|L-R: Schenn, Schwartz, Bozak|
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
If the Blues are taking St. Louis by storm, captivating a city that has seen nothing but hockey hardship over the years, the residents of the Gateway to the West are not alone. There is another place, 1,500 miles away, caught up in Blues’ fever: the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.
That’s because the Blues have become Saskatchewan South. Their roster contains three, uh, Saskatchewanners? Saskatchewanites?
“Saskatchewanians?” guessed Brayden Schenn, with both uncertainty and, it turns out, accuracy. In Schenn, Jaden Schwartz and Tyler Bozak, the Blues have the most Saskatchewan-heavy roster in the league. From Regina to Saskatoon, from Moose Jaw to Swift Current, the Blues have become Saskatchewan’s team.
“They absolutely are,” said Rod Pedersen, a Saskatchewan author and broadcaster. “Surfing everyone’s social media, several people are cheering for the Blues and trying to get their friends cheering for them too. There’s a groundswell of support for them in this part of the world.”
For those not well-versed in Canadian geography, here’s a primer on what, according to their license plates, is the Land of the Living Skies:
Saskatchewan, north of Montana and North Dakota, is big. At 251,700 square miles, the prairie province is slightly smaller than Texas.
Saskatchewan is small. With a population of 1.162 million, it’s less than half the size of metropolitan St. Louis.
Saskatchewan is flat. “Everyone always says you can see your dog run away for a few days,” Bozak said.
Saskatchewan is hockey. The province is also a major producer of potash and uranium, but those resources are a lot harder to root for. There were 30 players in the NHL this year who were born in Saskatchewan, and only three Canadian provinces – Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba – have produced more Hockey Hall of Famers than Saskatchewan. That list is headed by Gordie Howe and includes Bryan Trottier, Eddie Shore and two Blues, Glenn Hall and Bernie Federko. (Longtime Blues radio colorman Kelly Chase is also from Saskatchewan.) Saskatchewan has the highest per capita rate of NHL hockey players, better than any province, U.S. state or foreign country. The capital of Saskatchewan is Regina but the capital of Saskatchewan hockey is St. Louis.
St. Louis and Saskatchewan will forever be linked by the failed effort in 1983 to relocate the team to Saskatoon – which may be more fun to say than any city in North America – a city with a population of 246,000 and a 15,000-seat arena, just in case anyone else wants to give it a try.
Now, they are linked because of Bozak, Schenn and Schwartz, who give the Blues not only three Saskatchewanians, but three of the best. Schenn, from Saskatoon, led players from the province in points this season and in each of the past three years, the three have been in the top seven from the province in points. In the playoffs this year, Schwartz has 12 goals, Bozak has five and Schenn two.
“Saskatchewan is all about hockey,” said Federko, who grew up in Foam Lake. “It’s very cold all the time, the outside temperatures are below freezing from mid-October through the end of March. Your outside activities always have ice involved in them whether you’re in your backyard or if you’re at a pond. All the little towns have rinks so kids play hockey, the girls play hockey now. Everybody plays hockey now. It’s kind of always been that way; that’s the culture.”
“It’s an awesome hockey community,” said Bozak, who’s from Regina. “Every kid grows up playing hockey. We’ve got long winters, long cold winters. The outdoor rinks are probably open longer than most places. It’s something we always did growing up, playing on the outdoor rink. All your friends played and everyone had fun doing it.”
If there’s a stereotype of a Saskatchewan player, it’s of a big strapping hard-working farm boy. “When I was a kid we’d always go to tournaments and there would be teams from Saskatchewan,” said Jay Bouwmeester, who hails from neighboring Alberta. “It’s always the farm kids. And they always had a couple of really good little players, that’s like Schwartzie or Schenner and then they’d have some big guys you didn’t want to go too near that created room for everybody else.”
There is a provincial pride the pervades the three – “You can never have enough Sasky guys out there,” Schenn said – and all three make visits home in the summer to keep in touch with their roots.
Pedersen said that Schwartz’s sister Mandi, who died of leukemia at the age of 23 in 2011, is “a mythical figure here. She inspired a generation of female hockey players. I think it’s a real heart-tugging factor with the Schwartz family for sure.”
“I’m from there so I’m biased,” said Schwartz, from the Regina suburb of Wilcox and who Bouwmeester said is the most prototypical Saskatchewanian of the bunch, quiet and low key off the ice, a tireless worker on the ice. “Everyone loves Saskatchewan people. They’re nice. They’re hard working. There’s a lot of small towns, so people get close. There’s a lot of good relations with people and they’re very caring, which is really nice. Any time you go back home you can tell the warm welcomes you get from everyone.”
“Hard working people, great people, friendly people,” Schenn said. “I’m proud to be from there.”