Blues’ long-awaited return to Cup Final lifts spirits of St. Louis faithful

3-time Stanley Cup champion Patrick Sharp joins HC at Noon to give his take on Bruins vs. Blues, how important in-game momentum is, and how the Blues don't have as many game-breakers, but also not many weaknesses in their game.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — There’s a massive reminder of what’s no longer here when you drive into downtown St. Louis along Interstate-70. That route takes you directly past The Dome, the 67,000-seat former home to the NFL’s Rams which occupies 14 acres of prime real estate and largely sits empty now.

You can’t miss it.

Nearly four years on from the Rams folding up shop and moving to Los Angeles, few have forgotten it — although the St. Louis Blues are doing their part to try and create some new sporting memories.

“It’s just a city that needs this, it’s a city that’s been down,” Blues forward Patrick Maroon said Friday. “This is what we needed just to have this city back up again.”

Maroon might better be known as the Spirit of St. Louis — a local boy who made good. He signed a one-year contract to join his hometown team last summer and scored arguably the biggest goal of their playoff run so far, the double-overtime winner against Dallas in Game 7 of the second round.

He identifies closely with the wave of civic pride that’s swept across this city the deeper the Blues have gone. Fans filled every seat inside Enterprise Center for viewing parties during Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final and will do so again when the series shifts back to Boston for Game 5.

The Blues sold that one out in roughly an hour.

And on Saturday, they’ll host an event more than 49 years in the making — the first Stanley Cup Final game here since the days of Red Berenson, Al Arbour and Jacques Plante. The last one was played at St. Louis Arena on May 5, 1970 and saw Boston beat the Blues 6-2 on the way to sweeping the series.

The half-century-long wait explains why no tickets could be found on the secondary market for less than $700. It’s also why the moniker “Let’s Make History” is plastered on banners all over town and the blue towels being given away inside the arena.

A hockey game on a sweaty June 1 is a huge event — for fans and players alike.

“I’ve been trying to hold in my excitement, though,” said Maroon. “Just trying to hold my emotions in. Just because we’re so close to something special here. You’re holding it in to focus on your game, focus on what you can do and control. That’s what I’ve been trying.”

There’s a pretty stark parallel to be found by the cities represented in this NHL championship series.

Boston is the home of champions. Fans there have celebrated six Super Bowl wins, four World Series victories, a Stanley Cup and an NBA title inside the last 17 years. The Bruins have adorned the visiting locker-room here in St. Louis with pictures of Zdeno Chara, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask celebrating the team’s victory in 2011.

“This is a tough city,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney. “You’ve got to keep up with the Jones’s in this city and you realize that there’s expectations. The pressure as a player, you certainly welcome that. As a manager, sometimes it’s challenging.”

The challenges in St. Louis have come in many forms. Part of the NHL’s Original 12 expansion in 1967, the Blues are still searching for their first title.

Even though the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 and 2011, a sizeable hole was left behind when owner Stan Kroenke moved the Rams in 2015.

Maroon believes that decision continues to hover over many in the proud city today.

“I just think losing the football team [hurts],” he said. “This city’s been waiting for something special for so many years and they finally get it. With everything, the Blues and the Rams, we’re trying to get a [MLS] soccer team. We’re trying to get more people into the city because this is a huge, huge sports town.”

That’s been evident during an ear-splitting run for the Blues.

A testament to the staying power of the organization has always been the large number of former players who chose to make their home here in retirement. They’ve flooded back to the building in droves this spring.

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Local businesses have also made a point of showing their support for the team.

“Just the little things in the city continue to get more and more bigger,” said defenceman Colton Parayko. “You see the banners around the city. Everyone’s talking about it all the time. You go to dinner and just hear the different tables talking about it.

“It’s just cool, to kind of be a part of, to be in this city, to be a player.”

The crammed downtown streets should make for a spectacular backdrop during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup. They’ve set up a large outdoor viewing area with screens outside Enterprise Center, and a couple of blocks over the Cardinals will be playing a marquee game against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium.

This city is coming alive.

“It’s going to be a huge game,” said Maroon. “You’ve got the Cards-Cubs and the Blues playoff game, so there’s going to be over 100,000 people in downtown St. Louis.”

They may not have seen anything quite like it in these parts since the Rams bolted west.

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