It had to make Blues fans cuckoo to watch the rival Chicago Blackhawks win their second Stanley Cup in four years.
The question I have is this: will Blues players be as upset and sickened by the Blackhawks’ triumph as their fans are?
Do Blues players care as much as their customers?
That’s a legitimate question.
I’m on a bit of an angry-man campaign lately, nagging on the Blues for enjoying full rock-star status that’s unearned and unwarranted.
The hockey calendar is predictable in St. Louis. The Blues get eliminated, the season ends, the players are rewarded with new contracts, the Blues’ marketing machine cranks up, the cute TV commercials hit the airwaves, the fans get excited, and media dunces like me get caught up in misplaced optimism.
At this point, can we even blame Blues players for this maddening cycle? They’re allowed to skate away from accountability. Players with no championships are treated like champs. The celebrity culture is poisonous.
Will this ever change? If so, the change must come from within. The change must happen inside the locker room, among the players. The culture change won’t result from external pressures.
It starts with this: Blues players manning up and holding each other accountable. Players taking the lead by demanding more from one another. Players who aren’t afraid – when the doors close – to push teammates and call them out if necessary.
A cozy locker room must become a lot more uncomfortable. In this town, we love to blame everything on managers and coaches. It’s so easy and lazy. But in reality the players control the temperature, the environment.
This Blues nucleus already has succeeded in getting two coaches – Andy Murray and Davis Payne – fired. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock can prod, lecture, teach and impose pressure. But that, alone, isn’t enough.
Unless the players are willing to extract total commitment from each other, the coach’s lone voice won’t carry. Players united in complacency will only tune the coach out.
This will be a significant challenge.
First, Hitchcock and GM Doug Armstrong inherited a group that has a distorted sense of importance and entitlement. The previous Blues regime empowered many of the current players by giving them full-time roles, plenty of ice time, generous contracts and instant star status.
In short, dues were not paid. When players are handed loads of money and celebrity standing that isn’t based on real achievement, it’s awfully difficult to make them change.
Usually, the accountability comes at the beginning of the process. Young players are introduced to a locker room that comes equipped with strong veteran leadership. The kids follow the model established by team leaders.
It’s like that with the Cardinals. When all of these rookie pitchers are promoted to St. Louis, their egos are kept in check by Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Jake Westbrook, Chris Carpenter (and others). The kids have no choice; they must conform and fit the Cardinal Way. They understand what’s required to maintain the winning culture.
That didn’t happen with the Blues. Previous Blues ownership-management had to regenerate a declining fan base. That meant hyping the baby Blues for pure marketing purposes.
The young Blues – as to be expected –immediately believed their own hype. And to this day, this team isn’t as hungry as it should be.
Armstrong and Hitchcock have the difficult assignment of having to work backwards, having to undo what’s already been done. The GM and coach are trying to cultivate the personal accountability that already should be in place.
Second, many of the current Blues walked in together as they entered the NHL. They have enjoyed the free ride in St. Louis. They’re happy with the VIP treatment.
They’re buddies. They’re friends. They’ve had a great time. So why rock the boat? Hey pally: you have my back, and I’ll have yours. Why risk offending your buddies by raising hell if they aren’t going all-in?
Team sources identify this as a problematic internal issue.
Blues players have to step away from friendships to do what’s best for the team as a whole. They have to police each other instead of always leaving it up to Hitchcock to tell the boys things they don’t want to hear. His message must be reinforced by the leaders.
Instead, you have entitled Blues players grumbling about hotel accommodations during the team’s stay in Los Angeles for the 2013 playoffs. It’s preposterous. And you wonder why the LA Kings had more grit to survive the Blues in the first round?
The Blackhawks have stars, and their stars are paid handsomely. But the Blackhawks also have a superior team ethic; their stars are unrelenting in pushing each other to greatness. Their stars don’t worry about hurting their buddy’s feelings. The team comes first.
Blues captain David Backes tries, and his heart is in the right place. But Backes needs others to help him set the right tone. The retirement of Andy McDonald should help; McDonald was an increasingly negative influence last season. It isn’t easy for Backes to lead when he’s encountering pushback from a high-profile veteran.
Understand that this isn’t about one guy. The Blues’ core has to take ownership by instilling the mandatory accountability.
I’m talking about Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Chris Stewart, Alex Steen, Barret Jackman, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk. Heck – everyone in there. No one is excluded.
Armstrong can try to add quality leadership through trades and free agency, but that won’t help unless the new players come in on multi-year contracts. A player passing through on a one-year deal can’t alter the culture.
And the Blues can’t blow up the roster. They’ve come a long way with this group. They have the NHL’s fourth-best winning percentage over the last two regular seasons.
Now it’s a matter of finding that extra five or 10 percent of resolve that makes the difference between winning and losing in the postseason.
It’s too late to turn back now. The losing created by another massive rebuild would severely damage the franchise.
It’s time for the Blues to decide what they want to be when they grow up.
Do they want to continue strutting around town as faux celebrities?
Or are they willing to raise their standards, insist on team-wide accountability and make the unconditional commitment to win a championship?