How the Blues’ Stanley Cup run has revitalized St. Louis

ST. LOUIS — From exploring the football practice facility formerly known as Rams Park on a humid June afternoon, an outsider would never know that it is the place an NFL team once called home.

Now used for youth soccer, the home of the St. Louis Rams for more than two decades has been wiped clean. The weight room is now home to AstroTurf carpet with nary a dumbbell. The locker room has been remade, and there are no lockers to be found.

To find any reminder that the Rams were ever here, you have to find the one sign that can’t easily be replaced. In the lobby of the building, a glass wall is still embossed with the words “St. Louis Rams” and the team logo’s horns surrounding it.

But even that is hard to make out because, fittingly, the word Rams has been covered up by a small sign.

That poster reads, in clear, bold letters, “Let’s Go Blues.”

It’s as much a sign of the times as it is a show of support for the local hockey team that just so happens to be one win away from its first Stanley Cup championship.

It’s a small reminder of what a stirring postseason run can do for a team and also for a city that has had its share of challenges in recent years.

“Just watching people, watching the news, just the buzz around the city is just amazing, and people are excited,” Patrick Maroon, Blues winger and St. Louis native, said. “It’s just a city that needs this, a city that’s been, I feel like, down, and that this is what we needed just to amp the city back up again.”

Moving on

The Rams filed for relocation on Jan. 4, 2016. Less than two weeks later, the NFL granted their request. In their relocation application, the Rams didn’t just sell their vision for Los Angeles. They painted St. Louis as a place where professional football had little chance of survival.

That application called St. Louis a “declining market with a weak economy,” citing a lack of corporate support and suggesting that the city could not support three professional sports teams.

The 29-page document left St. Louisans furious. For as much as they were angry about losing professional football, they were more upset about how the Rams left and the idea that someone who was supposedly one of their own — Rams owner Stan Kroenke is from Missouri and was named after Cardinals baseball legend Stan Musial — could so brazenly turn his back on them.

“Unfortunately, there was an owner who lied to the people here,” Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “That was what happened. Unfortunately, he wasn’t truthful to the great people of this community and this city, and there’s a lot of people walking around here with Rams tattoos all over their body who were pretty disappointed … but I think to say this town is not a sports town is absolutely asinine, crazy. These people wake up in the morning, and they think about baseball and hockey.”

Moving on from losing the Rams, the second NFL team that departed the city in 29 years, wasn’t so simple. It didn’t help matters that the Rams became kings of the NFC West in their second season in Los Angeles and made it to this year’s Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals haven’t been to the playoffs since the Rams left, and though the Blues made it to the NHL Western Conference finals in the months after the Rams’ departure, they continued to come up short.

Signs of a St. Louis sports renaissance first cropped up with the PGA Championship at Bellerive last year, an event that saw golfers unfamiliar with St. Louis sports fans raving about the support they got.

That only set the stage for what the Blues have done.

“The city has been waiting for something special for so many years, and they finally get it,” Maroon said. “After losing the Rams and we’re trying to get a soccer team, we’re just trying to get more people into the city … but I think people don’t realize what a great sports town this really is, and this is something special. I think this just shows people and proves [outsiders] wrong that this is a big-time sports town.”

The soul of the city

If the Cardinals are the heart of the city, the Blues are its soul.

With 11 world titles and a rich tradition surpassed by only the New York Yankees, the Cardinals have the type of championship equity that brings an expectation of success.

The Blues, meanwhile, have offered many good seasons — with plenty of heartbreaking defeats in never claiming hockey’s top prize.

Speak to a passionate Blues fan about the team’s tribulations, and you’re sure to be reminded of Steve Yzerman’s double-overtime goal in Game 7 of the 1996 playoffs, the injury to goalie Grant Fuhr that year, losing Wayne Gretzky to free agency, the curse of Scotty Bowman, being swept in three consecutive Finals appearances in the franchise’s first three years, the Ralston Purina ownership debacle that nearly meant moving to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in 1983 and so many more. Growing up in St. Louis, actor Jon Hamm remembers going to Game 7 of the 1982 World Series and seeing the Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers, a championship that was the first a then-11-year-old Hamm witnessed.

Hamm, who has been a fixture at Blues games during this postseason run and long before it, said the joy of that championship will pale in comparison to what would happen if the Blues get another victory.

“I didn’t think we’d ever get to the World Series, much less win one,” Hamm said. “No one knew what to do. Everyone was just kind of randomly screaming. I think if this happens, it’s going to be that times infinity.”

‘They drink their sports’

When the Rams moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis in 1995, a young receiver named Isaac Bruce was still making his way in the NFL. Entering his second season, Bruce was a relative unknown, but it didn’t take long for him to fall in love with his new city or for him to see the kind of love he’d get in return.

