Sunday, January 13, 2013

Blues fans welcome back boys of winter in style

Thousands congregated to Scottrade Center to welcome opening of camp

ST. LOUIS -- When Brian Elliott stepped onto the Scottrade Center ice Sunday morning, he had thousands of friends waiting with open arms.

Little did Elliott know that 5,500-6,000 loyal Blues fans were waiting for him. They were loud. They were clear. And when fellow teammates followed, the noise got louder and louder.

Hockey was back. And Blues fans couldn't have been happier.

"We couldn’t hear anything (on the ice) ... it was a little bit of a shock for all of us," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "You expect two or three thousand, not 6,000 or whatever. That's why we simplifed some of the drills. We just went back to familiar drills; everybody just went back to where they had to go and we just went from there.

"I just thought the crowd was unbelievable, the fans, the noise in the building. I thought that was the best part."

When the lockout officially ended Saturday night, training camps opened up Sunday for teams trying to cram in a months' worth prepping for a shortened 48-game season.

It didn't take long for chants of "Let's Go Blues" to fill the air capacity of Scottrade, and the 25 players attending camp certainly noticed.

"It's great to see that many fans out there and cheering for us," center Patrik Berglund said. "It's really exciting to be back.

"I think everybody was kind of curious how many people would show up. When we stepped on the ice, it was great to see that many people out there."

Added center Alex Steen: "It was nice, good seeing everybody. A lot of cheers. Good atmosphere. It was good."

Steen said the atmosphere was so impressive that it might be a good idea to do it on a regular basis.

"In Sweden they do it every year. The first practice of the year is always open to fans," Steen said. "There's one town way up north ... there's not a lot of people that live in the town but they usually have about 5-6,000 the first practice. It's fun. Maybe it's something that we should start with here."

The Blues, who open their 48-game schedule Saturday night at Scottrade Center against rival Detroit, opened camp with 15 forwards, eight defensemen and two netminders.

Everyone's healthy, but what players noticed most was the forgiveness Blues fans displayed to them. If the feelings resonate around the league, the NHL will be back on its feet in no time.

"It was a lot of fun. Andy McDonald was saying it was definitely the most people he’s seen at training camp in his career," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "For us, it meant a lot that they were there to watch us and come support us. It was just great to see."

And in response, when the Blues finished up, they congregated at center ice, offered stick taps and salutes to all that were there at the end of their hour-and-a-half skate. A Q&A session with fans followed afterwards.

"That was probably one of the better moments," Shattenkirk said of the salute at the end. "To get that kind of noise from the crowd and the numbers that they showed up (with) is awesome to see."

Even with the warm welcome, one can never assume the best after a lengthy and at times bitter lockout.

"It's always an uncertainty when you wipe 30 games off the schedule and hear a lot of the banter of the people not coming back asking for refunds," captain David Backes said. "It's good that there's still the passion and people still care."

Said defenseman Barret Jackman: "You don't assume they're going to come back. You've got to go out there, battle every time you're on the ice and put your heart and soul out there.

"We all are in it because we love the game. The business side, it's one thing and it's over with now. We're able to lace up the skates and do what we were born to do. Putting a winning product on the ice is the only way to get the fans back."

Even newcomer Vladimir Tarasenko, who stepped onto Scottrade Center ice for the first time, was impressed.

"I really liked it," Tarasenko said. "Russia is the same. This was a real good one ... guys from the team and the fans can be together."

But in case there are some that refuse to come back, Steen said there's one sure way to get them back:

"Win hockey games," Steen said. "That's what it comes down to.

"We're a hard-working group. That goes without saying. I think the last few years, one of the staples of our game has been how hard we work as a group and how tight-knit we are. If we show that same work ethic, hopefully everybody still appreciates that. Obviously it was a rough go here for a couple months, but the game's back on the ice and obviously we as players are thrilled and we'll have to wait to see what it looks like on Saturday. But it should be a good game. Detroit's always fun."

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