When you ask the St. Louis Blues how, exactly, they won a Stanley Cup, they all have the same answers. Suspiciously so.
“Sticking together as a group,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, and then began listing. “Using everybody. Keeping an even keel. We could’ve got disjointed a lot as the season went on.”
And how. The Blues went from dead last – emphasis on “dead” – to a shining first in franchise history. They all credit chemistry, that sports alchemy that turns a few good players into an irresistible unit.
(As an example of what that looks like, someone asked Pietrangelo on the side if he’d had any wild celebrity moments with the Cup. Say, a Jay-Z moment?
“Jay-Z?! I wish” Pietrangelo said, then pointed to the stall beside him. “Jay Bouwmeester. He’s like Jay-Z around here.”
And Bouwmeester, delighted to be included, gave a little wave.
Carl Gunarsson spun a variation on Pietrangelo’s theme – “… the start for us was you gotta work for the guy next to you. We didn’t do that for the first half of the year and then, ‘Boom.’ ”
This is fine, as well as it goes. It certainly makes for a nice quote. Everybody wants to believe these guys would all jump in front of bullets for each other. That is certainly the case on most winning teams, and somewhat less so on losing ones.
But one assumes most NHL players try to work for the guy next to them. Because if they don’t, they may soon find themselves working for Home Depot instead.
From the local perspective, Gunnarsson has a more nuanced perspective than most. He played for the Leafs during the bad old days (take your pick of days; most of them have been bad).
He knows what it’s like in Toronto. Plus, he’s played in St. Louis – a city that appreciates, but doesn’t obsess over, its hockey – for a good long while.
Is what happened in St. Louis – the team buckling, getting raked for it and then using that disappointment as propellant – possible in Toronto?
“I don’t think it depends on the city,” Gunnarsson said. “If one team could do it …”
But I’m talking about Toronto. Where they routinely kill the team for losing two in a row. Where the Leafs took five points from a possible six to start the year, and yet everybody’s talking about a guy who threw a broken stick at another guy.
“Oh, I hear you,” Gunnarsson said, a light bulb going off. “Now that you say that, it might be tougher here …” – light bulbs now popping in Gunnarsson’s brain like the final scene in The Natural and the pauses between answers getting longer – “… Yeah … that’s true … the market is a little different.”
Then Gunnarsson did that thing where someone’s eyes get wide for a second and, rather than try explaining what he means, you both contemplate the universe together.
St. Louis was able to do what St. Louis did, in part, because the team is located in St. Louis. Because you can’t have a bunker mentality unless you have a bunker. Hockey in Missouri is a bunker. The players can go in there and hide together. Maybe that’s where the chemistry comes from.
Hockey in Toronto (or just about any other Canadian city) is open ground. Once the enemy has triangulated your position, there is nowhere to shelter in place.
They may have taken fighting out of the game, but, if you’re losing in Toronto, you’re still getting beaten up in the locker room. You’re getting yelled at on the radio. People know who you are in restaurants and, though they won’t say anything rude, they are all giving you the evil eye.
Toronto is trying to do a St. Louis, only with a longer timeline. What the Blues experienced over the first half of one season, the Leafs have felt over two consecutive playoff runs. Presumably, they too have had their opportunity to bond over a shared disaster.
So, the question is – do the Leafs have this year whatever it is the Blues had last year?
When someone asked Toronto head coach Mike Babcock what lesson can be drawn from St. Louis, he retreated to banal hockeyisms. “When you play right, you’ve got a chance.”
Then he noted, as if it were some sort of revelation, that St. Louis is strong down the middle, has good defence and excellent goaltending. In other words, they are the hockey team you would build in EA Sports video game. Penetrating analysis.
Babcock didn’t choose to note a few other unusual advantages the Blues have. First, they are huge. Compared with the Leafs, St. Louis is a collection of giants. That doesn’t matter in the regular season. It may in fact be a disadvantage. But it seems to help a great deal in the postseason, when the space closes down and the physicality opens up.
Second, the core has been together for a long time. Pietrangelo, the team’s most important player, started with the Blues in 2008 and he’s still in his 20s. There is a consistency of leadership in the St. Louis roster that Toronto cannot claim.
We’ve already mentioned the third thing, but it should be said over and over again. St. Louis plays in St. Louis.
When trying to figure out why no Canadian team has won a Cup in a dog’s age, that should always be the first avenue of questioning.
You could not do in Toronto (or Montreal, or Edmonton, or Winnipeg) what St. Louis did last year. The team would have been so dispirited by the town’s frenzied blaming, it is impossible to imagine how the players would’ve come together out of it.
So the 2019-20 Leafs’ most important lesson from the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues? Don’t try to do what they did in the way they did it. It probably won’t work out so well up here.