of 18-year-olds,” he reports, though in the grand scheme this is a positive sign. After spending portions of nine seasons in here, Tkachuk planted permanent roots in St. Louis upon retirement in April 2010, and eventually joined the Blues’ scouting staff in Sept. 2014. He is far from the only alumnus to stay. “I can’t explain it,” he says. “I honestly don’t know. This is what everybody does.”
He remembers bus rides on Blues road trips, when Al MacInnis would talk his ear off about youth hockey: “I’m going, ‘This guy’s into this. He’s out of his mind.’ He goes, ‘Well, you watch when your kids are playing.’ Fast forward a little bit, I was doing the same thing. I got sucked in big-time.” And it’s hardly just MacInnis, who steered the ‘96 birth-year AAA Blues to a USA Hockey title, won the coveted Quebec International Pee-Wee tournament, and still serves as a longtime board member. Chase (a current assistant for the ’03 squad), Pronger (assistant, ’02) and Jeff Brown all stood behind the youth bench at one point or another. “An army” of alumni, AAA Blues president Joe Quinn says, “really put us on the map.”
“It’s a reciprocal thing,” Mike McKenna says. “Paying it forward is the true thing here.”
A few years ago, Tkachuk auctioned off a dinner at the family home in Creve Coeur, where fans bid to mingle with Blues alumni. “Everyone pitches in, brings food, I supply the booze and the house,” he says. “Next thing you know, we’re drinking all my wine, eating, I go upstairs, it could’ve been 2 in the morning to check on things, there were no more alumni. I’m sitting down there with the eight couples who bought the thing. We had a blast. Just normal people you can invite to your house.”
The apex, of course, came this June in Buffalo, when son Matthew and the others heard their names called. To celebrate, Keith’s wife, Chantal, organized a party at the Hyatt, replete with a deejay and massive spreads of food. Everyone had already raided the pro shop at the HarborCenter, so the room was filled with Flames, Bruins, Wild, Coyotes and Senators jerseys. All five first-rounders grew up skating for the AAA Blues. “We need more and more guys settling here,” Keith says. “Hockey’s a little different in St. Louis now.”
The referee skates to center-ice, flicks on his microphone, and announces the first penalty of the 2017 Winter Classic at 10:24 in the first period: “St. Louis number 27,” Tim Peel says. “Two minutes for slashing.”
Now 50 years old, Peel moved to St. Louis in 2001 as a newly minted full-time NHL employee looking to settle down. He’d always enjoyed the pace of life when he traveled to small minor-league towns like Peoria, Ill., and Fort Wayne, Ind., feeling like he identified with their blue-collar values. He was raised in New Brunswick, his dad working at a milk factory, his mother at a coupon processing plant. He lived in a trailer park during high school, caddying and cleaning clubs for tips. St. Louis gave off similar vibes, plus he’d heard about the strong alumni network. But still, Peel says, “When I first moved here, I never could’ve envisioned that St. Louis would be such a huge part of my life. It’s just been a great fit for me.”
Like Tkachuk and the ex-players, Peel considers himself fully local now. He met his wife here, spending their early dates at Cardinals games. (“I realized I better become a Cardinals fan, otherwise I won’t have anything to talk about.”) He joined local charities, like Easter Seals and the Eye Care Charity of Mid-America. Started speaking to up-and-coming refs. Four-year-old Bronson, the older of his two kids, recently began playing mini-mites in the Chesterfield Hockey Association. At the rink there, it’s not uncommon to run into Chase or Pronger or MacInnis or Bob Plager or even Wayne Gretzky, who had a cup of coffee with the Blues and whose nephew plays in town. “I don't think you get that in a lot of other cities,” Peel says.
Peel worked the ‘09 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field between Detroit and Chicago, but Monday presented an entirely different experience: Saying goodbye to his family at the downtown Marriott, riding to Busch Stadium with his colleagues, changing in the umpires’ room, skating out before a sellout crowd of 46,556, working at home.
“It’s something that St. Louis may not get for another 20 years,” he says. “So to be able to be a part of it, to be a St. Louisan now, is a tremendous honor.”