NHL Draft Fan Fest 2017 – A Microcosm of Being a St. Louis Sports Fan in Chicago

June 23rd, 2017 – The day started like any other in recent Blues history.  The Blues were coming off another playoff run that started with promise but ended with yet another disappointment, albeit slightly less sour when considering expectations entering the year.  The team had lost David Perron to the Las Vegas Golden Knights days before in the league’s expansion draft.  Reactions were mixed among fans as the team opted instead to protect fan-favorite Ryan Reaves who’s scorching 27 goals and 695 penalty minutes in 419 career games were clearly not a part of the team’s playoff scoring problems (more on this move later).  Despite this and a GM who never seems to think the Blues need more scoring, Day One of the Draft was looking optimistic as the Blues had two first round picks (#20 & #27).

My day started off in “beautiful” Rock Island, Illinois about a three-hour drive from my adopted adulthood home; Chicago.  As you can imagine, I wasn’t thrilled about the trip’s location but sometimes my work takes me to places you learn to forget quickly (the first month on the job I had to drive three hours through the desert to Yuma, AZ).  After morning sessions at the conference, I was eager to get back on the road to America’s Second City.  Pat, my previous year’s roommate and the biggest Chicago sports fan I have met in this city, had scored tickets to the NHL Draft Fan Fest later that night.  Pat hates everything St. Louis sports so our conversations usually involve banter about how the Hawks and Cardinals are superior to their Midwest rivals (thanks for ruining that easy argument Cubs).  Watching Pat as a Cubs fan reminds me how ridiculous I am for being a Blues fan.

I finally get on the road early Friday afternoon and turn on ESPN Chicago Radio after exhausting three hours of NPR on the previous day’s drive.  If you’ve never listened to Chicago sports radio stations, they usually go a little something like this:

  • One of the hosts proclaims something absurd about how one of the local teams or players are the worst in the history of Chicago sports
  • Then the station takes calls for an hour from fans also proclaiming that said team or player is clearly the worst in the history of Chicago sports and that things just haven’t been the same since Jordan and Ditka left
  • Both the host and caller then agree that management is clearly the worst in the history of Chicago sports and should have been fired already

This routine goes on for hours and I swear it is as hilarious as watching the Saturday Night Live skit it inspired.  St. Louis sports radio should really take note of this tried and true model as the constant regurgitation of washed-up Cardinals players gets a little old.

 Anyhow, the big news of the day (at that point) was the Bulls had traded Jimmy Butler to Minnesota for a Finnish Dirk Nowitzki and two other prospects (about time Bulls – yes, I am a newfound Bulls fan and that trade was long overdue).  Other callers were in agreement with me that Bulls management should have been fired by now.  Breaking news then interrupted the Bulls bashing as the hometown Hawks had reacquired Brandon Saad from Columbus in exchange for Artemi Panarin.  The Hawks had also dumped defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson’s salary hours before on the Arizona Coyotes along with losing Marian Hossa for the year due to an “allergic skin reaction.”  The fan analysis of the moves poured in within minutes easily keeping me entertained during the crawling Chicago traffic including an hour on the five-mile stretch of Lake Shore Drive (eh… there’s less scenic roads to be stuck on I guess).  I’ll discuss my opinion of the Hawks moves in a later blog.

After finally making it back to my apartment, I debated if I would be sporting full-on Blues attire in enemy territory (I have this debate quite often with myself living in a hostile city).  I settled on the suggestion of my roommate/girlfriend to wear normal clothes but use a subtle Blues koozie to support my irrational obsession with the team of eternal disappointment (Pat and the group we were meeting up with also wouldn’t dare be spotted associating with a Tarasenko jersey).  An Uber drive later and I was meeting up with Pat who was already disappointed having won and turned down a free autograph signing with Brian Campbell.

The Molson’s began to flow and we watched the Draft begin from the Fan Fest tailgating area outside of the United Center.  Having the opportunity to go to the NFL Draft Fan Fest the two previous years in Chicago, let me just say the NHL has a ways to go to reach that level.  Hockey is such a niche sport in most parts of the US that sometimes I forget growing up in St. Louis how unique it is the Blues are so well liked.  Even after three championships in six years and being considered by most media experts as one of the biggest US hockey markets, the Blackhawks are somewhere between the White Sox and the MLS/WNBA teams on the most popular sports teams in Chicago.

A few more Molson’s in, Pat and I heard a screaming group of teenage girls who clearly had just seen Bieber on stage.  To my surprise, Bieber turned out to be my favorite villain, Patrick Kane, and his tolerable sidekick, Jonathon Toews.  By the way, hockey needs more superstar villains like Kane and less Canadian nice guys.  Interviews with NHL players like Crosby and Toews get the dullest responses in sports and one the reasons why I think the NHL doesn’t get as much media coverage.

Anyhow, nineteen picks were completed and my team was on the clock. With the 20th pick in the draft the Blues took a center from the Canadian Hockey League’s London Knights named after the former lead singer of Matchbox 20; Rob Thomas (I choose to believe he was named after him).  I’ll blog more on the individual picks later but overall I was happy.  I celebrated with two more Molson’s as our party made laughs at one of the draft picks that couldn’t do a single pull-up in the scouting combine.

Six more picks and a game of target shooting with crushed Coors Light beer cans as pucks later the Blues were about to make their second pick at #27.  The team acquired this pick for Kevin “overrated” Shattenkirk a few months before from the Washington Capitals (the only team that might be as cursed as the Blues).  In a surprise turn of events, the NHL Commissioner Gary “I’m the worst commissioner in professional sports” Bettman waddled up to the podium and stood on his stepstool to announce “we have a trade…”  Anxiety kicked in. I thought for sure our general manager could get through one draft night without “Blues-ing it.”

The trade was announced. Blues send Pick #27, next year’s first round pick, and grossly overpaid center Jori Lehtera to the Flyers for center Brayden Schenn.  Just the first round picks would have been enough to satisfy me in exchange for the 25-year-old center who has been a guaranteed 25 goals and 55 points.

Thinking the draft was over for the Blues and Blackhawks now, we moved our night to the classic Billy Goat Tavern.  This bar is a great pre or post game watering hole for any Bulls or Blackhawks game for any St. Louis road trippers.  One last surprise was in store for me…  In another stunning turn of events, the Blues traded enforcer Ryan Reaves and their second round pick to the Penguins for the last pick in the first round and a decent AHL prospect.  Another fleecing, in my opinion, as the Blues took top European prospect Klim Kostin who some scouts predicted would have gone in the top five if he wasn’t Russian or had a shoulder injury the previous year.

What an unexpected turn of events. Had the Blues finally turned the corner? Could this finally be the year? This had to be the year… I say, “This is our year” at the start of every year, but this had to be our year, right?

Oh well, as Pat would say, “This is the closest a Blues fan is going to get to a Stanley Cup”….

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