This story first appeared on Page 5 (The Five Hole) of the March 9, 2020 edition of the St. Louis Game Time paper, sold outside of every Blues home game. For more information or to subscribe, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Twenty-four years and four days ago, the Florida Panthers were in town. In just their third season in the league (having missed the playoffs in their first two), they were a stunning 35-20-8. They would go on to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final a few months later, but no one could have known that at the time. The Blues, meanwhile, were a middling 27-24-12. They’d wind up making the playoffs as the Western Conference’s fifth seed, but only finished two points clear of ninth-place Anaheim.
It was Blues-Panthers on a Tuesday night, and to put it mildly, it should have been a nothing game — one of those games you go to or watch just because it’s there; one of those games where 16,000 tickets are distributed and maybe 14,000 fans actually show up; one of those games where Brad complains that we only sold a few dozen copies of the paper.
But it wasn’t. Far from it. Until last summer, it might have been the most anticipated game in this building’s history: 20,725 fans packed in, a full thousand and a half more than the building’s capacity and, at the time, the biggest hockey crowd in St. Louis history.
It was Wayne Gretzky’s first home game as a Blue. I’m trying to conjure up a present-day analogy to imagine how exciting that would have been. But even if Connor McDavid somehow wound up as a Blue today and were in the lineup tonight, he doesn’t have nearly the pedigree the Great One had: Four Cup rings, worldwide fame, and this little thing called the NHL goal-scoring record. Maybe if Tom Brady decided to join the Battlehawks, and they had been fruitlessly pursuing a championship in St. Louis for 30 years, and the Dome sold out … eh, it still wouldn’t measure up.
And of all the teams that could have stood in as the Washington Generals while Blues fans standing-o’ed number 99 and Ernie Hays ripped the chords to “Meet Me in St. Louis” all night, it was the Florida Panthers, wearing their own, special brand of cartoonish clown suits.
Five thoughts for a game that doesn’t exist on the pocket schedules.
1. Amazingly, Gretzky is not the only first-ballot hall-of-famer to join the Blues late in his career and play his first home game against the Panthers. I’ll give you a minute to guess … the date was December 8, 2014.
Got it? It was Martin Brodeur who flipped and flopped and pad-stacked his way to 32 saves on 34 Florida shots to pick up career win number 690 in his home debut wearing the Blue Note.
2. Scott “The Rat” Mellanby was on that ’95-’96 Panthers team, and the story of his nickname never gets old. Before the Panthers’ home opener that season, Mellanby had seen a rat scurrying around the home dressing room at the Miami Arena. He did what any sensible hockey player would do: used his stick to kill the rat. He scored two goals that night, and goalie John Vanbiesbrouck called it a “rat trick.” Like that, a tradition was born in South Florida, and by the time the Panthers got to the Cup Final, fans were throwing thousands of rubber rats on the ice after goals. File it under “Only in the NHL.”
3. You probably know that tonight’s game was supposed to happen tomorrow. And that Wednesday’s game against Anaheim was supposed to have been played already. But now the Blues have three games in three different cities in two time zones in four days. It’s the last three-in-four of the season, luckily, but I’ll repeat: I don’t see why the game in Anaheim couldn’t have been eliminated from the schedule entirely, unless we reached the end of the season and it would have played a role in playoff seeding.
4. Jay Bouwmeester’s best years came as a Panther. From 2006-2009, he notched his only three double-digit goal-scoring seasons: 12, 15, and 15.
5. The Panthers traded Vincent Trocheck to Carolina at the deadline. Word on the street is that GM Dale Tallon is under orders from ownership to cut around $10 million in salary, and if that’s true, removing Trocheck gets him almost half of the way there. Of course, this is the same franchise that just signed a 31-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky for $10 million per season, and was all-in on Artemi Panarin, so who the hell knows? Regardless, while Trocheck’s offensive output had dropped over the past two seasons, his underlying numbers have always been strong. He’s only 26, and he’s under contract, on a reasonable deal, for two years after this one. If the Panthers are trying to win, trading him was a head-scratcher.
If you enjoyed this story — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.