By Charles Smith Jr.
In American sport, there are many great rivalries. On Monday, Jan. 2, 2017, one of the great ones will take center stage. The annual outdoor NHL game known as the Bridgestone Winter Classic takes place at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. This season’s contest will pit the hometown St. Louis Blues against the visiting Chicago Blackhawks.
What is unique about this rivalry is that it goes much deeper than just sports. Ever since the cities of Chicago and St. Louis battled it out in a mid-1800s trade war (which Chicago eventually won), the cities themselves have been bitter rivals. This of course, filtered down and fueled a longstanding Major League Baseball rivalry between the Cubs and Cardinals. In 1967, when the Blues became part of the NHL’s original expansion, hockey officially joined the fray.
The history of the Chicago Blackhawks is well documented. In 1917, when the NHL was formed in earnest, the Windy City franchise was one of just six teams. Along with the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers, they rounded out the “original six” franchises.
In 1967, the NHL began to expand. That first wave of expansion included the St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, California Seals, Minnesota North Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins. With that, the league doubled in size and also gave rise to another sports rivalry.
The Blues made it to the Stanley Cup Final in each of their first two seasons, but did not win a single game. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, had last won the Cup in 1961, when Bobby Hull aka “the Golden Jet” was in his heyday.
It has been said that rivalries are not made official until teams actually meet in the playoffs. While they had been in the same division since 1970, it wasn’t until 1973 when the Blues and Blackhawks had their first postseason meeting. The Blackhawks won that Quarterfinal Playoff series four games to one, and the NHL’s newest rivalry was christened.
It wasn’t until 1988, after having been eliminated in four previous postseason meetings, that the Blues finally broke through. They eliminated Chicago four games to one in the Norris Division semifinals.
Over the years, the teams have had 12 postseason meetings, with Chicago winning eight times. Most recently, Chicago eliminated the Blues in 2014 and in 2016, the Blues returned the favor.
Given the rich history of this rivalry, the 2017 Winter Classic will no doubt be filled with energy and emotion. The Blues will not only be hosting, but also participating in their first-ever outdoor NHL game. The Blackhawks, on the other hand, played in the Winter Classic in 2009 and 2015. Overall, this will be the fifth time the Blackhawks have been featured in an outdoor NHL contest.
Given those facts, Chicago is obviously the more glamorous team. Also, in their respective histories, the Blackhawks have hoisted the Stanley Cup six times, while St Louis has yet to smell the roses.
For the Blues, nothing could be finer than to soundly defeat their rivals on this grand stage, playing in front of their hometown fans during the 50th anniversary of the team. The Blackhawks, however, will not be sympathetic to the cause. This should be a great game.