ST. LOUIS – About 15 minutes before the St. Louis Blues opened training camp, coach Ken Hitchcock was mystified by the roar coming from outside his office. He thought it might have been heavy machinery.
Players stepping onto the ice to warm up knew better. The sound they heard and the estimated 5,000 faces they saw in the stands was an unexpected welcome back from a die-hard fan base happy to see the end of the NHL lockout.
“Pretty awesome,” said forward David Backes, the team captain. “I’ve never seen anything like it for a practice. It’s always an uncertainty when you wipe 30 games off the schedule and you hear a lot of banter about people not coming back or asking for refunds. There’s still a passion and people still care.”
For now, there are no hard feelings. As Hitchcock noted, results will keep ’em coming.
“I just feel confident that if we play good hockey, we’re going to pack the building,” Hitchcock said. “I think that’s totally up to us. If we play like we’re capable and we give an effort that the fans expect here, then I think the people come in droves.”
The Blues had 109 points last season, tied for second-best overall in the NHL and one of the best showings in franchise history. A roster that lacks star power but is well-balanced with two No. 1-calibre goalies is virtually unchanged, providing continuity.
Brian Elliott had a breakout season, making the All-Star team in a job share with Jaroslav Halak that produced a league-leading 15 shutouts and the Jennings Trophy. The stingy duo compensated for a grinding offence that ranked in the bottom third of the league but figures to get a boost with a full season from forward David Perron, who had 42 points in 57 games after recovering from a concussion, and 21-year-old rookie Vladimir Tarasenko, who’ll be on the second line with speedy Andy McDonald and Alex Steen.
Holding it all together is the NHL coach of the year. The 61-year-old Hitchcock has a team ready to be pushed after the Blues got dumped in a second-round sweep by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Kings last May.
“Obviously, you want to remember what it felt like for them to end your season when there was so much promise and so many people behind you,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “We’ve just got to build on that, remember how they beat us, why they beat us.”
Forward Chris Stewart prepared for a rebound season after a meagre 30-point output by shedding 15-20 pounds. Hitchcock was struck by the fitness level of veteran forwards Scott Nichol, 38, and Jamie Langenbrunner, 37, joking that “somebody must have given them new legs for Christmas.”
The Blues hit the ground running, like the rest of the NHL, with six games in the first nine days. Opening night presents an immediate test with the Central-rival Detroit Red Wings at home on Saturday night. There’ll be no shortage of adrenaline while they reconnect on the ice.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, I don’t think,” Oshie said. “It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be exciting.”
Like the Blues, their fans are impatient for the puck to drop. St. Louis has never won a Cup and players saluted the 8,000 fans who showed up for a scrimmage earlier this week.
“You don’t assume they’re going to come back, you’ve got to go out there and battle every time you’re on the ice,” defenceman Barret Jackman said. “The business side is one thing and it’s over with now and we’re able to lace up the skates and do what we were born to do.”
Before the scrimmage, Hitchcock said he spoke to four fellow coaches “and everybody said the same thing: ‘Oh my God.'”
“Everybody’s in the same boat,” Hitchcock said. “It’s just the reality check. We’re going to be a good team.”