The St. Louis Blues Of The Infant West Division
Not content with carving up their fellow expansionists, St. Louis' hockeymen have been irreverent in their treatment of the NHL establishment, thanks to a pair of vintage goailies, a smart coach and generous owners. In every sports crowd there is a bomb thrower who refuses to show proper reverence for a myth, and this year the amount of myth-mauling has been scandalous.
Mickey Lolich beats Bob Gibson in the seventh game of the World Series; Kipchoge Keino outruns Jim Ryun in Mexico City; Bill Bradley, sacred ornament of the New York Knicks, is booed in Madison Square. Garden.
Now come the St. Louis Blues of the infant West Division of the National Hockey League — the dogmeat wing, the humpty loop — to propose that on any given rink they can damn well skate those cocky East teams right up into the stands.
Last week the Blues did their bit of myth-destroying by playing Boston to a 1-1 tie on the Bruins' ice, by defeating the Rangers 3-1 in New York and by tying the Detroit Red Wings 1-1 in St. Louis — losing a victory only because the Wings got a rather desperate goal with 22 seconds left to play.
Expansion teams are just not supposed to win four of a possible six points in three successive games against the establishment. Since the Blues have also won five of eight games with their West rivals, they have taken a solid four-point lead in their divisional race and are headed right back for another run at the Stanley Cup.
This is the team that was in last place in the West at this time a year ago. What's happened? St. Louis has the best pair of goaltenders ever to play on the same team, 39-year-old Jacques Plante and 37-year-old Glenn Hall. Hall is the gentleman of delicate digestion but ferocious determination who used to keep 'em out for Chicago and who was voted the outstanding player in the Stanley Cup, even in defeat.
Plante, coming off a three-year retirement, is the famed asthmatic who played for Montreal and New York, and was the first goalie to wear a mask and the first to ramble away from the goal to stop the puck for his defensemen.
St. Louis has hockey's shrewdest young coach and general manager: 35-year-old Scotty Bowman, who learned his trade in the Montreal Canadiens' organization. St. Louis has the most generous management family in hockey: Sidney Salomon Jr. and his son, Sid Salomon III.
The Salomons pay Hall some $48,000, considerably more than he ever received during his 10 years with the Black Hawks in Chicago, and Plante about $35,000, which is $15,000 more than he ever earned in his best year with Montreal. "To tell the truth, I never dreamed of getting a salary like this," Plante said. The two goaltenders also have private rooms on the road, something they never had before.
Last May the Salomons treated all the Blues to a Florida vacation, and in September flew the team to the Maritimes for a leisurely week of golf, hunting and fishing. The Salomons also have spent $2 million refurbishing the old St. Louis Arena so that spectators can see games in comfort and with reasonable sight lines.
When the Blues returned home last Saturday night after a six-game road trip, a standing-room-only crowd of 15,117 packed the arena, raising average attendance to 13,500 for the first seven home games, only two of which were against established teams.
The Salomons are entirely happy to count the houses and leave hockey matters to Bowman, a man with a gift for trades. Last year he acquired Red Berenson from the Rangers, and Berenson was so taken with his new job that he was voted the West Division's most valuable player. Two weeks ago Berenson scored six goals in one game against Philadelphia, which makes him the West's most fantastic player.
But beyond doubt Bowman's chief coup has been the care and feeding of Hall and Plante. After last season Seth Martin, who had alternated with Hall, decided to retire, and Hall thought he might retire, too. Now Bowman has this belief that the fate of all expansion teams for the next few years is going to be determined by the performance of their goaltenders.
The new teams, he reasons, cannot match the total offensive strength of the established clubs. Each Western team has one or two goal-scoring threats at most, while every East team has half a dozen or more. St. Louis may have Berenson, but Chicago, for example, merely starts off the scoring with Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
To begin to compensate for this imbalance, Bowman has looked for defensive-minded players. His defensemen rarely lead a rush up the ice; they take their sweet, safe time and wait for solid openings. This style of play has enabled such veterans as Doug Harvey, 43, and Al Arbour, 36, to play regularly for the Blues long after the old six-team NHL discarded them to the minors.
Still, the hub of a sound defense is in goal, and last June the Blues faced the disturbing prospect of losing both their goaltenders. Bowman learned that Plante, who had retired in 1965 when his wife fell ill, wanted to make a comeback, so he drafted Jacques from the Rangers.
Bowman said that, "We both knew he could still play goal. After all, he hadn't quit because he couldn't do the job. I told him what we would pay him. I told him he would play no less than 30 games and probably no more than 40. And I told him we always had a job for him in the St. Louis organization. He's an intelligent person, a good speaker, an excellent teacher. All this impressed him, and he signed immediately."
