The Heartland and the Bread Basket: The Same Rhythm, Beat and Heart of St. Louis and Saskatchewan
(In honor of both Canada Day on July 1st, and the US’s Independence Day on July 4th, I thought I would honor both countries with a piece about two places that some Blues call home. May freedom ring from coast to coast, whichever country you hold dear!)
THE HISTORY AS WE KNOW IT
Hockey was established long before the Blues entered the league in 1967. Saskatchewan, both the “Bread Basket” of Canada and the “Hotbed of Hockey”, sends the most players per capita of any other Canadian territory, or country, in existence. Since the 1950’s, every season, 3.6 NHL Saskatchewanite players are sent to The Show for every 100,000 citizens of the province. That is the equivalent of approximately 50 players per year. In comparison, the most prolific hockey state in the US, Minnesota, sends approximately 0.8 NHL players per capita. If Saskatchewan sent that many per year, before the Blues hit the circuit in 1967, you’d expect St. Louis to be riddled with Saskatchewan-born players, wouldn’t you?
Oddly enough, no. In fact, per data collected from Hockey-Reference.com, Saskatchewan is the middle of the pack. Based on all active and scoring rosters through the 2017-2018 season, only 46 players (44 alumni, 2 active) call Saskatchewan their birthplace; that’s only 6.9% of all Blues players total. (Top honors belong to Ontario, who provided a whopping 30.43%… which is about five times as many as Saskatchewan). Yet, out of the 44 alumni born in the plains province, 6 stayed in St. Louis, and gave back to it in some capacity: Red Berenson, Bernie Federko, Todd Ewen, Kelly Chase, Darin Kimble and Reed Low. Berenson coached the Blues; Federko, Chase and Kimble not only broadcast games, but they contribute to the Blues Alumni Association and other charitable organizations (Chase alone supports youth hockey, hockey fantasy camps, and special causes like the Humboldt Broncos tribute concert in Saskatoon, SK this past year); Ewen coached at St. Louis University and was the coaching director for the Chesterfield Hockey Association before his death; Low lives and works locally in the civilian sector.
So… why St. Louis? Why stick around to live in what’s known as the “Heartland of Hockey”? I believe the reason why so many alumni stay here, especially these guys, is because the “rhythm, beat and heart” of Saskatchewan and St. Louis is exactly the same. They stay here because it feels like home.
RHYTHM AND BLUES
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: in the middle of the country lies a landlocked area, where twin major cities connect by a stretch of highway approximately 250 miles long. They both have that “big city feel”, but compared to Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Toronto, or Montreal, they’re small fries. In the area’s history, buffalo roamed free, and boats traveled up and down major rivers with relative ease, fueling local trade between European settlers and the local Natives. Once trains were invented, they chugged through major stops, bringing more people and more goods, while industry soared. Wolves, bears, and beavers inhabit thick forests, while fish populate dozens of lakes generated from glacier formations from long ago. Mother Nature is frequently bipolar here: hot or cold, wet or dry, the temperate climate sees every season, but a few curveballs creep into the otherwise expected norms every year. Sports are king, and no matter what time of the year, someone always has something to cheer for. Nature reserves, parks, monuments and everything in between are here; anyone can find something they like. On the whole, people are proud, polite, and love their land. These humble people have that inexplicable “je ne sais quoi” that, no matter where they go or what they do, someone can always tell where they came from.
Sound familiar? Raise your hand if this describes anywhere between Kansas City and St. Louis. The funny thing is… I was speaking of Saskatchewan: the hills and mountains up north, or along Highway 11 right between Saskatoon and Regina, the regions are mirror images of each other!
St. Louis is neither a fast nor slow city. Compared to New York, we’re going at a snail’s pace, but compared to Columbia (outside of school season)? We’re hopping. Like Saskatchewan, the pace is nice and steady, even and easy. Sports figures can walk around in it and interact with citizens, feel as much a part of the city as anyone else, yet still enjoy the relative obscurity of a lazy day at the Zoo without the hat and sunglasses… unless it’s a really sunny day, and you actually need them.
Sports are electric; the atmosphere is the most animated you can ever feel. A Cardinals game, a Roughrider’s game… we love to rally to a common goal and a worthy cause, even if that cause is only sports-related. But we always know, at the end of the day, the beat remains: nice and steady, even and easy. You can take a breather and relax, because the heartbeat remains the same.
