ST. LOUIS — The past, Brett Hull said on the jumbotron before Game 6, is only a point of reference now for the St. Louis Blues.
But as the blue and gold streamers exploded from the Enterprise Center rafters and “Gloria” played on loop, some of the biggest parts of that past stood in the tunnel outside the Blues’ dressing room as the Clarence Campbell Bowl was carried onto the ice.
Longtime Blues enforcer Kelly Chase was crying. Original Blue Note Bob Plager was thinking of his two brothers – Bill and Barclay, who also played for the club – who passed away.
“There’s a lot of tears up there in heaven,” Plager said.
And somehow, the Hall of Famer Hull was at a loss for words – maybe for the first time ever.
“You can’t put it into words. It’s [bleeping] crazy. It’s so good,” Hull said. “This is incredible. It’s so special for the city and the people. These fans have been part of this for so long and they’re so supportive. Think about that. How many years has it been?”
Forty nine years. The wait is over. Final-ly.
The St. Louis Blues advanced to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970 with a spine-tingling, 5-1 victory over the shorthanded San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night. They’ll face the Boston Bruins, the same team that swept them in ’70, beginning with Game 1 on May 27.
“This is what they’ve been waiting for,” said Scotty Bowman, the only coach to get the Blues there before Craig Berube. “I could never have imagined it would take them this long to get back there. I know one thing: the Blues will be on a lot more of a level playing field this time around. We gave it a run, but this team has a real chance.”
Bowman’s Blues made it to the Final each of the first three seasons in franchise history as the all-expansion West division representative, but never won a game. They fell twice to the storied Montréal Canadiens, then the Big Bad Bruins with Bobby Orr in his prime.
Bowman moved on to the Canadiens, where he won five of his record nine Stanley Cups. That was the story of the Blues. The numbers of the best players in franchise history all hang atop the building, but they had to go elsewhere to hang the ultimate banner. Hull scored the Cup winner for Dallas, Chris Pronger helped lug it to Anaheim, Al MacInnis won his in Calgary before he arrived.
They anchored so many great Blues teams, a franchise that made 25 consecutive playoff appearances from 1980 to 2004, but they could never get over the hump.
“We’ve had a lot of good teams, but it was always something here or something there,” Hull said. There were always better teams.”
“The mindset of the local fan was very downtrodden here,” said Pronger, who like so many former players calls St. Louis home. “This is huge for the city, to finally get there. We made it to the Conference Finals in 2001, but I have never seen the town like this. For the first time ever, people are stopping what they’re doing to watch the Blues.”
All those failed quests for 35 pounds of silver weighed heavy. Blues GM Doug Armstrong said he didn’t know how big the monkey this franchise was carrying around on its back until the end of his second season. His Blues had just won their first playoff series in a decade (in 2011-12) before bowing out in the second round to the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings.
A local columnist rolled his eyes. Same old Blues.
“I said, ‘Don’t hold this group accountable for what didn’t happen in the [past],” Armstrong said. “Then we went on for eight more years creating more misery. So it’s certainly nice to put at least one chapter of that behind us.”
Five of Armstrong’s teams could have reached this point by now. That it was this one? Well, this Blues team has written chapter after chapter of a story that will be told for generations.
“I wish we had won a Stanley Cup or played for the Cup in my first or second year,” Armstrong said. “But it probably wouldn’t feel as special.”
From 31st place on Jan. 3, to a season-changing night at a bar in South Philadelphia, to the arrival of rookie phenom Jordan Binnington and all that they’ve overcome along the way – including a missed hand pass in Game 3 that put them in a 2-1 series hole in this Western Conference final – it’s been a wild ride.
The Blues are four more Glorias away from the Stanley Cup.
“At the start of the year, with the moves that we made in the summer, I was high on this team. I was thinking Stanley Cup, or we’re as good as any other team,” said Plager, whose No. 5 is retired. “Then we started off and … you’ve got to realize what a great goaltender means to a hockey team. Think back to our first year: Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante. Not bad.”
The Blues dispatched the Sharks, a team with its own sordid history of playoff shortcomings, in three straight to advance to the Final. Binnington allowed just two goals over these last three games, seeking to become the fifth rookie goalie ever to win the Stanley Cup.
The list is not long: Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward and Matt Murray. Binnington might not be rookie of the year, but he has been the story of the year.
“I definitely wouldn’t have put money on it,” Binnington said.
Vladimir Tarasenko, the only player to notch a point in each game of the series, said he was full of emotion. What got him, Tarasenko said, was seeing the tears in the eyes of Chase and the rest of the Blues alumni as they stepped off the ice – realizing they had just wiped away five decades of pain and heartbreak.
It was a moment 49 years in the making.
“Enjoy it?” Hull said. “Oh boy. We are gonna. This city has waited a long freaking time.”
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli