Hungry And Inspired
When St. Louis was granted an NHL expansion franchise in 1967, it was suggested that the Mound City might not be able to support big-league hockey. But the astute managing of Lynn Patrick and Scotty Bowman's clever coaching delivered a playoff berth and a trip to the Finals.
In 1968-69, the Blues established themselves as the premier expansion club both financially and artistically. Owner Sid Salomon Jr. ran a first-class organization, and his club was bolstered by solid trades. Patrick laid the cornerstone for success at two positions when he obtained center Red Berenson and defenseman Barclay Plager from the Rangers. He got each player for practically nothing.
The goaltending of Glenn Hall was world-class. However, the 37-year-old Hall needed help in the nets and Bowman went scouting for another netminder. Scotty learned that Jacques Plante, who had retired in 1965 when his wife fell ill, wanted to make a comeback, so he drafted Jacques from the Rangers. "We both knew he could still play goal," Bowman said. "After all, he hadn't quit because he couldn't do the lob."
But Bowman didn't stop there. Aware that left wing needed shoring up, he obtained Camille "The Eel" Henry and Ab McDonald. Finally, he added Billy Plager, kid brother of the Blues' Bob and Barclay, to the defense. Immediately, St. Louis staked its claim as the premier team in the West Division. "They propose," wrote Mark Mulvoy of Sports Illustrated, "that on any given rink they can damn well skate those cocky East teams right up into the stands." That's precisely what they did during one week in November. First, the Blues played the Bruins to a 1-1 tie on Boston Garden ice; they next defeated New York 3-1 at Madison Square Garden; and then they tied Detroit 1-1 at Olympia Stadium.
The Blues' success turned St. Louis into a raving hockey city. St. Louis Arena, built in 1929 but still a handsome edifice, often bulged with huge crowds. The Blues finished the season at 37-25-14, winning the division by 19 points. Plante and Hall were both spectacular, posting GAAs close to 2.00 and winning the Vezina Trophy. Berenson led the West Division in scoring with 82 points.
Playing a physical, intimidating brand of hockey, the Blues obliterated Philadelphia in a four-game, opening-round sweep, then swept the Los Angeles Kings in another four-game affair. Once again, the Blues went head-to-head in the Stanley Cup round with the Montreal Canadiens. "I know it is going to be tough," said Bowman, "but we're proud of ourselves. You've really got to have something to win eight straight games."
However, the Canadiens had infinitely more scoring and a more mobile defense, and they routed St. Louis in four straight games. The Blues had now dropped eight Finals games to Montreal, but St. Louis fans shrugged off the losses. Even though St. Louis hadn't conquered the NHL, the NHL had conquered St. Louis.
After the glory days passed, the Blues slipped back into the NHL pack. But, amidst the trouble and turmoil, one player stood out, just as his pageboy-long blond hair made him stand out on the ice.
Flashy Garry Unger, the Blues perennial All-Star during the 1970s, had a penchant for scoring goals (his 310 in a Blues sweater is a team record, as were his 40 game-winners) and showed a tireless commitment to the game (no Blue is close to his 662 consecutive games played).
Now a player-coach in England, Unger maintains regular contact with the organization and recalls his tenure in St. Louis with great pride. "There were some off years, some rough years," Unger says. "But we did a lot of things together. We had a lot of team functions.
The main thing I remember, having played in so many places, was the family atmosphere the Salomons fostered and how close the team was." The mid-'70s Blues boasted other popular performers: goalies Ed Johnston and Ed Staniowski; defensemen Bruce Affleck, Bob Gassoff and of course, the Plager brothers; forwards Wayne Merrick, Claude Larose, Pierre Plante, Larry Patey, Bob MacMillan, Chuck Lefley, and two aggressive youngsters, Brian Sutter and Bernie Federko.
But the challenge of the World Hockey Association, escalating costs and declining revenues, combined with Sid Salomon's illness, pushed the franchise to the brink of financial ruin. Enter Emile "The Cat" Francis, the diminutive former goalie who performed his first great managerial save on the New York Rangers, turning them into a Stanley Cup contender in the l960s and '70s. The Cat's remarkable efforts helped sustain the Blues during the search for new ownership.
