Tom Ackerman (@Ackerman1120)

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – Before the Blues promoted this area as the “Heartland of Hockey,” before an ice complex was proposed for Creve Coeur Lake Park, before Brett Hull’s success led to the construction of rinks in the St. Louis area, there was Winterland.

Winterland Ice Rink was located at 11443 St. Charles Rock Rd. in Bridgeton and it was the only rink in town after the Blues were founded in 1967. It became the home of Blues Hockey School, where you could learn to skate like the pros. St. Louis Blues defenseman Bob Plager was an instructor. And Noel Picard (another original Blue) was always nearby, just as he was for years, paired up with Plager and creating space for their teammates. Back then, they were sharing their favorite game with area residents not accustomed to playing the sport. Today, St. Louis is one of America’s hockey hotbeds.

Related story: Former Blues Player, Broadcaster Noel Picard Dies

Picard died Wednesday at the age of 78. He played for the Blues from 1967-73, becoming a member of the broadcast team following his playing career.

No one loved St. Louis more.

In 2008, he had a chance to express it to the local hockey community he helped build. The St. Louis Amateur Hockey Hall of Fame introduced a new award at its annual banquet: the Hall of Fame Spirit Award, which goes to “someone who has shown the spirit and dedication to improve hockey in St. Louis.” The Hall of Fame decided to give it to two deserving recipients: Plager and Picard.

Chris Kerber, the emcee that night, called them the “true heroes of hockey in St. Louis.”

Plager gave an impassioned speech, while making sure to poke a little fun at his former teammate (not a Plager appearance goes by without a good Picard story). But this night was about growing the game… and when Picard took the microphone, he made the most of his five minutes.

“Remember one thing,” Picard started. “When you bring your little hockey player to practice, love them. Let them have fun. That’s the truth.”

The room broke into applause. Picard dug in.

“I live in Montreal right now,” he said. “I see some young hockey players full of talent. But it seems like they miss one big thing. They don’t have fun themselves, playing with another person and loving each other.”

Picard turned to his right.

“That booger there,” Picard said, pointing to Plager, inciting laughter in the room. “I’m going to tell you, the time I played for the Blues, we worked together like a big family. And when we’re winning, we’re winning together. When we’re losing, we’re losing together. And after the game, when we have a few beers, we have a few beers together. More than one.”

Then Picard, who adored Blues fans, paused as he began to tear up.

“What I want to tell you folks, it’s so nice to see all of you here. I’m very, very hot inside, because you people gave me the sport of St. Louis Blues hockey when we needed it.

“St. Louis is going to play against Montreal on the 18th of this month,” Picard told the crowd. “I’ve never done that in Montreal’s ice rink. On the 18th, I’m going to wear my Blues jacket. In Montreal. That’s when life got started for me in hockey, when I came here to St. Louis.”

Cheers and applause. Picard had one more message for them about investing in youth.

“Anytime you can give funds to the little kids, do it,” he said. “Don’t hesitate. If it costs two dollars, one cent, or ten dollars, if you can do it financially, do it. Because we need to help the young generation… today.”

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