For Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues, devastation in Fort McMurray is personal

The raging wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, were on the minds of players and coaches in the Blues-Stars series. Kitty Cochrane/The Canadian Press/AP Photo

ST. LOUIS -- They were like scenes from a movie that St. Louis Blues forward Scottie Upshall never wants to see again.

There was the freeway he'd drive on into the small northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray from the airport, surrounded by leaping flames and billowing smoke.

There were old favorite restaurants he used to visit while growing up, completely wiped out by the wildfire that forced the evacuation of all 88,000 residents. The fast-moving blaze continued to engulf homes and buildings Wednesday, wiping out 18,500 acres and 1,600 buildings, including a new school, according to reports.

There were news stories of residents in tears, forced to rush out of their homes -- before they could grab personal belongings -- to avoid being trapped by the wind-whipped flames, which cost them the complete devastation of everything they owned.

"It's tough when it becomes national and global news for a city of 80,000 people," Upshall said Wednesday. "It's pretty upsetting."

It's an indication of how small the hockey world truly is when a raging wildfire nearly 2,000 miles away from a high-profile Stanley Cup playoff series between the Blues and Dallas Stars can have such a personal impact on those involved.

Upshall's brother and his fiancée are in St. Louis to watch the second-round series, but their hearts are back home, aching for news reassuring them that friends and family in Fort McMurray, including Upshall's nieces, are safe. So far, no fire-related deaths or injuries have been reported.

Veteran Stars forward Vernon Fiddler is close friends with Upshall and put the rivalry between the Blues and Stars on hold to check in with the Upshall family on the night of the Blues' Game 3 win. He had a conversation with Upshall's brother, who lost his house.

"It's one of those things where, hockey aside, it's friends and family who are important," Fiddler said. "I was lucky enough to have a chat with him and he was concerned they were here and not there. His main focus was trying to get all his family safe. That's a tough spot to be when you're down here and you can't do much there."

Fiddler also checked in with his aunt, uncle and cousins from the area and found out that they lost their house in the fire.

"We're just praying for everyone else to get out safe," Fiddler said.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is an Edmonton native who didn't spend Tuesday night celebrating the most convincing win of the postseason for his team. Instead, he was reaching out to former players and friends who might have been affected by the wildfires. Hitchcock estimated that he knows 100 people who live in Fort McMurray, including a dozen former players from his time coaching Kamloops in the Western Hockey League.

"For anybody born in the West, born in Alberta, it's a pretty tough situation," he said.

Hitchcock said he was part of a group that brought Team Canada's national junior hockey team to Fort McMurray for a 2011 intrasquad game and remembers being shocked at just how much economic growth had changed the area, part of Canada's oil sands region. He said the sporting infrastructure was comparable to a city of a million people, not one under 100,000. There was a huge fundraiser for youth hockey in the area, and he's now concerned that all the growth the area made will be wiped out.

Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak was on that Team Canada squad and remembers both an idyllic natural beauty in the area mixed with a passion for hockey as high as he'd seen.

The Team Canada roster featured future NHLers such as Oleksiak, Jonathan Huberdeau, Tyler Toffoli and Ryan Johansen, and the city treated those young players like royalty.

"It was crazy. Hockey is huge up there," Oleksiak said. "I definitely wasn't expecting the reception we got there. It was huge. It goes to show the passion that people across Canada, even in little towns like Fort McMurray, have about the game."

The Fort McMurray tragedy is adding a bit of perspective to this series, where a five-goal loss in the playoffs, like the Stars suffered at the hands of the Blues on Tuesday in Game 3, can feel absolutely devastating until you find out a family member's home was wiped out in a wildfire.

Tempers flared at the end of Game 3 between the Stars and Blues, but in a moment of reflection Wednesday, all Fiddler was concerned about was the safety of Upshall's family.

"You're leaving the rink, there's nothing worse that can happen and you go home and all you care about is if everybody is safe," Fiddler said.

These guys are all pros with a passion for winning. When the puck is dropped for Game 4 on Thursday, the focus will be on what will be a crucial swing game in this series.

On Tuesday, Upshall received a number of texts from people back home telling him to go out and win Game 3 for his hometown.

"That was pretty special," he said.

Even more special would be for one of the players or coaches so closely tied to the city to return this summer with a Stanley Cup, to be a small part of the rebuilding.