ST. LOUIS — Because he was never invited, he used to pretend the party didn’t exist. Avoiding the Stanley Cup playoffs as an NHL player is difficult. But nine years of not making the guest list can strengthen the ability to ignore.
“The disappointment when you don’t make it,” Jay Bouwmeester said. “Sometimes, you just want to kind of do something else to get your mind off things.”
Bouwmeester, 29, is a former No. 3 overall pick in the NHL Draft, a two-time All-Star who has started 633 consecutive games. But he’s also known for another reason. He holds the record for most regular-season games played without a postseason appearance.
The number reached 762 games on Tuesday, the same rainy night the luck of the defenseman changed. When the St. Louis Blues beat the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 at the Scottrade Center, they secured their trip to the playoffs. It will be the first of Bouwmeester’s 10-season NHL career.
Guy Charron, who played from 1969 to 1980, played 734 games without ever reaching the playoffs. Among active players, Ron Hainsey, who currently plays for the Winnipeg Jets, will end this season with 591 regular-season games and zero playoff appearances, taking the unfortunate spot Bouwmeester will soon lose.
“It’s good, I guess,” Bouwmeester said after he had taken off his skates, placed his helmet on its shelf and hung his heavily padded pants from a hook. Then, with a bloody scab on the bridge of his nose and a wad of tape wrapped around his right ring finger, the veteran explained how it felt to miss this moment so many times.
“You always believe you’re going to do it,” he said. “I know I’ve played a lot of games and all that. But every year, everyone starts with the same approach. That’s your first goal, to get in. . . . That doesn’t change, no matter where you are. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. You never think it’s not going to happen.”
It could have been a done deal last weekend. St. Louis needed only one point to grab a playoff spot but failed to find it against the Avalanche in Denver on Sunday. A 5-3 loss to a below-average team that has a knack for boggling the Blues sent a sour group into Tuesday’s rematch.
“I don’t want to talk about the playoffs,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said before cutting his Tuesday morning press conference short. “Let’s get in. My focus is on tonight, period.”
The thumping of the Avalanche that followed did little to crack the businesslike approach of Hitchcock’s team. For some, getting into the playoffs no longer causes a tingle in the toes.
“It feels normal for me,” Hitchcock said after the game.
The coach hasn’t been on the outside looking in for a decade, though. Before St. Louis acquired Bouwmeester from Calgary in early April, he had been on two teams — the Flames and the Florida Panthers — that could only brag about occasionally coming close to the playoffs.
“He was in the growing stages in Florida,” Hitchcock said. “Then, he ends up in Calgary. There were high expectations there, and they didn’t meet them. They were close a couple times in Calgary. You get that stigma, and it’s a tough thing to overcome.”
Bouwmeester hoped his no-playoff trend could change with the Blues, a younger team that reached the conference semifinals last season. He has helped his own cause since he arrived, scoring a goal and tallying five assists in 12 games. Hitchcock credits the addition of Bouwmeester, along with the team’s signing of Buffalo defenseman Jordan Leopold, as a major factor in his team’s late-season success.
“He and Leopold have helped unbelievably,” Hitchcock said. “They’ve done a great job fitting in with the guys. They’ve really endeared themselves to their teammates here, so it’s nice to see.”
One of those teammates expressed his excitement. After Bouwmeester finished answering questions about what it will be like to touch NHL playoff ice for the first time, he threw some sweaty clothes into a mesh bag and left the locker room. Blues captain David Backes walked in.
“He deserves it as much as anyone,” Backes said of Bouwmeester. “It’s great to see him get in there. He knows as much as anyone that it is not a given every year. . . . We’ve had too many times in this organization — in the past seven years since I’ve been here — that the regular season is over and we’re headed home. Those are not fun meetings to have. And watching the playoffs on TV sucks.”
So much so that Bouwmeester used to block out the postseason altogether when he missed out.
For the first time in his career, he’s invited to the party.
You can follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred) and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org