FAITHFUL FAN | Author gives plenty of reasons to embrace Blues hockey

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Have faith, St. Louis sports fans. The Houston Astros baseball team began in 1962, and it took them 55 years to win the World Series. That brings hope for the St. Louis Blues, which became an NHL franchise in 1967.

Despite the lack of a Stanley Cup championship, the Blues have missed the playoffs only eight times and have a plethora of highlights throughout their 50 seasons.

Dan O'Neill, a St. Margaret Mary Alacoque parishioner, tells the story of the Blues in his new book, "When the Blues Go Marching In: An Illustrated Timeline of St. Louis Blues Hockey." His favorite Blues era relates to his teen years. He worked as a busboy at the old Arena Club for three seasons beginning in the second half of the Blues' initial season — with the first three years of the team's existence the only years in which the Blues reached the Stanley Cup finals.

"The Blues were brand new and quickly became the must-have ticket in St. Louis, almost like a Beetlemania kind of thing that developed, to where they were at 100 percent capacity in attendance for seven years from the late '60s into the mid '70s," O'Neill said. "And they led the NHL in attendance for five of those years."

The players were "larger than life" for O'Neill. Working at the Arena Club, for example, he was thrilled to see goalies Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall after the games or serve coffee to announcer Dan Kelly.

O'Neill, who later attended the University of Missouri School of Journalism and had a career as a sportswriter at the St. Louis Suburban Journals and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, attended St. Joseph Parish in Clayton. He was an altar server and recalled getting $5 and a chance to ride in limousines for serving at funerals and accompanying the priest to the cemetery. "It was a typical Catholic schoolboy upbringing," he said.

While at the Post-Dispatch, O'Neill wrote a column that countered the flood of stories at the time about sex abuse claims against priests. The column recounted a time when the priest at his grade school, who had a connection with the St. Louis Cardinals, took the altar boys to the ballpark. They visited the clubhouse and dugout, met Curt Flood and others, then stayed for the game in front-row seats in the right-field corner. The point of the column was to provide balance, showing that "priests are like cabdrivers or doctors, most of them are great, there are some bad ones but it doesn't mean they're all bad," O'Neill said.

Covering hockey was fun, O'Neill said. He found hockey players to be humble guys, appearing as less entitled than other athletes. He speculated that perhaps it's because so many are from small towns in Canada with simple lifestyles and feel comfortable in St. Louis, a smaller, Midwestern city.

"They are more accessible, for whatever reason," he said. "Part of it is the way hockey is structured, easier for the press to deal with. And the Blues have always done a lot in the community, a lot of stuff behind the scenes, and that's why they're so embraced in the community."

In covering the Blues, their faith lives didn't come up much, but he remembers talking about Catholicism with former defenseman Ian Cole, a Michigan native who played at the University of Notre Dame who now plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He's also talked about spiritual topics with Jeff Suppan, former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher.

O'Neill's book refers to the thrills and the colorful characters who have dotted the Blues landscape. With plenty of photos, the hardcover coffee-table book features vignettes that represent the biggest moments in Blues history and will be treasured by Blues fans.

Kenny is a staff writer for the Review and a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Oakville. 

>> Get the Blues

"When the Blues Go Marching In"

By Dan O'Neill

Reedy Press, 168 pages

O'Neill is available to parishes and others to make a presentation about the book. For information, email him at dan13153@gmail.com. 

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