By Dave Leaderhouse
The Stanley Cup is coming home to Saskatchewan.
On a historic night in the National Hockey League the St. Louis Blues, with a trio of Saskatchewan-born players on the roster, captured their first ever championship with a dramatic 4-1 victory over the Boston Bruins completing one of the most improbable turnarounds ever witnessed in sports.
Just 160 days ago the Blues were dead-last in the overall standings. There was just over a month to go to the trade deadline and there were discussions with a number of teams to move key pieces and start looking to the future.
But, the Blues started to win and by the time the deadline came the club was closing in on a playoff berth so the roster was left intact. When the regular season ended St. Louis not only secured a playoff spot, but they were one point away from claiming the Central Division banner.
Then the run to glory began with victories over the Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks setting up the showdown with Boston in the Cup final. St. Louis, which had never won a game in the final round dating back to their only other appearances a half century ago, gained a split in Boston to open the series. A 7-2 shellacking in Game 3 set them back on their heels somewhat, but they responded with a pair of victories to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup on home ice. Another mediocre performance forced a deciding Game 7 and after surviving a first-period onslaught by the Bruins, the Blues put the stamp on their first ever title with a brilliant effort.
Key to the Blues climb to the top were the performances of three players who honed their skills in Saskatchewan: Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Tyler Bozak.
Schwartz, a St. Louis first-round pick in 2010, led the Blues in goal scoring with 12 and finished the post-season with 20 points overall. While he never had a tally in the final round his play was instrumental in the Blues’ success and his final point was an assist on the eventual Cup-winner scored by team captain Alex Pietrangelo in the dying seconds of the opening frame.
The soon-to-be 27-year-old Schwartz was born in Melfort, but grew up in Wilcox where he played all of his minor hockey and culminated his time at Notre Dame with a 76-point season during the 2008-09 Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League season with the Hounds.
After being named the SJHL’s rookie of the year, Schwartz transferred to the Tri-City Storm of the United States Hockey League and following two seasons at Colorado College he turned professional and has been with the Blues ever since.
Schenn, a Saskatoon product, has also put some miles on to get to this point. After playing Midget AAA hockey in his hometown he spent three seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League before a trade brought him home to finish his junior career with the Saskatoon Blades. A first-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2009, the 27-year-old Schenn was quickly moved to the Philadelphia Flyers where he enjoyed a number of successful years before another deal had him on the move to St. Louis.
Schenn’s second season with the Blues ended with him scoring the third goal in the deciding game of the Stanley Cup final. The intense forward had 12 points in the Blues’ 26-game run to the championship.
The road for Bozak getting to Wednesday’s title match was not as smooth as his two Saskatchewan teammates.
The 33-year-old from Regina spent three seasons playing Junior “A” hockey in Victoria before going to the University of Denver on a scholarship. Never drafted by an NHL team, Bozak turned professional prior to his junior season in Denver when the Toronto Maple Leafs signed him to an entry-level deal.
Bozak then played nine years with the Leafs before venturing into the free-agent market last summer and ending up in St. Louis. The skilled forward produced 13 points in the playoffs and was pivotal in a number of games with his penalty-killing prowess.
For a team that almost ended up in Saskatchewan – the Blues were tentatively set to be moved to Saskatoon in 1983 – the provincial roots are deep in that franchise’s first championship. On three different occasions the Cup will make a trip to Saskatchewan this summer and it will be a time of celebration with those who helped Schwartz, Schenn and Bozak reach their ultimate goal. In the case of Schwartz it will undoubtedly be even more emotional when he gets to share it with his late sister Mandi who passed away in 2011 after a lengthy and courageous battle with leukemia.
Always known as a hotbed for producing high-calibre hockey players, Saskatchewan, and the SJHL in particular, can take a lot of pride in the St. Louis Blues winning their first title in 52 years as a member of the NHL.