Bruce, who still returns to St. Louis regularly for charitable events, remembers going to the team’s first practice at Parkway Central High and seeing 4,000 people there to watch it. He went on to post what, at the time, was one of the most productive seasons by a receiver in league history. He instantly became the most recognizable Ram in town, a reputation that only grew as the Rams got better and the “Greatest Show on Turf” took the league by storm in 1999.

“They drink their sports,” Bruce said. “They really get drunk on their sports and their sports teams and the players that play for their teams … it lets you know that we were intertwined within the fabric of the community.”

Nobody understands that concept better than Steve Albers. The owner of Center Ice Brewery in midtown, Albers is a lifelong Blues and hockey fan who has turned his two favorite hobbies into a passion.

Now Albers is invested in the team and the game in a way that few fans can claim.

Albers’ dream of a hockey-themed brewery began in 2010, and he opened the doors to Center Ice in 2017. The bar is made of wood from the old St. Louis Arena, and the brewing equipment is surrounded by boards that traditionally surround a hockey rink.

“I was either going to build this place or die trying,” Albers said. “And I will say there are reassurances that helped give me confidence for it.”

Chief among those reassurances is the presence of Tom Stillman and the rest of the Blues’ ownership group. Stillman has been the anti-Kroenke, regularly shaking hands and greeting fans at games and continuing to pour money into ways to grow the game locally.

Those things matter as St. Louis cultivates the next generation of Blues fans and, presumably, some future beer drinkers. And they helped provide a better long-term picture after the Blues missed the playoffs last season and Center Ice struggled without the additional business.

“It’s my livelihood,” Albers said. “It 100 percent is. You know, last year when the Blues missed the playoffs, I mean, I was ready to put a fist through a wall over a hockey game.”

Ties that bind

While it was always common to see local athlete interaction, the bond between the Blues and Cardinals grew after the Rams’ departure.

Wainwright, who is originally from southern Georgia, arrived in St. Louis in 2005 with hockey knowledge that was limited to NHL Hockey on Sega Genesis (and, of course, the unstoppable wraparound move). He has no recollection of the NHL playoffs, save for perhaps the Stanley Cup Final, even being on TV growing up in Brunswick, Georgia.

Within a few years in St. Louis, Wainwright got more and more into hockey, and his daughters have fallen in love with it, too. That means seeing Wainwright and his family along with catcher Yadier Molina and his family at Blues games is about as normal as seeing Charles Glenn performing the national anthem.

Soon after the Washington Capitals were eliminated from this year’s playoffs, Wainwright took note when former Blue T.J. Oshie was asked whom he wanted to win the Cup and immediately chose his former team.

“That speaks loudly,” Wainwright said. “He knows how great those fans are and how much they love hockey in this town.”

The strong ties among sports teams and fans in St. Louis appears to be growing. Adding a third professional sports team would be seen by some owners as a threat, but St. Louis is in prime position to land one of two Major League Soccer expansion franchises. The Cardinals and Blues are supportive at every step.

Carolyn Kindle Betz — the leader of the St. Louis ownership group for the MLS expansion project, the current president of the Enterprise Holdings Foundation and the granddaughter of Enterprise Rental Car founder Jack Taylor — is a relative neophyte in the world of soccer, though she and her family have long been at the center of many St. Louis improvement projects and charitable endeavors.

The St. Louis expansion bid is strong but not yet a done deal. In the meantime, Kindle Betz has received plenty of support, from fans stopping her on the street a couple times every week to repeated offers of help from Stillman and Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr.

“The statement they’re making is, ‘We all support one another,'” Kindle Betz said. “And so, to be able to kind of sit here and say, that would be really awesome. If we do get awarded that MLS team, that there’s just one more piece of that puzzle.”

It’s perhaps no coincidence that many of the city’s biggest projects are also getting major contributions from the owners of its local sports teams. Kindle Betz has been heavily involved in the dramatic reimagination of the Arch grounds for the better part of the past decade. The Cardinals are continuing expansion on Ballpark Village. Members of the Blues ownership group, some of whom are members of the Taylor family, are in on the MLS expansion bid. World Wide Technology, which is part of the Blues’ ownership group, is the presenting sponsor of the 2019 season for the Muny, an outdoor theater in Forest Park, as well as the new title sponsor at Gateway Raceway.

In addition, those teams and companies are working to fill the philanthropic void left behind by the Rams while attempting to reach out to fans left behind who might not otherwise be interested in soccer, hockey or baseball.

“We need to make sure that our team and our coaching staff is diverse and represents the community that we live in,” Kindle Betz said.

Putting the pieces together

While the Blues’ run to within a game of the Stanley Cup has buoyed the city’s morale (and had short-term economic benefits), there’s undoubtedly still work to be done.

The murder rate still ranks at or near the top of most studies — and has every year since 2014. Racial inequities and segregation remain issues. A study from Washington University entitled “Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide” reported that 12% of African American families in St. Louis live in areas of concentrated poverty, with less than 1% of white families in those same areas.