A few weeks later Bowman called Hall, who was painting the barn on his 480-acre farm in Stony Plain, Alta. Glenn's son Pat answered, and Bowman asked him, "How's your dad?" Pat said, "He's in great shape." When Glenn got to the phone, Bowman said to him, "So you're returning, eh?" Hall: "Who says?" Bowman: "Your son." Hall: "Oh!" Bowman flew up to see Glenn at the end of July and signed him then.
Hall and Plante are being platooned intelligently. Generally Hall will play two games, then Plante will play two. However, Bowman does not intend to play either goalie on successive nights. Bowman also has instituted a new spare-goalie system for them.
Normally teams carry only two goaltenders on their roster. One goalie plays while the other sits at the end of the bench, ready to go on in an emergency. Bowman prefers to give one goalie the night off when the other is playing rather than subject him to a cold, hard bench to no purpose. "It would be an insult," he says. Instead, he dresses young Robbie Irons as his alternate, emergency goalie.
Last Wednesday in New York, Hall started in goal, so Plante sat in the Blues' broadcast booth. An attendant passed through and offered Jacques a soft drink. He declined politely. "I am not playing in the goal tonight," he said in his crisp, French-accented voice, "but in hockey you never know what will happen. While I may sit up here, I can't have the coffee, the hot dog, the mustard. Sorry. Thank you."
Down on the ice Hall had a strange new look as he cleared the ice shavings from the goal mouth. For 13 years in the NHL, Hall had defied and defeated the Beliveaus and Howes and Geoffrions and Mahovliches without wearing a mask. Attesting to this are the more than 250 stitches that have been sewn into his head since 1955. This night, though, Hall was wearing a mask. "I want to be sure I can collect my paycheck personally from now on," he said. "I don't want it mailed to the Good Samaritan Hospital ... or Cemetery."
Plante recalls the night he introduced mask-wearing: "It was on Nov. 2 in 1959 against the Rangers in New York," he said. "I already had four broken noses, a broken jaw, two broken cheekbones and about 200 stitches in my head. I didn't care how it looked. I was afraid my face would look like the mask, the way I was going."
Hall and his mask survived for only two minutes and one second against the Rangers. Shortly after the opening face-off Vic Hadfield of the Rangers scored on a 75-foot shot that danced around in midair and then dropped behind Hall's right shoulder.
Moments later Referee Vern Buffey called a delay-of-game penalty on the Blues' Noel Picard — a seemingly arbitrary call at best. Hall now was really angry. He said a no-no to Buffey, then poked at the referee with his glove. Such a display automatically incurs ejection, so Hall was ordered to the dressing room for the night.
Enter Robbie Irons. As Plante rushed to the locker room to get dressed for action, Irons fielded a few practice shots. The first two were wide of the net. The third was aimed for the corner of the goal. He kicked out his leg — and thwack. He hurt his ankle — or did he? Anyway, Irons limped off the ice, and the Rangers, leading 1-0 at the time, complained vigorously that the Blues were stalling. With Plante a few minutes away, who wouldn't stall?
Eventually Irons played just two minutes and 59 seconds. Then, at exactly 5:00 of the period, Plante skated onto the ice, flipped down his mask and moved into the goal. He shut out the Rangers for the next 55 minutes, and the Blues rallied to win the game 3-1.
Plante was scheduled to play against the Red Wings on Saturday night, with Hall looking on from the press box. For 59 minutes and 38 seconds Jacques repelled everything that Gordie Howe and Frank Mahovlich and the rest of the Wings shot at him.
Then Alex Delvecchio wound up all alone with the puck, just to Plante's right. Jacques made his move. Delvecchio waited. Jacques was sprawled now — and Delvecchio backhanded the puck over him and into the net. Up to that moment Plante had compiled a total of 142 consecutive shutout minutes against Montreal, New York and the Wings.
The beautiful thing for goalie connoisseurs is that the styles of Hall and Plante are totally different. Hall depends upon his reflexes. He moves back into his net, defying the shooter to beat him, and does a partial split, with his feet working toward the goalposts. He thinks the day of the reflex goalie is near an end, however, because of the curved sticks that most players now use. "Reflex goalies won't be able to survive against the curved stick," he said. "The puck comes twice as fast at times, and it rises or dips. It's brutal."
Plante works in the classic stand-up style. He rarely goes to the ice; instead, he moves out toward the shooter and tries to narrow the angles. Both Plante and Hall have sons who play hockey. Would they want them to play the goal? "Definitely," says Plante. "There's no other place." "I'd discourage him," says Hall. "There are better spots to be in." But where could he have more fun than in St. Louis, sticking it to the biggies of the East?
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