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One Unforgettable Team

Wickenheiser

The 1985â€"86 St. Louis Blues season saw the Blues finish in third place in the Norris Division with a record of 37 wins, 34 losses, and 9 ties for 83 points. The Blues participated in the NHL playoffs, beating the Minnesota North Stars in the Norris Division Semi-finals, three games to two, followed by a 4â€"3 series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs to take the Norris Division title.

In Game 6, the Flames led 4"1 after two periods and 5"2 early in the third, but the Blues came back to tie it and then won on an overtime goal by Doug Wickenheiser. The Blues won Game 6 of those Campbell Conference Finals in overtime, 6â€"5, a victory known to Blues fans as "The Monday Night Miracle". In Game 7, the Flames were up 2"0 before the Blues scored in the third to cut the lead in half. There wouldn't be another comeback, though, as Mike Vernon and the Flames withstood a late assault to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final. They lost to the Calgary Flames in the Campbell Conference Finals in seven games.

The owner's tight budget didn't stop the team's inspired play in a memorable postseason. The Blues went into the 1986 playoffs on a shoestring and a prayer. They were the "Bad News Blues," the barefoot cousins of the other 20 teams in the NHL, forced to scuffle along by miserly owner Harry Ornest. "You talk about a team that had adversity," said winger Mark Reeds, now coaching the Missouri River Otters in St. Charles. "We had a lot of injuries coming down the stretch." Injuries should have knocked them out.

Rick Wamsley
Rick Wamsley
Wamsley

At one point, Ornest had only 26 players under contract in the organization. He traded Joey Mullen, a 40-goal scorer and future Hall of Famer, in a contract spat over a few thousand dollars. The team flew on commercial flights, as did most NHL squads, but took lengthy milk runs to get the lowest fares. "A charter for us was a bus ride from Edmonton to Calgary," said defenseman Rob Ramage, now working for A.G. Edwards in St. Louis. "Yes, there was a lot of stuff going on off the ice. But we used all that as a positive. In the playoffs, all that stuff means nothing. It just flies away."

Somehow, the scruffy outfit reached the final four of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the only Blues team since 1970 to reach that third round until the 2000-2001 edition qualified. "Isn't that unbelievable?" Reeds said. "We had good team camaraderie and chemistry. It was just a good bunch of guys who worked together."

They finished the 80-game regular season at 37-34-9 for 83 points, good for third in the Norris Division and fifth in the Campbell Conference. Back then, the first two playoff rounds were contested within the division. The Blues upset the second-place Minnesota North Stars in the opening series, which went all five games. St. Louis won the best-of-five series 3"2.

In the next round, the Blues needed all seven games to fend off the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had knocked off the first-place Chicago Blackhawks. In the conference finals, the Blues drew the Calgary Flames, who had derailed the top-seeded Edmonton Oilers to escape the Smythe Division.

The Blues pushed the Flames to Game 7 before falling one goal short of the Stanley Cup Finals. Going the distance in each round taxed the thin roster that general manager Ron Caron had built. But coach Jacques Demers pulled every motivational rabbit out of his deep bag of tricks. Beloved assistant coach Barclay Plager became a rallying point as he battled brain cancer.

The series against the Flames included an unforgettable comeback in Game 6, known in Blues lore as the Monday Night Miracle. They trailed 5-2 midway through the third period before forcing overtime. Hard-luck center Doug Wickenheiser bagged the winner. An ecstatic full house rocked The Arena with a marathon ovation. The series-saver sent the teams back to Canada for Game 7, in which the Blues lost 2-1 to end the run. As their reward, their charter flight — a playoff luxury — was canceled by Ornest. The team's traveling party had to scramble back to St. Louis individually as a blizzard disrupted flight schedules from Calgary, Alberta.

Millen and Ramage

Fifteen years later, the good memories blotted out the bad. "That's one team that I could never forget," said Demers, now a hockey broadcaster in Montreal. "Our guys gave us everything they could give us. We were a low-budget hockey club, operated by an emotional leader at the top, Ron Caron. And we beat teams with a lot more than we had. Ron Caron, with little, did so much. We had little money to work with. We had no depth if we had injuries. But they were so dedicated, these players. A lot of these guys played for a little money then. The dedication these guys had, this was one of the great character teams in my 14 years that I coached in the NHL. The group of players were unbelievable."