Business-wise, St. Louis currently has 10 companies in the Fortune 500, which is up from 2017 but still short of the 12 it had in 2000 and (when adjusted for how Fortune changed its methodology in 1994) the 23 that existed in 1980.

Efforts to revitalize the city have seen a series of stops and starts, but some believe a lack of cooperation between St. Louis City and St. Louis County is at the center of the issue. Recent census information shows that the city represents just 11 percent of the population of the St. Louis metro area, with 88 independent county municipalities surrounding it.

One local think tank estimates that a merger between city and county would make St. Louis the nation’s 10th-largest city by population.

“I’d like to see us address the city and county relationship,” said Bob Wallace, former high-ranking executive of the Rams and football Cardinals and current attorney at Thompson Coburn LLP. “You look at the cities that we compete with — you know, Indy, Baltimore, Nashville — they’ve come to some sort of arrangement where the city and county aren’t competing for the same things.”

A proposal for such an arrangement was recently pulled from ballot consideration by organizers of the “Better Together STL” initiative. That proposal would have needed statewide approval and came with many questions.

For now, there is nothing concrete on the table for official merger, but Lewis Reed, the president of the board of aldermen, says that doesn’t mean there can’t be unity.

“We can come to cooperative agreements right now that give us all the benefits of being together,” Reed said. “We put together a regional commission to look at development issues. That same type of setup can be done for healthcare delivery services. The same thing can be done for our public safety services all the way up and down the line. That would help us streamline operations but not take on the big challenge of upending the political structure that people are comfortable with, mainly in the county.”

Despite those issues, there are things St. Louis points to as positives, aside from the Blues’ run of success.

New projects popping up around the city came in at more than $1 billion in 2018, and more have broken ground in 2019. The new facility for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is, perhaps, the most important project, at a cost of $1.7 billion, with expected completion in April 2023.

Beyond that, St. Louis has garnered praise for its development and incubation of startups, and SeekCapital.com, a consulting service for small businesses, recently ranked the St. Louis metro area at the top of the list of metro areas with the most female-owned startups.

“That redevelopment will allow us to address some of the issues of the divide that has existed in the city of St. Louis,” Reed said. “And to redevelop areas of our cities that have been underdeveloped for so many years.”

Setting a Blueprint

Perhaps nobody knows what an unexpected championship run can do for a city better than David Freese. The native St. Louisan was at the center of the city’s favorite most recent sports memories.

The third baseman for the 2011 Cardinals championship team delivered two unforgettable moments in Game 6 of that year’s World Series to help a team that had been left for dead during the season claim the game’s ultimate prize.

“It was just chaos, absolute chaos,” Freese said. “You know, we were a team that were pretty much out of it. And we just kept pushing and made it all the way to the end and beat Texas, and you know, the city just went on fire. And I think that would happen too if the Blues took the Cup.

“I think when you’re in a city that loves its sports as much as St. Louis, and you end up winning a championship, it’ll just be chaos. But it was awesome. And the people around there and the interaction with all the fans — you can’t beat the people of St. Louis.”

On Jan. 2, the Blues had the fewest points in the NHL standings. Things were so bleak that they sent scouts to look at Jack Hughes, the player widely regarded as the top prospect in the 2019 NHL draft.

Since then, the Blues have proved to be the picture of resilience. When disaster has struck in the playoffs, moments, such as the hand pass that led to the losing goal in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against San Jose, that have in the past been the death knell for the Blues have turned into motivation.

Even the most jaded of fans has begun to believe that what looked impossible in January is now oh so real.

“We could use a win,” Hamm said. “It’s been a rough run for the city the last three decades or so, with the odd Cardinals championship here and there and whatnot. … When you look back at Jan. 2, last in the league, to have the guts and fortitude and strength and character and the skill to come back from that … yeah, I think these guys believe, and I think the city is starting to.”

That belief has been impossible to miss since the Stanley Cup playoffs began. Games that aren’t taking place in St. Louis have yielded sold-out watch parties at Enterprise Center. A watch party for Game 5 sold out in less than an hour. Television ratings have been through the roof, with Game 5 drawing a local rating of 30.1 on Thursday, making it the highest-rated Blues game ever in the market and the highest local rating in the country.

Home games have also drawn a steady stream of celebrity and athlete appearances, with the likes of Hamm, Cardinals Wainwright, Molina, Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt, former Rams Bruce and Chris Long, many former Blues, including Gretzky and Brett Hull, legendary track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, actor Scott Bakula, actress Jenna Fischer and rapper Nelly among those who attended one or both of St. Louis’ first two home games of the Stanley Cup Final.

All are from St. Louis, spent a large part of their careers here or both. All represent the thing St. Louis values the most.

“I think St. Louisans are really proud of their loyalty,” 101 ESPN radio host Randy Karraker said.

Now — win or lose — more than ever.

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