MANCHESTER — The line of people looking to enter Green Acres Elementary School Monday morning at one point was about the length of an NHL-size hockey rink.
Hundreds came to the school to get their moment with the Stanley Cup and Green Acres alum Zach Sanford.
Sanford, who grew up in Manchester, helped the St. Louis Blues capture the franchise’s first Stanley Cup this past NHL season. The forward played in 60 regular-season and eight playoff games with St. Louis last season, registering nine goals and 15 assists — both career-best marks for the three-year pro.
Sanford, 24, spent the morning and early afternoon of his day with arguably the most famous trophy in sports at Green Acres. He signed pucks, hockey sticks, shirts and hats for hockey fans wearing gear for both the Blues and Boston Bruins, the team St. Louis beat in the Stanley Cup Final. Sanford took photos with fans with the cup and chatted with young hockey players from the Manchester Flames, the same youth team he played for as a kid.
Sanford’s former Pee Wee coach and current Manchester Memorial boys’ hockey coach Mark Putney was among the volunteers who helped at the event, grilling up burgers and hot dogs.
“It’s been a pretty fun day so far,” Sanford said before heading to Derry to bring the cup to another of his former schools, Pinkerton Academy. “You win it and you get to celebrate with St. Louis and all your teammates and everything. And then it’s a completely different feeling when you get to celebrate it with the people you grew up with and those people who helped mold you as a person growing up.”
The Blues’ season was filled with highs and lows. The team fired coach Mike Yeo and replaced him with Craig Berube on Nov. 20. Sanford and teammate Robert Bortuzzo fought at practice on Dec. 10. The Blues were last in the NHL standings on Jan. 3 before rallying into the postseason, thanks in part to a franchise-record 11-game winning streak.
In the playoffs, St. Louis needed at least six games to win each best-of-seven series.
“It was a pretty crazy story for our team — coaches getting fired, guys doing this and that and fights and last place in the league all the way to win the Cup,” said Sanford, who signed a two-year, $3 million contract with the Blues on July 8. “I’m not quite sure there’s been a season quite like that in maybe all of sports before where a team comes from the bottom to the top like that. I just think that shows our team’s character and how well we ended up jelling together when we got it going and I don’t think that season will be forgotten.”
Sanford credited the team’s turnaround last season to the leadership the Blues’ had.
“Obviously, everyone is going to be mad and upset when you’re losing every game but I think when it came down to it, the leaders who really needed to step up and lead the way for us and for the younger guys did a great job of that,” Sanford said. “I think everyone on the team did their part pitching in on and off the ice in what they needed to do and it all ended up working out.”
The Boston College product saw 16 minutes, 33 seconds of ice time over St. Louis’ first two postseason games in its first-round series with the Winnipeg Jets. Sanford did not take the ice again until Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Bruins, missing 18 straight playoff contests as a healthy scratch.
Ahead of Game 3 against Boston, Sanford decided he was going to go out, play hard and physical and not look back. He finished with one goal and three assists in the series, logging a point in four games. Sanford’s goal — the first of his career in the postseason — gave the Blues a four-goal lead 15:22 into the third period of their 4-1 title-clinching Game 7 victory in Boston.
“It was a pretty crazy way to cap off a Stanley Cup run, especially one of the last goals,” Sanford said. “It was emotional but at the same time it was just very exciting to share that with the guys and that was kind of when we all realized that we had it won and it was a helluva feeling.”
This offseason has been shorter than previous ones for Sanford but he is fine-tuning his game in the time he does have before his next campaign begins. He is working to get bigger, stronger and faster and improve his puck skills.
Coming off his most successful professional campaign, Sanford feels he has started to carve out a role with St. Louis.
“I mean there’s still some work to be done for me to find my exact role, I think, and grow into it but I think this year was huge for me stepping forward in my career to map things out for me,” Sanford said.