Large crowd welcomes Blues back to ice
ST. LOUIS -- It was 10:42 a.m. Sunday when hockey officially returned to the Scottrade Center. And there was quite the crowd to welcome it back.
With the NHL lockout in the rear view mirror and the first regular season game just six days away, the reigning Central Division Champion St. Louis Blues opened training camp with a 90-minute practice in front of an energetic 5,500 fans at their home rink.
And they couldn't have been more surprised by the turnout.
"I've never seen anything like that for a practice," said captain David Backes. "They are obviously glad to have hockey back just like we are and I'm glad they still care about the game and are going to support us here in an awesome building we have.
"There's always an uncertainty when you wipe 30 games off the schedule and you hear a lot of the banter about people not coming back or asking for refunds but it's good to see that people still have the passion and still care."
Some wondered whether attendance and interest would drop after more than a third of the season was canceled due to the lockout. But when goalie Brian Elliott was the first player to step onto the ice at at 10:42 a.m., the large crowd in attendance provided a resounding answer.
As players slowly trickled out, the cheers continued to get louder. By the time coach Ken Hitchcock took to the ice at 10:52, the fans were already standing and applauding. Then came the final two players, veterans Backes and Barret Jackman.
The team met at center ice as the fans cheered even louder. After instructions from Hitchcock, the players broke off into a drill. Practice had officially begun. Hockey season had officially begun.
"You never know, especially after something like that and you don't blame them if they don't show up but it was great to see," said Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. "We were all humbled by it and very appreciative of how great our fans are here.
"The product we put on the ice, we can show the people in St. Louis how proud we are to play here, how much it means to us and how much we really do love this game and it's something we don't take for granted."
The Blues welcomed fans to attend Sunday's first practice free of charge and offered special discounts in the team store and on concession items. They plan to do the same the rest of the week.
Fans chanted "Lets go Blues!" and held up signs and posters throughout the practice, cheering whenever the team would gather at center ice or for a nice goal or pass. The lower bowl was nearly full, a site not usually seen for a season-opening practice.
The Blues held various Q & A sessions with fans throughout the main concourse following practice, answering questions on topics ranging from expectations for the season to what types of cars the players drive.
Among the fans in attendance Sunday was Jeff Edinger, who purchased a Vladimir Tarasenko jersey for $180 in the team store earlier Sunday morning and wore it as he sat near the top of the club seats behind the Blues bench.
Edinger didn't figure to be there as the lockout painfully continued earlier this winter. But when hockey returned, so did he.
"It was frustrating," Edinger said. "I was telling myself I wouldn't pay for tickets and I'm already kind of past that and ready to go. I think most people will be back. I don't see too many people holding a grudge. There's just no point."
Practicing as their 2011-2012 Central Division Championship banner hung in the Scottrade Center rafters above them, the Blues concluded by meeting at center ice and raising their sticks to salute the fans.
Time will tell whether or not the interest or attendance will suffer due to the lockout. But Sunday at Scottrade Center, the Blues and hockey in St. Louis seemed alive and well.
"I thought the crowd was unbelievable," Hitchcock said. "This is the hardcore group. The support here in this town is unbelievable. The hardcore group is going to stick with us but the next challenge is where have the casual people gone and we have to find a way to bring them back and that's totally in our hands.
"I feel confident that if we play good hockey, were going to pack the building. I think that's totally up to us. If we play like we're capable of and we give an effort like the fans expect here, then I think the people will come out in droves."
The Blues open the regular season Saturday Jan. 19 against the Detroit Red Wings at Scottrade Center. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m. on FOX Sports Midwest.