HEART OF THE MATTER
St. Louis loves people. We believe in being good people and giving back, whether it is to the people less fortunate than us, or to the stars that we connect and look up to, who support causes close to their hearts. We will open our checkbooks as quickly as we will give praise and quick compliments. We aspire to be like Stan Musial, Kurt Warner, and Bobby Plager, not just in ability, but in sheer heart and soul for the people and community of St. Louis. When we say, “I want to be like (insert player/actor/musician/writer here)”, we don’t just mean we want to be as accomplished as they are. We’re saying we want to have the same heart as they do too.
Sometimes in St. Louis, that doesn’t come across at all; people misread or misinterpret what has happened in our past. Sometimes, the way others look at us is negative, and past happenings may have tarnished the impression our city gives to the world. But on the whole, through better or worse, most of us believe in being good, and believe in the goodness of others.
From what I know of every Canadian I’ve met, believing in the goodness of others is second nature. Politeness is ingrained. Giving back is not only expected, it’s a joy to do. They are generous with their abilities, their time, and their compassion, and if they have the money to do it, every cause worth championing is worth it to dig deep for, no questions asked.
The makeup of a St. Louisan and a Saskatchewanite is the same too. Kelly Chase once said this about the game, “It’s a privilege. Through these doors walk the shoulders of men, men who have bled, sweated, broke bones, tore muscles and shed tears for the right to enter this room (the Alumni room). They enter this room with pride, yet humble. For they know that all they have, they owe to the game and the game owes them nothing. They know that God will not look at them for their trophies, medals, degrees or diplomas, but for their scars and what they gave back. These men know you don’t wish, win or buy your way through these doors — you earn it. And when you do, you realize it’s a privilege.” This applies to life in general; Saskatchewanites and St. Louisans take it to heart. To live in both places, to be a part of those communities, to make a difference… it’s a privilege, not a right. We know that we’re only here because of the effort and love from our forefathers and ourselves. Because of what they did, they entered into each phase of life wanting to leave the world in a better place than where the last phase left them. That does not come cheap, that does not always come fairly, and that does not mean we are off the hook from giving our best effort either. It takes endurance. It takes determination. It takes guts and gumption. It takes weathering storms you didn’t see coming. It takes a bad circumstance and instead of saying “woe is me” and feeling sorry for yourself, you pick yourself up by the bootstraps and say, “Ok, how do I fix it? Where do I go from here?”
One of the best things I believe about the St. Louis Blues is the idea that they are not just named “the Blues” because of music. They could have picked any name besides a “string of notes” to a melody. Why “The Blues”? I believe it’s because the hockey team represents the music, the heart, of the blue-collar people who live there: strong, passionate, determined, hopeful, gutsy, adamant. They don’t give up, and don’t back down. They fight. And at the end of the day, they look back on what happened with pride, for the day is done, and the next will begin again, with new opportunity and promise.
Saskatchewan is the same way. Brandon Wheat Kings (I know, Brandon is in Manitoba, but it’s close enough) are named not only for grain harvests, but because they bend and don’t break. Saskatchewan Roughriders are roughriders because they know how to go at it with reckless abandon and sheer fortitude. Humboldt and Swift Current Broncos are strong, fierce and full of spirit; nothing overcomes them or stamps their fire completely out, not even death.
At the end of the day, we know what matters. In spite of a sometimes violent, unpredictable, horrible world and its circumstances, our identity in the West doesn’t change: we’re good people, who want to see good done, in the world we love to live in.
I, an American born Midwesterner, have no passport stamps in my passport, indicating that I have been out of the country. My favorite phrase I ever uttered about Saskatchewan is that, “at this time last year, I didn’t know where it was, and I didn’t even know how to spell it” (which is entirely accurate, as of the date of this article!). Everything I have said thus far about Saskatchewan, and Canada for that matter, is from research I’ve done to learn more about the US’s northern neighbor, and about the place that some of my favorite Blues came from. Because of that, I grew to love it, so much so that I want that first stamp to be at the Saskatchewan borderline. If people like Chase, Kimble, Low and Federko are from there, then the world is a better place already. I’m proud that other “St. Louis adopted sons” who have settled here are like that as well. Even Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn, both of which may finish their careers here, or may move on, have the same “Midwest heart” that beats to the same St. Louis Blues.
They say “home is where the heart is”. Saskatchewanites, all Canadians, and anyone in general, are always welcome here in my book. If their hearts are in St. Louis, and they decide to stay? We’re a better city for it. They make St. Louis, and the hockey community, better by sticking around.
In fact, we’re pretty much like family here anyway. So, pull up a chair, sit down, and stay awhile. Let’s talk hockey.