Demers leaned on three remarkable veterans. "Bernie Federko was the absolute leader on the ice," he said. "I am convinced that Bernie Federko belongs in the Hall of Fame. We played in such a small market in the Midwest, nobody saw him play. We had a great captain, Brian Sutter, and Rob Ramage was all business. Ramage and Sutter were great leaders in the room. These were strong, powerful guys with an absolute no-nonsense approach."

Demers juggled his lineup, matched lines and got positive results throughout his roster. He used a rare platoon system in goal, with Rick Wamsley and Greg Millen making 10 appearances apiece in the 19-game playoff run. Doug Gilmour, centering a line with Sutter and Greg Paslawski, tied Federko for the playoff scoring lead with 21 points. Paslawski led the team with 10 goals, including the unassisted score that forced overtime in the Monday Night Miracle. Reeds, a checking specialist, won the only other overtime game that spring, pivotal Game 5 against the Maple Leafs. Lee Norwood, a journeyman defenseman, led the team with a plus-10 defensive rating.

Demers and Millen

Charlie Bourgeois, who was acquired in the Mullen trade with Gino Cavallini and Ed Beers, kept the peace with a staggering 116 penalty minutes in the 19 games. All were driven by a special mission: to win for "Barc the Spark." "The greatest inspiration in my life, except for members of my family, was Barclay Plager," Demers said. "No question. Going through the sickness with him and how he handled everything I'll never forget that man."

The players knew that this might be Plager's last shot to win his first Stanley Cup ring. The cancer claimed him less than two years later. "It was not something that publicly or overtly was made a torch to carry," Ramage said. "Barc would not have been comfortable with that. But in all of our minds, knowing how much he loved the game and loved St. Louis, we knew that the better we did, the more it was going to please him."

Bobby Plager, a scout who often filled in for his ailing brother, was the team's lone assistant. "The thing I always remember," Bobby said, "is after we lost that last game in Calgary. The guys came in to see Barc one at a time, and they all said the same thing: 'Sorry, Barc. Sorry, Barc.' My brother would say to each one, 'Hey, don't worry, you played great; you had a great season.' Finally, about halfway through, he looked over at me and said, 'Have these guys seen an X-ray I haven't seen?'"

But for Demers, the finale in Calgary became his farewell to the Blues. Working without a contract, earning an NHL-low $55,000, unable to get a new deal in writing from Ornest, he left in frustration for the Detroit Red Wings. "The fans in St. Louis are unbelievable," said Demers, who later coached the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1993.

The hometown team has an unforgettable act to follow. "I can't forget that ovation that we got that night when Wick scored. We hadn't won the series. There was no guarantee that we would come back home. The fans were saying: 'Thank you. You never quit on us.' They understand effort. We had a no-die attitude that night. In St. Louis, if you go there and play hard and participate in the community, you're part of the family. That's why so many guys want to play in St. Louis."

1986 Campbell Conference Finals

The 1986 Stanley Cup playoffs, the championship of the National Hockey League (NHL) began on April 9, after the conclusion of the 1985"86 NHL season. The playoffs concluded on May 24 with the champion Montreal Canadiens defeating the Calgary Flames 4"3 to win the series four games to one and win the Stanley Cup.

The playoffs of 1986 saw three first place teams eliminated in the opening round and the fourth, Edmonton, bowed out in the second. The Montreal Canadiens decided to go with a rookie goaltender by the name of Patrick Roy. This decision proved to be a good one just like when the Canadiens rode rookie goalie Ken Dryden to a Stanley Cup championship in 1971.

In the Final, the Canadiens beat the Calgary Flame, who were also riding a rookie netminder, Mike Vernon. Patrick Roy won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP and had a sparkling 1.92 goals against average along with 15 wins. The 1986 playoffs marked the first time that all four former WHA teams made the playoffs in the same year. This would happen again the following year and in 1999, by which time 3 of those teams had moved, the Quebec Nordiques to Denver, the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix, and the Hartford Whalers to Raleigh, North Carolina.

By Tom Wheatley Of The Post-Dispatch; 05/11/2001

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