A few years ago, I brought one of my best friends, Joe, to a Blues playoff game. He had never been to a hockey game before, nor did he have an NHL team he followed at all, but he had for years listened to my preaching about it. How it's the best sport to see live, how the playoffs are incredibly intense, how fuck the Blackhawks - you know, the basics. It was a kind of last minute, day-of thing. I found surprisingly cheap tickets on StubHub that afternoon, but had to buy both of them. So he tagged along, not knowing what to expect.
The game was low-scoring, but end-to-end competitive (it was against the Kings, after all). The hitting was hard, the saves were eye-popping, and the speed of the game astounding. Joe was mesmerized. Penalties were called, and Joe asked what they were. Icings and offsides were whistled, then explained. If you're doing your job as a hockey fan, you should be pretty familiar with the usual script of first-timer questions.
The Blues held a 1-0 lead going into the last minute of the game, and the crowd all stood up and ramped up the noise. Jonathon Quick had been pulled, which I explained to my questioning friend was a last ditch, desperation move. Joe was pumped.
Then Joe was deflated. The Kings tied the game in the final seconds.
This was game one of the 2013 Western Conference Quarterfinals, so most of the building could feel where this was probably going. Yet another underwhelming postseason result against LA. I explained to Joe how playoff overtime worked, and that it's usually the best thing in sports, but that tonight would surely be nothing but torture, as LA would surely find a way to end it in tears. And for a while it looked that way. The Kings clearly dictated play the overtime period, then Kevin Shattenkirk got hit with a double-minor high sticking penalty. The Blues had to keep a team that had been dominating them at 5-on-5 from scoring with a man advantage for 4 minutes. Sorrow was knocking on the door.
You know what happened next.
19,500-some odd people went from deep depression to exuberant elation in the span of 2 seconds. Everyone in the building exploded in excitement at once, Joe included. He hadn't experienced the full contextual build-up of the Blues' history of playoff disappointments, but he sure as hell was on the same page with us in that moment. Alexander Steen and I had successfully created a new hockey fan. Joe was hooked.
Then the rest of that series happened. The Kings eliminated the Blues in the first round after 6 games, and that was it. The 2013 St. Louis Blues were done with hockey.
Unfortunately, 2013 Joe was not done with hockey.
My buddy's family grew up in the Chicagoland area, and as such are all devoted Chicago Bears fans. Joe also roots for the Bulls and Cubs. But he's lived in the St. Louis area for several years at this point, and his newfound hockey fandom was a free agent, with the Blues now out of the playoffs. Three guesses who he ended up with.
By being the Blues yet again, the Blues lost at least one potential fan, and who knows how many others each year the disappointments continue. We often make fun of "new" Blackhawks fans for bandwagoning, but the sad truth is that having such a large group of bandwagoners is not only the mark of a successful franchise, it's vital to a franchise's health. (It's also worth noting that most Hawks bandwagoners have been around for almost 9 seasons now, or as long as Chris Pronger was a Blue.) We as hockey fans have a habit of playing the inferiority card about being number 4 of the Big 4 US Sports - and even that spot is on shaky footing, as more and more markets start putting professional soccer ahead of hockey. And yet, we often chastise new fans who haven't been around all along.
Hockey as a sport needs to grow and find new demographics to thrive in, as do the Blues specifically. Which is why the Tony X. phenomenon has been such a big deal. Sure, most of us would have loved if twitter were around when we first fell in love with hockey so we could get free shit (though perhaps at this point Tony wishes twitter weren't around today so he could enjoy growing into a hockey fan in peace). But the fact that the Blues played well enough, won, and made new fans in the process is huge. With the Rams gone and a St. Louis MLS team 5 years away in the best case scenario, the Blues can capitalize to make hockey fans out of those who wouldn't otherwise be hockey fans, especially among minorities. (For whatever it may be worth, Joe is Mexican-American.) And I don't need to tell you, the way to do that is with deep postseason runs. Unless you want another 50 years of 5,000 empty seats in November and half-red crowds when Chicago comes to town, the Blues need to win at least this series. Numbers show when given half a reason to care, St. Louis watches hockey as much or more than any US city outside of Buffalo. But it's hard to care about a team that can't even get half-way to the Stanley Cup more than once in a generation.
Joe was a sign that the Blues were the same. Tony X. is a sign that they might be different. This team MUST be different. For their own sake.