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NFL team’s departure led to Blues getting the 2017 Winter Classic

Los Angeles Dodgers v St Louis Cardinals - Game Three

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 06: The exterior of Busch Stadium is seen before the start of Game Three of the National League Division Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers on October 6, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)

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ST. LOUIS (AP) Before the Rams left town in January, the St. Louis Blues were already in line to get an outdoor NHL stadium series game - just not the Winter Classic.

Team Chairman Tom Stillman credits the NHL for recognizing the city sorely needed a shot in the arm and scheduling the Blues against the rival Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 2 at Busch Stadium.

“It’s something that St. Louis could use right about now,” Stillman said. “They’re all great, but this is the big one.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman, executives from both NHL teams plus the Cardinals and former players attended a news conference at home plate in the first public forum since the announcement. As a centerpiece, goalie helmets from both teams flanked the mask of Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.

“This is a major league city and unfortunately the NFL has not deemed us worthy, which I think is ridiculous,” Blues Hall of Famer Bernie Federko said. “It’s a soothing moment for sports fans because for our sport, this is the big hurrah.”

The Blues-Cardinals partnership no doubt was a major selling point. The teams are friendly competitors and illustrated that point not long after the Rams’ decision to leave for Los Angeles when Stillman and Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III dropped a ceremonial puck before a game.

DeWitt said the Cardinals had been “bugging” the commissioner “for a number of years in ways subtle and not so subtle” to bring the Classic to St. Louis. Bettman said there was “no hesitation” choosing St. Louis as site of the eighth Winter Classic.

“It was clear that both teams were coming together on behalf of the city and their fan bases,” Bettman said. “Anybody watching would have appreciated that.”

The Cardinals have held a number of international soccer friendlies at Busch Stadium as well as major concerts such as U2 a few years ago and Paul McCartney this weekend. The stadium still retains faint evidence of lines marking the pitch for a game between Liverpool and Roma on Aug. 1.

Now, this will be the first experience of outdoor hockey for the city. In the days after the announcement in March, the Blues received more than 40,000 ticket inquiries.

For young Blues defenseman Colton Parayko, the lone current player in attendance, it’ll be his first outdoor game since he was with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons in juniors in 2010 or 2011.

“You come to Cardinals games and they’re pretty loud,” Parayko said. “Having a chance to have an outdoor game is something you’ll remember the rest of your life.”

The game is usually held on Jan. 1, but the league is pushing it back a day as it did in 2012 to avoid going head-to-head with the NFL. It’ll be the Blackhawks’ third appearance in the Classic and this time they will face a bitter division foe.

Team President John McDonough called it a “perfect fit,” and added, “Let’s take this outside.”

The Blues eliminated the Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs this spring and advanced to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2000.

The NHL has three other outdoor games scheduled for next season, but there are no worries it has watered down the novelty factor.

“If you’ve ever been to one of these, they’re all different, they’re all special, they’re very unique,” Bettman said. “They capture the imagination, and anybody who has been to one will tell you they would come to as many as we could schedule.”

League-wide, Bettman said there’s no concern over wear and tear for players participating in the World Cup next month with the regular season starting in October.

“We have a fair amount of knowledge about how this works,” the commissioner said. “Our athletes are in incredibly great shape, they treat their profession as a 12-month-a-year requirement.”