ST. LOUIS -- For 25 consecutive seasons the St. Louis Blues made the playoffs.
Then they didn't. And didn't. And didn't. And didn't.
All of a sudden, one of the great U.S. hockey towns of the first NHL expansion was having Free Food Night.
"That first year, we had four sellouts. Brett Hull's retirement. And Free Food Night," Blues president John Davidson said.
"People were leaving the building with their arms loaded with free food, hot dogs, popcorn, soft drinks. It was quite a scene watching them walking from the rink down to the ball park to the Cardinals game," Davidson said, laughing.
"Four sellouts. We've had 29 this year ... People are back. There was a disconnect. We knew the hockey problems we were going to be dealing with but we didn't realize the extent of the disconnect in the city.
"It was a lot bigger job than I thought. It was disconnected. Real disconnected. When I got there I didn't realize it was off the ice as well as on the ice."
Former Madison Square Garden CEO Dave Checketts bought the Blues in June 2006 and brought MSG network colour commentator Davidson in as president to bring the connection back.
And tonight, as the series with the Vancouver Canucks brings a Stanley Cup playoff game here for the first time since April 15, 2004, the Blues will come marching in to their long-ago theme song again hoping the crowd can bring the team back from a 2-0 deficit after being outscored 5-1 in six periods of play in Vancouver.
"People are going to be surprised," Davidson said of the excitement brought back by this team of kids that was in 15th place in mid-January but had moved up to sixth spot in the West by the final day of the regular season.
"People talk about how loud it was in the old barn, the old arena. It's loud again. And it's real. It's not piped in. It's genuine. Both games are sold out. After 25 straight years in the playoffs, people have missed this."
Davidson said it took more than the new ownership and new leadership to bring back the energy.
"The alumni played a big part," he said. "There are 50 guys who played for the team who still live here," he said.
"Players who played here loved this city. They helped us."
Davidson made it 51. Big John was the team's first-round draft choice in 1973 from the Calgary Centennials.
"I only played here two years," Davidson said. "I played just well enough to get traded."
Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault also played here for the only two years of his NHL career, a total of 42 games.
"The only thing I can say is that their scouting has improved," he joked.
"St. Louis is pretty excited. The building has been unbelievable in the last couple of months. It's been very comparable to Vancouver," said Barret Jackman, a Blue who was around the last time there was a Stanley Cup playoff game in this city in 2004.
Blues coach Andy Murray says the noise level is going to shock people who haven't been in the joint since it started jumping again.
"I've been in some loud buildings in this league and in European hockey," the much-travelled coach said. "The atmosphere here is now incredible."
Former Maple Leaf Carlo Colaiacovo said the Canadian contingent is going to be stunned.
"It's going to be electric I really think that atmosphere in St. Louis is up there with the best buildings in the league."