The crisis hit during the 1976-77 season and Emile, today performing yet another savior act in Hartford, remembers well. "In the middle of the year, we started to come up short of funds. We had to let 22 people go. After we were knocked out of the playoffs, within the next day or two, we had to let nearly everybody go."
When the season ended, Francis phoned each player owed performance bonuses and explained the team was broke. Though they had the right to do so, none of the players voided their contracts. Francis figures there were three people left on the Blues' staff by the Memorial Day weekend. That Friday, he said goodbye to Bob Gassoff, a tough, young defenseman who was providing leadership and improving with every game.
Then, at 6 p.m. he began his last security patrol of the empty Arena, before leaving himself. While in the catacombs, he stepped into a restroom. The door locked behind him. "I would have been dead before anybody found me," he recalls. Francis clawed his way out of the room with his bare hands. "I could just see the headlines: 'The Cat Dies In The Can.'"
Later that weekend, tragedy did strike. Gassoff died in a motorcycle accident. When Francis and the players gathered at the funeral, Francis told them the Blues, too, were on the verge of becoming a memory. When he went to the NHL summer meetings, he knew the team still owed its $550,000 dues and negotiations with potential new owners were falling through. "We went into the draft with no money and we were at war with the WHA," he recounts. He drafted Scott Campbell in the first round, but the Houston Aeros took him also. "Houston probably drafted him knowing we had no money. They figured it would be easy competition."
It was. Francis offered Campbell $50,000, $25,000 out of his own pocket, to sign and another $25,000 Francis hoped the team would have by training camp. Houston put $100,000 on the table and signed him. "If a Cat has nine lives," Francis says, "I was using mine up quickly." He was bluffing his way through the mess when Ralston Purina Chairman R. Hal Dean expressed interest in the team.
The Blues were reborn on July 27, 1977 and they grew quickly and impressively. New young skaters began to appear in the lineup: scorers like Babych, Jorgen Pettersson and Perry Turnbull; solid defensemen like Jack Brownschidle, Ed Kea and Joe Micheletti joined Hess; accomplished role players like Mike Zuke, Tony Currie and Mike Crombeem augmented Patey; and goalie Mike Liut was merely sensational. Federko and Sutter struck with ferocity and, suddenly, here was a team to be feared.
With this nucleus, not overly talented, but hungry and inspired, the Blues reached their modern zenith in 1980-81, when Berenson coached them to a 45-18-17 record, 107 points and the Smythe title. "It was a very exciting time for me," Francis says. "There we were, on the brink of extinction, then to come back the way we did and get the support we needed, it was like a dream come true."
The Blues battled for first place overall against Montreal and the Islanders. Berenson, for one, believes they may have been playing over their heads. "We probably weren't really good enough to play so well that year," he contends. After leading in the late going, the Blues finished second to the defending Cup champions, the Islanders and their 110 points. They then bowed out of the playoffs in the second round to the Rangers, bitterly disappointed.
The Blues slipped during the next two years and Ralston Purina, claiming annual debts of $1.8 million a year, gave up on the team. They closed the doors on May 13, 1983. "We did everything we could to find somebody in St. Louis before Saskatoon made that offer," Francis says. "We couldn't find anybody. The group from Saskatoon asked me if I would stay with the organization if it moved. I was born up there; I worked like hell to get out of there, I wasn't going back."
Ralston reached an agreement to sell the team to the Saskatoon group in June without League approval. The League voided the deal. The Blues lay dormant, not even participating in the Entry Draft, during the summer while lawsuits flew and buyers were sought. "They padlocked our office," Bob Plager says. "Frankie Burns, Barc and myself would go downstairs, where we had four chairs. We spent every day down there, waiting, hoping that something would happen.
June went, July went; everybody was out getting a job. We had offers to go somewhere else from our friends in the League, but they had to know by July. We turned down all offers. We couldn't imagine the Blues leaving St. Louis. As it turned out, we are still the Blues and we are still here in St. Louis. But it was very, very close."
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