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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Sunday, April 14, 2024
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A professional fan’s eulogy of professional fan journalism

On Scottrade Center’s concrete doormat, just a slapshot away from the churning Mississippi River in St. Louis, a chapped-eared vendor calls into the crystalized January night: “Programs for tonight’s game! Programs!”

“It’s Almost Always Never Easy,” the paper declared atop its cover page, like it was waiting for tough-guy B.J. Crombeen or another forgotten, mediocre old Blue to slap the slogan in prayer on his way down the tunnel. The bottom contained a warning to any first-time fan expecting something normal. “Caution!” it announced in bold. “St. Louis Game Time contains extreme sarcasm and less-than-gentle language. But it is a hockey paper, so you should just fucking get over it.”

And that, at age seven, is how I learned the F-word.

Throughout my entire childhood, they meticulously tracked every hockey statistic you could think of and far more that you couldn’t. They spun their biased and beautiful analysis into sexual innuendos, profane rants and anything else to distract from the losing unfolding on the ice. As of last Halloween, they’re gone forever.

St. Louis Game Time magazine deserved better.

Their first issue, published six months after my family moved to the area, carried the subtle headline “Satan Has a Hockey Team” on a night the demonic Detroit Red Wings routed the St. Louis Blues 4-1. Detroit finished that 2005-06 season with the best record in the National Hockey League. The Blues ended the year on the other end of that spectrum and received the number one draft pick for their sorrows. That golden ticket was spent on defenseman Erik Johnson, letting North Dakota’s phenom center Jonathan Toews fall to our other rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks, and … well, that one still hurts a bit too much to talk about.

They are why I love the Blues. My father, a New York sports fan determined to support the underdog, bought season tickets the next year and brought his family to hundreds of games over the next decade and a half. He purchased Game Time on the street corner every night and I let their nihilistically romantic writers mold my perception and in many ways, teach me how to lose.

Fan journalism is a profession inherently intertwined with team success; you can’t sell programs if no one goes to the games to buy them. But, Game Time broke that trend and caught on with fans sprinkled around the arena during the grim rebuilding era thanks to their unique writing style and cathartic flair.

Often injured and always underwhelming stars like captain Eric Brewer endured their full frustration (“The guy next to me booed Eric Brewer during introductions. I told him, ‘Why stop there? Go down to the hospital and boo other patients in rehab too’”). Other easy targets were high stadium prices (“Why did the beer vendor call me his economic stimulus package?”) and the goofy blue bear Louie, who vainly tried to engage the losing fanbase (“They gave the big blue rat mascot a drum. But not pants”). And, of course, every St. Louisan’s archvillain: Stan Kroenke (“Fuck you, Stan Kroenke”).

In 2006, Game Time founders Brad Lee and Sean Gallagher registered the online blog with SB Nation — a website flourishing because of talented journalism and entrepreneurial creativity that, by 2008, was a home for more than 270 similar fan-run sites across the country and 8 million viewers a month. Like the Blues of this era, SB Nation stockpiled young talent, guided by the belief that this influx could challenge the status quo.

And, like the Blues, they were wrong. In 2011, SB Nation was absorbed by Vox Media, the same year St. Louis shipped former golden boy Erik Johnson west to Colorado and tacitly conceded the rebuild era a failure. Four years later, NBCUniversal purchased a $200 million stake in Vox; the Blues sent fan-favorite sniper and American hero TJ Oshie to the nation’s capital, and Johnson’s one-time defensive partner and fellow first round pick Ian Cole to Pittsburgh. While rivals in Chicago and Detroit claimed four of the past seven Stanley Cups, the 2015 St. Louis Blues, marred by quick postseason exits, were looking to restructure their budget and start over. In January 2023, Vox Media did the same.

Money was tight after the pandemic and Game Time site manager Laura Astorian tells me they began cutting blogs’ pay while expecting the same content. She said she kept writing out of an obligation to her readers, but the stress of this side job and her whimsical employer became too much to handle. In a post this Halloween she said goodnight, and turned the lights out on Game Time and my childhood chapter of Blues hockey for good.

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“It wasn’t particularly hard to see the writing on the wall,” she said in an email.

Three months later, Vox terminated seven percent of their staff, including almost every SB Nation hockey writer.

Here's to you, St. Louis Game Time magazine. You never pulled your punches or your love from the team that broke your heart season after season, and one year it all worked out for you; it worked out for all of us.

I could only find one edition in my childhood bedroom over winter break, only one that survived numerous spring cleanouts and a thorough pandemic reshuffling. The last program from that magical 2019 ride where a symphony came together on the ice and everything I knew about being a Blues fan collapsed in the stands. Its headline sprawls across the front page: “Champions!”

That spring, the team with 42 playoff appearances and exactly zero Stanley Cups to show for them suddenly transformed into the Red Wings and Blackhawks of my adolescence. They won the big game and didn’t allow backbreaking third-period goals. But when the Blues lost game six of the Finals and their chance to clinch the hardest trophy to win on home ice, I was crushed — having to go back to Boston for a winner-take-all game seven seemed like a death sentence. It wasn’t. We controlled the game from puck drop and took Lord Stanley’s Cup 4-1 — the same beatdown “Satan’s hockey team” delivered to us on Game Time’s opening night. The Blues weren’t planning to choke, they were just doing it the old way after all. It’s almost always never easy.

Reading the articles from that championship program, the emotion seeping out of the pages is what’s usually reserved for a wedding day or for holding your first-born infant. 

“There is no going back to normal anymore,” Jeff Jones wrote.

Longtime Editor Sean Gallagher described how his heart raced the moment he grazed the trophy at the parade down Market Street.

“[The] whole damn thing felt real,” he said. “The Cup was real, and I touched it. The Blues had summited and were standing on top of the mountain, probably shotgunning beers, looking down at the rest of the hockey world spread out below … The Cup means everything.”

That’s why I care so much. Because they cared.

Men in suits who care only about decimal points and lines on graphs decided Game Time and similar fan blogs in cities across the league were not worth investing in. 

I found other places to go for Blues coverage but have never stumbled through a publication that strummed all the chords of fandom quite like Game Time. When “Drunk Girl,” “Donut King” and all the regular contributors came together on dark winter nights in dark losing seasons to sew this vibrant tapestry of romantic optimism (“Is it weird I know this much about 18-year-old Swedish boys?”) and comic criticism (“Holy shit, I thought Brad Boyes was a healthy scratch. Has he been here all night?”), they made me laugh and they made me committed and thanks to Vox Media, that’s an experience future hockey fans will not have.

After Stan Kroenke and the Rams’ middle school breakup with the city of St. Louis, Game Time writers frequently reflected on what good ownership looks like. They didn’t have to look far beyond Scottrade Center’s largest box.

Tom Stillman stood up for St. Louis sports when Kroenke fled for sunny Southern California. In 2016, while the Blues were struggling and the town reeling, he recommitted himself to the area. 

“I guess I don’t understand wanting to be anywhere else,” he said at the time. He embraced the city, and we embraced him. He even showed up for Game Time’s birthday party one year.

So, I guess, a toast to you as well, Mr. Stillman. You deserved that 2019 ring as much as anyone because you won the right way; you realized that winning means nothing without bringing along the loyal fans who spent their hard-earned dollars on tickets and who stuck with you through the bad and the bad. You saw that no whole is bigger than its component parts. Especially when those parts define you.

Graham Brown is a sophomore studying Political Science. He is an Opinion Editor and Editorial Board member. Do you agree that large media corporations are cutting crucial voices? Send all comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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