*This was originally published on Jan. 1, 2022
The St. Louis Blues are set to meet the Minnesota Wild at 7:00 PM ET on New Year’s Day for the 13th installment of the NHL Winter Classic. As the players take the ice at Target Field in Minneapolis, they will be settling a date that is a year overdue, after the game, originally scheduled for 2021, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But a year later, neither the rising Omicron Variant nor the plunging temperatures have put a damper on the excitement for one of the NHL’s biggest annual events.
With puck drop just hours away, what better way to kill the time than with a look back at the Blues’ only other appearance in a Winter Classic, the one they hosted at Busch Stadium in 2017? Somehow already half a decade ago, the contest between archrivals in the Gateway City was a critical step along the Blues’ road to their 2019 Stanley Cup Championship.
The Road to Busch Stadium
The decision to put the Winter Classic in St. Louis was the end result of a storm of contributing factors. The story traces back to at least 2012 when Tom Stillman, a local beer distribution CEO (and, ironically, a native of the Twin Cities) organized a group to purchase majority ownership of the Blues. Until then, there was some question whether the Blues would remain in St. Louis at all. But Stillman was committed to his community, and the NHL rewarded that commitment.
Further down the line, Stillman’s group worked to lobby the city to make renovations to the then-Scottrade Center, the twenty-plus-year-old venue in which his team played. Just as importantly, he’d built a competitive team. With general manager Doug Armstrong’s guidance, the Blues had made the playoffs five consecutive seasons entering the 2016-17 campaign, and had just completed their deepest run.
The final reason the Blues landed the Winter Classic is, interestingly, the Los Angeles Rams’ decision to depart their longtime St. Louis home. The loss of the major sports franchise, while frustrating for local fans, created a vacuum in the market, especially during winter. The Blues — who were typically viewed as the third-string team behind the Rams and the iconic St. Louis Cardinals — got a promotion in the city, and in the eyes of the NHL. They would now have a larger market share of the fan base and, presumably, more interest and revenue. Plus, the Rams’ departure helped convince the city to assist Stillman with his desired renovations. With the new momentum surrounding the team, an iconic rivalry readily available, and the Blues’ 50th season fast approaching, St. Louis had become a bit of a darling amongst mid-market teams.
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All those factors culminated in the announcement that the Blues would host their first-ever Winter Classic at the Cardinals’ emblematic home, Busch Stadium. Locally, the excitement for the event was unmatched. While the city was still licking its wounds over a bloody and public divorce with the nation’s biggest league, the NHL swooped in to remind locals that their sports community was still valuable. It was a smart piece of business by the league, and perfect timing for the city.
Blues vs. Blackhawks in the Cold
By game time on January 2, the weather was nearly perfect: there were some light showers around the city, but the overcast skies protected the ice, and the mid-40s temperatures were cold, but not too cold. That allowed the game to shine, and the matchup was perfect. The season before, the Blues had made their deepest playoff run in 15 years, and they’d done it by going through the archrival Chicago Blackhawks in seven games in the First Round. The Winter Classic would be their fourth meeting between the two sides since that iconic victory, and even though game-winning goal scorer Troy Brouwer had left the Blues over the summer, tensions between the two rival teams had hardly abated.
After all the anticipation, Blackhawks’ forward Michal Kempny dealt Blues fans a tough blow by scoring just 62 seconds into the first period. Fortunately for the 46,556 in attendance, that was the end of the good vibes for the Blackhawks. Patrik Berglund, who finished his career in St. Louis eighth all-time in franchise games played, scored one of his most iconic goals halfway through the second period, with assists from Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Steen.
The tension mounted until 12:05 into the third period, when Blues’ sniper Vladimir Tarasenko took a pass from Robby Fabbri and trickled a puck off the pad of Corey Crawford for what would become the game-winning goal. Just 113 seconds later, after passes by Fabbri and Jori Lehtera, he again beat Crawford, this time high to the glove side. With 74 seconds left, Alex Steen would score an unassisted empty-net goal to give the Blues a 4-1 victory.
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The team had paid off months of anticipation with an outstanding victory and one of the most memorable moments in franchise history. Even though the Blues would enter a tailspin and cause the firing of head coach Ken Hitchock just a month later, when the lights were brightest, they played their best hockey against their most bitter opponent.
A Redefinitive Era of Blues Hockey
Though the Blues would undergo two coaching changes and significant roster turnover between the Winter Classic on January 2, 2017, and June 12, 2019, when the team hoisted the Stanley Cup in Boston, there is at least a dotted line connecting the two events. The 2016 playoff run and the Winter Classic put the Blues on the map as a serious contender on the national stage. It gave the franchise a new level of public profile, even in their own city. The 2017 Winter Classic is inarguably the single biggest landmark on the path between when the Blues drafted Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz two picks apart in 2010, and when that same era culminated on the ice in Boston in 2019.
When the Blues take the ice today, on January 1, 2022, only three players from the 2017 Winter Classic will be with them in Minneapolis (at least in an on-ice role). But the significance of that game echoes today nonetheless. There’s no question that the success of the 2017 Winter Classic convinced the NHL to give the Blues another berth in 2021 (now 2022 by postponement). The team now, much like the team then, remains a top contender, and the matchup now, much like the matchup then, will have control of the Central Division hanging in the balance. Though the coaches, players, jerseys, and opponents may all have changed, one thing remains the same: high-stakes hockey in the elements to kick off the New Year is about as good as it gets.