THUNDER BAY -- Robert Bortuzzo has completed his improbable journey from the Superior International Junior Hockey League to Stanley Cup champion.
The Thunder Bay born-and-raised defenceman on the St. Louis Blues championship squad brought the hockey's Holy Grail back home to the Lakehead on Tuesday, July 16, celebrating with the hundreds of people at an afternoon meet-and-greet.
The whole experience has been a special one, Bortuzzo said, but he had been looking forward to having his day with family, friends and the people of Thunder Bay.
“I’ll never be able to truly repay what this community has meant for me and my career in terms of growing up playing hockey as a young kid here,” Bortuzzo said. “It meant a lot for me to come and give the chance for some people to see it and put some smiles on faces at George Jeffrey. It was an easy decision to share it with a great community.”
“This is an amazing hockey community. I love this game. It’s given me so much and meant so much to my life.”
The path to the NHL was a winding one for the 30-year-old rearguard, who suited up for the Fort William North Stars in 2005-2006 and is now the first SIJHL alumnus to win the Cup.
It was on that Fort William Gardens ice where Cassaundra Mulawyshyn, then watching as a 10-year-old with her grandfather, became a Bortuzzo fan.
“I try to make it when the Stanley Cup is here but this one meant more to me than all of the other ones,” she said. “It’s crazy. It’s one of the best feelings in the world because the North Stars were the world to me and my grandpa and he’s passed away. This is just awesome, going from the Bill Salonen (Cup) to the Stanley Cup.”
After moving on to play junior hockey with the OHL's Kitchener Rangers, Bortuzzo was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third round in 2007 and started his professional career in the organization until being traded to the Gateway City in 2015.
The title, the first of Bortuzzo’s career, is also the first for the Blues organization in the franchise’s 52nd season, ending the distinction of being the league’s oldest franchise to never claim the Cup.
Long-time Blues fan Wayne Parise, who sported fresh ink commemorating his team’s championship run, made the trip from White River, Ont. to see Bortuzzo with the Cup and was at the front of the line, arriving more than four hours before the start of the event.
“It has to be well over 20 years (ago), I said the minute they win I’m getting a tattoo,” Parise said.
His 17-year-old grandson, Dylan Parise, said he has been a St. Louis fan for as long as he can remember and has photos of him just months old with a Blues mini-stick in hand.
“I was more or less just waiting to see my papa’s reaction because for him to see the Blues win the Stanley Cup before he’s gone, that was the most important thing to me,” he said. “I wore my St. Louis Blues jersey to school for a week after they won, just rubbing it in the faces of all my teachers who told me the Blues weren’t going to win.”
Considering how St. Louis started the campaign, the Blues title will go down as one of the most unexpected championship runs in league history. With former head coach Mike Yeo fired in November, the team had lost eight of 11 games when on Dec. 10 Bortuzzo and teammate Zach Sanford dropped the gloves in practice, an altercation that made headlines across the league.
On New Year’s Day, the Blues sat in the league’s cellar with the fewest points in the NHL, more likely contenders for the No. 1 overall draft pick than a threat to make a playoff push.
But, with interim coach Craig Berube and rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington excelling in their new roles, St. Louis surged down the stretch to win 30 of their final 45 games to finish third in the Central Division, earning a first-round playoff matchup against the Winnipeg Jets.
A series win against the Jets was followed by the Blues prevailing in seven games against the Dallas Stars, advancing St. Louis to the conference finals against the San Jose Sharks.
It was in that round where Bortuzzo notched his long-awaited first career playoff goal, eluding future hall of famer Joe Thornton and beating Sharks goalie Martin Jones with a perfect backhand for a go-ahead tally in Game 2 that evened the series.
The Blues captured the Western Conference banner after prevailing in Game 6, earning the team’s first Stanley Cup Final berth since 1970.
Bortuzzo added his second career postseason goal in the Stanley Cup Final against the Bruins, banking in a sharp angle shot during a Game 2 overtime victory that leveled the series. The Blues eventually outlasted the Bruins, taking Game 7 on road ice.
“We just came together as a group and there were so many little things throughout the year," Bortuzzo said, specifically mentioning a road trip to Philadelphia where the Gloria phenomenon was born. "Even the playoffs, it was just a roller coaster ride of fun and emotion and ups and downs."
"There were just a lot of little things that came together at the right time and shot us on an incredible run.”
After spending parts of four NHL seasons with the Penguins only for them to win the Cup twice after he was traded, Bortuzzo will now have his name etched into hockey history.
"It’s something that you always hoped you wanted to do but as you get older you’re realistic about things," Bortuzzo said. "They don’t call it one of the hardest trophies in sports to win for no reason.”
Bortuzzo chose to host the event at the Da Vinci Centre, where his late grandfather Sergio was a long-time and instrumental member, building by hand the centre’s mosaic and having a bocce tournament named in his honour. It’s where his grandfather and father would often take a young Robert to play bocce, pool and shuffleboard.
“It was just very fitting for our family,” Bortuzzo said. “He was a great man. You get chills thinking about him. He was a very strong willed person who did a lot for others and just had a great heart.”