Confessions of a (Very) Old Blues Hater
To properly set the table for the feast of the Blues first appearance in a Stanley Cup final in 48 years, you have to go back to their empty table at the 1983 draft. The franchise had been abandoned by Ralston-Purina; no bidders except for some whacky guys who thought they could make it go in tiny Saskatoon. All the employees were gone, and so, for sure, seemed the Blues forever. It wasn’t until later in the summer that Harry Ornest bought them for a dime, the first one he ever earned, too.
So here’s to Harry. And Larry Patey, Garry Unger, Jack Brownschidle, and of course Bernie Federko, plus The Chaser, Professor Ron Caron and all the Blues from Affleck to Zuke who are part of this whole Twisted and finally triumphant story of perseverance. And then pour another – this is certainly a two-fisted moment –to the great Blues finds like Doug Gilmour and Joey Mullen who were too quickly lost, and a cheers to the schemers and dreamers like Jack Quinn and Michael Shanahan and the guys, like Chris Pronger, who deserved better before being sold away by owners who cared only for the bottom line.
Every guy from Clayton, U. City, South St. Louis and Edwardsville who ever wet his whistle before or after a game at the Arena Bowl gets another toast, even before the game’s biggest party, the Stanley Cup finals, begin. Though the Bruins are waiting to remind the Blues and their fans they have won nothing yet, they already have.
True story: St. Louis got the franchise without even a bid. Jim Norris, the Blackhawks owner, wanted to unload the ramshackle St. Louis Arena where his farm team played, so the league announced six new teams in 1965 with only five ownerships, hoping one would come along to do Norris’s bidding. It did when insurance brokers Sidney Salomon Jr. and his son stepped forward. And gold was struck instantly.
In that mass expansion draft some teams like Philadelphia went young, and some like St. Louis went old, and it soon became apparent that some didn’t know what the hell they were doing at all. But midway through that first Blues season, Lynn Patrick decided he was no coach, and put a stern and obsessive young front office assistant named Scotty Bowman behind the bench. In the first playoff of the expansion era, the Blues caught fire with a dramatic Game Seven victory in Philadelphia and three overtime wins, including in Game Seven in the next round against the Minnesota North Stars. St. Louis went nuts like it never had for its very good NBA team that has just left for Atlanta.
By the next year the Blues were dwarfing the other five new teams in both performance and attendance. The spruced up Arena had become a palace for its day in a second life and the joint was so jumping that Philadelphia owner Ed Snider sent the Spectrum organist to St. Louis to study how the Blues master of the keyboard, Norm Kramer, jacked the crowds.
How did he do it? Bowman was smarter than everyone else, that’s pretty much how the Blues did it. The Blues had the first true star of the expansion era, Red Berenson, a cadre of mean (Noel Picard and the Plager brothers) and smart (Al Arbour) defensemen, a lot of veteran forwards who knew how to play, plus two Hall of Fame goalies, Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante, both in their twilight years still smarter than the shooters.
It didn’t even matter much that the Blues got swept in three straight perfunctory finals under a stupid format that guaranteed the expansion teams a spot there. The old teams in the East Division were above the class of the new teams in the West while the Blues were so far the class of that West that it was killing me. As a Western Pennsylvania kid attending the journalism school at the University of Missouri–and one of about three thousand devout Penguin fans in the world–I was clinging to a life raft in a sea of smugness.
Tests, papers, two-hour drives from Columbia, Mo. regardless, I never missed a Pittsburgh visit to the Arena and never missed a Penguin goal there because they never scored any. It was like 5-0 every time. After a 2-2 tie once, I floated from the building in ecstasy.
The Penguins finally made the playoffs in year three, swept Oakland, and took the mighty Blues to six. Face was saved, me knowing not to dare ask for anything better than that. With true contention for the Cup seemingly a pipe dream, fans of the Penguins, Flyers, North Stars and Kings lived to see the Blues get beat. The time they went into the stands at the Spectrum and were taken off in a Philly police paddy wagon, I though they should lock ‘em up and throw away the key.
Then I graduated, turned pro, and started rooting for good stories, not teams, just about the time the arrogance of the Blues early success began to catch up to them. The Salomons fired Bowman, made Arbour the coach, then fired him too, in the midst of impatient trade after trade. By the end of the seventies they were really bad and out of money besides.
What appeared to be a surprisingly good team–second overall–through the 1980-81 regular season bombed in the playoffs and the Blues settled into pretty much what they became until now: Rarely awful, rarely good enough to build up any higher expectations.
Inspired moments were few. Crombeen. The Doug Wickenheiser comeback from three goals down in a Game Six that ended, in typical franchise anticlimax, in a bland 2-1 Game Seven loss in Calgary.
Mike Keenan insulted Midwest homey sensibilities by trading the beloved Brendan Shanahan for young Pronger, rented Wayne Gretzky, and flipped most of the roster to get St. Louis to overtime Game Seven against the Red Wings. Foiled again. Those Keith Tkachuk-Pronger teams were at least good enough to get St. Louis a deep run but it never happened; 39 playoff appearances in 48 years since without a final – and only three semifinals in that time– defying the law of probability. But the Blues never had the hot, or hot enough, goalie, and frankly, there were a lot of years that playing in the Norris Division accomplished for them much of their cosmetic respectability.
As the years of St. Louis being just another team in the league piled up, I started secretly lighting a candle for the Blues. Might have been when I got to deal with that dirty, no good Barclay Plager and discovered that he was one of the warmest persons in the game before tragically being gone too soon, in the meantime learning that his brother Bob was the funniest and maybe the best of guys unless Craig Berube is, and I go back to 1987 with him.
“Finally!” emailed Mark, my St. Louis college roomie, at Tuesday night’s buzzer. I long ago forgave all my contemporaries in St. Louis for thinking it always was going to be so easy because this turned into one of the longest trials by fire in sports history. The Blues not only never have won, but somehow couldn't even provide the consolation of ever coming close. These fans now root for a deep and relentless team that earns everything it gets, just like these loyalists.