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Ortiz: Blues’ success eases pain of losing the Rams

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Blues host the Stars for Game 3 at Scottrade Center

The Blues thank their fans at the end of Game 3 of the playoffs on Tuesday, May 3, 2016, at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, after beating the Dallas Stars 6-1. Photo by J.B. Forbes,

By the time Vladimir Tarasenko, David Backes and the rest of the Blues showed up for practice Friday morning, Roger Wilson already had put away the tent, sleeping bag and cooler he used to camp out overnight at Scottrade Center.

Wilson, 61, has followed the Blues since 1967. He proudly reminisces about the way the old barn rocked in the franchise’s early days.

He showed up at Scottrade Center at 4 p.m. Thursday to get in line for tickets to the Western Conference finals long before the Sharks even punched their ticket to St. Louis.

“Especially after losing the Rams this is sort of a healing process for us,” Wilson said. “We’re used to the Cardinals going to the playoffs every year. And if and when the Blues go to the playoffs, they usually lose out in the first round. But we’re in Round 3 for the first time in 15 years. And we’ll be in the Stanley Cup Finals for the (fourth) time in the history of the Blues, and we’re going to carry the Cup down Market Street.”

The Sharks will try to deny Wilson his wish, beginning Sunday night in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Western Conference finals. Nonetheless, there’s no denying how the Blues have united the city.

Albeit an extreme example, Wilson embodies the Blues fever that has spread throughout the St. Louis area, serving as the perfect cure for whatever pain lingers from the Rams’ departure to Los Angeles.

The Blues understood how much they’ve captivated the city long before Wilson camped out for 20 hours outside the Scottrade Center box office hoping for tickets.

“I think what I’ve come to understand is it’s bigger than just the hockey team,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “This is a lot bigger than just us. As I’ve moved around my little space that I move around in, I’ve realized that we’re not just playing for us. We’re playing for a lot of people. And I think everybody recognizes that. The players recognize it. The staff recognizes it. It’s like you’re playing for a city. You’re not playing for just a team.”

The Rams left a huge hole in the local sports community. Their devoted fans won’t get over the pain for a long time.

Let’s be honest, though. The Rams were a losing franchise unworthy of sharing a sports town with the Cardinals.

The surging Blues have taken advantage of the extra room in the local sports scene to captivate their loyal fans and those neophytes who wouldn’t know a crosscheck if Troy Brouwer tossed them down with one.

“I’ve got some good friends that were St. Louis Rams,” Backes said. “And to see those guys and what they went through and them moving to see what the city went through, trying to put the money up to build a nice new stadium ... really do everything in their power and then the team is gone and see the torment in the sports world in St. Louis, it is a little bit vindicating that, ‘Hey we’re kind of turning those frowns into smiles.

“And (it’s great) knowing that there’s plenty of room on the Blues’ bandwagon for any of the Rams fans that are yearning for some physical sports that they want to watch and get their fill.”

The Stanley Cup playoffs are quite riveting. You would be hard-pressed to find a more intense team sports atmosphere than hockey’s edge-of-your-seats pace.

Where else can you see an artist such as Tarasenko work his magic on skates one moment and then see Ryan Reaves pummel an opponent or Steve Ott harass the hell out of everybody a few minutes later?

Even the town’s greatest champions, the Cardinals, have been enthralled by the Blues. Yadier Molina bought a suite to share with several teammates for Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals. He also bought tickets for his wife for Game 7 of the opening round.

Greatness appreciates greatness, and Molina has been seen following the Blues throughout the playoffs.

“It’s going to be crazy, and we’re glad,” Blues owner Tom Stillman said. “It comes at a good time for St. Louis. It just kind of shows that power and value of sports in bringing people together, bringing a city and an area together.

“I think that’s maybe the most important thing that sports brings. We’re seeing it in St. Louis and we’re seeing it at a good time for the city.”

The Blues are four victories away from their first Stanley Cup appearance since 1970.

Judging by merchandise sales, St. Louis fans clearly are getting into the Blues. Tarasenko’s jersey is the third-best selling NHL jersey this month, according to online sports apparel retailer Fanatics.

Moreover, Fanatics reports that St. Louis was the top-selling city for NHL merchandise between May 5-12, and the Blues are the second highest-selling NHL team this month. In the 24 hours after the Blues destroyed the Stars 6-1 in Game 7, their merchandise sales jumped 200 percent from Wednesday to Thursday.

“There’s other people pushing and pulling along with us that are just fans and just people,” Hitchcock said. “I think the Rams’ situation created a lot of this, but it means a lot more to a lot of people than it did before.”

St. Louis loves winners. You have to believe the Blues would have rallied the community even if Stan Kroenke’s sorry Rams still were stinking it up here.

But the Blues clearly understand what they represent to the community, especially to their longtime fans such as Wilson.

Even when the Rams were at their best, Wilson couldn’t even stop thinking of his Blues in early 2000 when he celebrated the Rams’ Super Bowl victory.

“Back when the Rams won the Super Bowl, I was in the center of Market Street as they paraded down Market,” Wilson said. “And we were yelling, ‘The Blues are next! The Blues are next!’ And 16 years later it looks like they’re going to do it.”

It’s fun to have a team to believe in, isn’t it?

Jose de Jesus Ortiz

@OrtizKicks on Twitter

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