ST. LOUIS — The great thing about sports is the universal appeal they can have for fans. Most notably, they bring strangers together, even in cities that don't house the team being cheered for.
Case in point: A group of St. Louis Blues fans have enjoyed the company of other Blues fans across the country in places like Dallas, Arizona, New York and even London.
For Alice Dunaway, a St. Louis native, she needed a spot to watch the games when she took a job in the Big Apple. A place called Wood and Ales became her salvation and a future hub for sports enjoyment for many more.
"I actually dragged a friend from college with me because I was so scared about going by myself. From there we kept coming back for playoff [games] against Dallas," Dunaway said. "I think I sort of decided to start making events and creating the social media, which let the group get bigger and bigger."
Social media has become a huge tool for fans using these devices to score new spots to watch the games. For Mike Smallwood in Arizona, it was a Facebook group that helped him find Blues hockey back in 2015.
"A person who grew up in St. Louis, Andrew Doerhoff, moved to the Phoenix area and started it up at meetup.com," Smallwood said. It would become a Facebook group page called "Blues Fans in Arizona" shortly after.
When asked about the best way to find these sorts of groups, Facebook is the key, according to Smallwood.
"Social media is taking care of that. If a person can't find out where to find other Blues fans socialize, they ain't looking!!! Facebook groups like ours are rapidly growing," Smallwood noted.
Dunaway found herself connecting with people from high school during this discovery.
"St. Louis at times feels like its own little country and it’s nice to be around people cheering for the same team while playing connect the dots. I’ve even run into people I went to high school with at the bar who had no idea that I was one of the organizers," Dunaway said.
Finding the right group isn't always easy. At least it wasn't for Jon Franks, who started a group in New York City.
"I started the NYC group back in 2007 as a way to hang out with other Blues fans and watch games. We bounced around for a few years not really finding a home. It wasn't until a few years ago that a member of the group said she might have a place for us to go," Franks said.
It was only in the playoff session of 2016 that Franks and company set up shop at The Overlook, which has been their home since. But they didn't just watch hockey and scream at televisions. According to Franks, the group reached out and pulled St. Louis a little closer.
"We established ourselves at a bar, had local St. Louis foods being served during games and started raising a lot of money for charity. We also had people visiting the bar from St. Louis and other places while they were in New York City," Franks said.
It was the 2015-16 season that Dylan Walter and Gina Heinen found The Nodding Donkey in Dallas, Texas, creating "The STL Fan Club in Dallas." A Facebook page would follow, but it was during last year's magical Stanley Cup run that the Southern sector of this out-of-town Blues fandom took flight.
"We snowballed from around 50-100 members on Facebook to over 700. We created a logo and made information cards to hand out. It became difficult to have a conversation with every new Blues fan we saw at the bar and wanted to catch people on the run," Walter said. "We also added Instagram and Twitter which have around 350 members in total and finalized a website in Dec 2019."
When asked about last spring's improbable run, the group's emotion came out in their answers. For Dunaway, it was the surreal feeling of it finally happening.
"I remember one of my friends telling me that it was going to be Bruins in six games and then suddenly it was Game 7. I was surrounded by all of the people in New York that I had known for years at this point and we were basically sobbing when the buzzer rang," Dunaway said. "We had champagne showers and confetti cannons going off while Gloria played. I was calling my parents and crying and I was just so overwhelmed because I didn’t believe it actually happened."
For Franks, it was happy stress madness as well.
"Every game was the most stressful day of my life. I lost my voice for the entire playoff run from chanting and screaming at the bar. After Game 7 I remember grabbing the first person next to me and just giving them a huge hug and crying," Franks said.
For Smallwood's group in Arizona, the playoffs last year expanded the number of people watching dramatically and even brought out 5 On Your Side for a story.
"We always had our original group of people from St. Louis who kept in touch over the past 5 years, but last year's playoff run brought people out of their homes looking for our group to join us for our watch parties," Smallwood said.
The segment didn't air due to overwhelming flood coverage, but it was the connective tissue of people from St. Louis finding each other in Arizona that stood out to Smallwood.
Smallwood found friends from Kirkwood at The Nodding Donkey, but also Arizona natives who were from St. Louis that found him due to the Blues group.
That's how special sports can be. It's not just strangers coming together; pictures from your past can suddenly reappear in human form right in front of you due to a sporting event.
After all, it's the people who stand out to the founders of the groups. In the end, they are the X-factor that makes these endeavors extra special.
"The people are the best part. I’ve met so many amazing people from all different facets of life that I never would have become friends with if not for this bar," Dunaway said.
"I think one of my favorite moments was at the old bar last summer when I was coming home from work. I was putting the key into my apartment door when the owner called me and told me that three players from the Blues were at the bar. I legitimately took my key out of the door and got into an Uber."
Thanks to the New York group, Dunaway knows about all the members' families, even down to graduation and engagement parties. They are her family. The same can be said for Franks. "Some of the people I've gotten to know are not just my friends in the group and at games but also outside of the group and apart from the Blues. I'll forever be grateful to Blues hockey for bringing us together," Franks said.
For Walter in Dallas, it was the collective effort in building this community that stood out to him about last year's playoff run.
"The greatest memory was Game 7 vs Boston at the Nodding Donkey because we were all together, and we had built this sizeable community of St. Louis transplants here in Dallas," Walter noted. "It was wonderful to see the fruits of our labor and the feeling that all of these fans could enjoy our fist cup together even though we're over 500 miles away from home. I firmly believe this will be the greatest Wednesday of my life."
That's it. It's not the actual games that we like to remember with sports; more often, it's the company held during those moments. "Where were you?" becomes the phenomenon, not simply the buzzer at the end of the games.
For Alice, Jon, Mike, and Dylan, it's the community they have created. Speaking of charity, according to Dunaway, her group has raised over $10,000 for Blues for Kids and You Can Play. Other groups have raised money as well while enjoying Blues hockey.
Dunaway is always ready to help connect people. She's heard from fans in San Francisco and Connecticut that want to start groups. She's always ready to signal blast for the sake of Blues fandom, responding to messages on the Twitter and Facebook pages for the Blues fans in New York. St. Louis sports fans make their jobs easy in connecting. And the endgame is the same for everyone.
"The best thing about being a Blues fan is we’re just ridiculously supportive people. We always want each other to succeed so the bars and groups are always promo-ing each other. If one Blues fan shows up to a meet-up and has the time of their life, then we’ve succeeded and that’s what we want," Dunaway noted.
As Dunaway adds, apparently there are a lot of people out there who want St. Louis style food, have money to donate and need Blues hockey in their lives.
Where you can reach these groups?
Here's the idea. You don't have to be in St. Louis in order to enjoy Blues hockey with friends. It's spreading across the country with each season, but a Stanley Cup championship will only help the expansion process.
Alice, Jon, Mike, and Dylan all had a simple goal. Feel a piece of home even if they are far away. I would say they have been successful and a return to Lord Stanley glory this season could double and triple the Facebook group numbers once again.
I hope this helps fans around the United States find a Blues game in town. After all, sports are meant to be enjoyed in groups.