ST. LOUIS, Mo. — There are things the captain of a team with the chance to win the Stanley Cup has to think about. Things Alex Pietrangelo would rather not discuss publicly at this delicate stage in the proceedings.
Such as, who would he call forward to pass the 35-pound trophy to first, should the Blues end their 52-year championship drought by winning here on Monday night?
“It’s probably not a difficult thing to figure out. Just go down the roster,” said Pietrangelo.
It has to be Jay Bouwmeester. A seven-year Blue, 16-year NHLer and a man who needed 764 regular-season games before he even got a taste of the playoffs.
The first pass of the Cup is an honour traditionally bestowed on a player who has endured more than all others to reach that glorious moment and Bouwmeester has seen some things. From a can’t-miss prospect to a player that losing seemed to perpetually follow around to a guy whose career appeared to be hanging by a thread.
Not only did Bouwmeester undergo serious hip surgery last season, but he was also a healthy scratch for the first time in his career in October and again for three straight games in November.
Depending on who you believe, he may have been as close as a day away from being exposed to the waiver wire while the Blues stumbled out of the starting blocks.
“For me, personally, it was a tough start,” said Bouwmeester. “Once I started feeling good I was confident that I could get back to where I was. Luckily I was able to do that here.”
Here, in the biggest games in franchise history, he has played the second-most even-strength minutes among any St. Louis player during the Stanley Cup Final.
Bouwmeester logged a game-high 29:08 in Game 5, tying the 10th-most number of shifts (40) he’d ever received at the NHL level, and my goodness what represents this unpredictable Blues season better than that?
They’ve gone from being the NHL’s worst team on Jan. 3 to a potential Stanley Cup champion on June 9. He’s gone from a 35-year-old healthy scratch in the fall to a 35-year-old workhorse in the spring.
“It’s called being a professional,” said Pietrangelo. “That’s all that is, right? He kept himself level-headed, kept himself in shape and what he went through at the end of last season, it took him a little while to get back.
“But, I’ll tell you what, this is some of the best hockey I’ve ever seen him play.”
Bouwmeester has played plenty of big games with Team Canada, but none will match the importance of what he and the Blues face in Game 6 on Monday night. The Stanley Cup is going to be inside Enterprise Center and they’ve already closed off several streets around the building in anticipation of the crowd that will gather outside.
“It’s not something to be afraid of,” said Bouwmeester. “It’s something to just embrace and enjoy.”
All of this was expected for the smooth-skating defenceman, a rare three-time member of Canada’s world junior team and the No. 3 pick overall in the 2002 draft. It just took a whole lot longer than anyone might have guessed.
Bouwmeester is the only one of the top-23 selections in that draft class still playing in the NHL — Blues teammate Alex Steen was taken 24th — and he’s bounced from Florida to Calgary to St. Louis in search of his Cup.
This city best fits his understated style. He’s not one that seeks the spotlight, nor appreciates his time in it. He’s most comfortable in a Cardinals ballcap, t-shirt and a well-worn pair of jeans.
“St. Louis is one of those places you come on the road and you kind of go from the airport to downtown and there’s not much going on here and you’re kind of like ‘Ah, I don’t know,”’ said Bouwmeester. “You know what, I’m from Edmonton and that’s what guys see there, too. So what you realize is when you’re out and around and you get out of that kind of what you do on the road, which really isn’t much, it’s a really nice place to live and people are friendly and all that.”
As Bouwmeester prepared for the biggest game of his life, he said there was comfort to be found in the routine that’s carried him through 1,257 others during his NHL career. There’s added pressure, sure, but it’ll dissipate once the puck is dropped.
He is one final 60-minute climb away from potentially reaching the summit. It won’t be easy, with Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy predicting Sunday that his top line is on the verge of an offensive breakout, but for Bouwmeester it never really has been.
“I can talk for days about what he’s done for me,” said Pietrangelo. “We’ve played a lot of hockey together. To do what he’s doing at his age and playing at the level that he’s playing, it’s pretty darn impressive.”