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Blues Banner Years

Garry Unger

When members of the Blues family flip through their back pages, they savor the good moments and remember the bad ones they've overcome. They speak of the people who built, maintained, supported and saved this franchise. They speak of tenacity and courage, of resilience and strength, of survival and success. "Every franchise has its ups and downs," says Emile Francis, who guided the Blues' hockey operation from 1976 to 1983. "I don't think any franchise has come closer to folding than they have. It's a credit to the people of St. Louis that the franchise is still there. There were times when it would have been very easy to say, 'Let's fold up, it's time to die.'"

The Blues have employed great players, current or future Hall of Famers like Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante, Dickie Moore and Doug Harvey, Guy Lapointe and Mike Liut and Garry Unger and Bernie Federko. They have had great characters, players like Barclay and Bob Plager, Red Berenson, Bob Gassoff, Brian Sutter and Rob Ramage. And they have had great minds, men like Scott Bowman, Lynn Patrick, Al Arbour, Emile Francis, Jacques Demers and Ron Caron.

There have been team achievements, the Stanley Cup Finals in each of their first three seasons; the Smythe Division titles in 1976-77 and 1980-81 (when they finished with 107 points, a franchise best); the Norris Division titles in 1984-85 and 1986-87. There have been spine-tingling moments, like their great comebacks from their 1967 West Division overtime Game Seven Playoff match against Minnesota and Game Six against Calgary in the 1986 Campbell Conference Championship. There have been great individual achievements: Hall winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1968; Hall and Plante sharing the 1969 Vezina Trophy; Berenson's six goals in one 1968 game and Wayne Babych's 54 in 1980-81; Unger playing every regular season game for over a decade; Liut's first team All-Star selection; Federko closing in on the 1,000-point mark.

1967-1974
West Division
1974-1981
Campbell Conference
 Smythe Division
1981-1993
Campbell Conference
 Norris Division
1993-1994
Western Conference
 Central Division

Many franchises can boast of great achievements, but none can boast of achieving so much in the face of such great adversity. "Sure, we've had a lot of adversity," Blues Vice-President Susie Mathieu, who has worked for the team under all four owners, says of the enduring franchise. "You recall Sid Salomon's illness, and assistant trainer Tommy Ryan, who died of cancer; the Gassoff tragedy; Barclay Plager's illness. Four owners in 20 years. "But these types of things have pulled us together. It's the people who made the difference. There is also a lot of continuity in this franchise. Barc and Bob Plager have been here nearly since the first day. Garry Unger spent a lot of years here. The club was fortunate to have a lot of charismatic hockey people, people who captured the imagination of this town. "The great moments sustained the fans. But it's the people who made those moments."

The Blues proved to be the class of the admittedly weak Western Division. The playoff format guaranteed a West representative in the finals, and the Blues would play for the Stanley Cup in each of their first three years of existence, although they failed to win a single game in any of the three final series. By opening night, the arena boasted almost 15,000 seats, up from 12,000 at the start of 1967. It never stopped being renovated from that day on, and held almost 20,000 seats by the time the Blues left the arena in 1994.

In 1967-68 they were Western Division Champions with a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. A courageous St. Louis squad plays the Habs tough, losing Game 1 of the Finals 3-2 in O.T. on Jacques Lemaire's goal. The Canadiens manage a 1-0 win in Game 2, as Glenn Hall and Gump Worsley star in goal. Serge Savard scores in the third period. In Game 3, Bobby Rousseau breaks a 3-3 score at 1:13 of overtime to put the Habs up 3-0 in the series. In Game 4, the Blues take a 2-1 lead into the third period, but Henri Richard ties it and J.C. Tremblay scores the Cup winner with 8:20 on the clock.

Garry Unger

In 1968-69 they were Western Division Champions again. The Blues, on the goaltending of Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante, sweep Los Angeles in four games and go to the Finals against Montreal. The Canadiens take just four games to successfully defend the Stanley Cup, as they outscore the Blues 12-3. Dick Duff and Bobby Rousseau score in the first five minutes of Game 1 to stake the Habs to a 2-0 lead. They cruise to a 3-1 win. In Game 2, Montreal wins 3-1 thanks to goals by Ralph Backstrom, Dick Duff, and Yvan Cournoyer. A pair of goals by Dick Duff, as well as the perfect goaltending of Rogie Vachon, helps Montreal win Game 3 4-0. Habs tough guys Ted Harris and John Ferguson lead a third-period comeback in Game 4, as Harris ties the game and Fergie scores the winner to give Montreal a 2-1 victory and the Stanley Cup.

In 1969-70 they were Western Division Champions, the Blues won the West on the scoring of Phil Goyette (division leading 78 points) as well as the goaltending of Ernie Wakely (league leading 2.11 GAA) and Jacques Plante. The Blues and Pens swap home-ice wins through five games until the Blues break through in Pittsburgh. They win 4-3 to earn their third straight berth in the Finals. In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Bruins score four thirdperiod goals and Johnny Bucyk records a hat-trick as Boston rolls to a 6-1 win. Eddie Westfall, a respected checking forward, scores a pair of first-period goals in Game 2. Boston wins 6-2. Frank St. Marseille opens the scoring for St. Louis in Game 3, but Boston answers with a pair. Wayne Cashman then scores twice in the third period for a 4-1 final and a 3-0 series lead. The desperate Blues take Boston to O.T. of Game 4, tied 3-3. The Bruins win their first Stanley Cup in 29 years when Bobby Orr scores at 00:40 of sudden-death in Game 4 to beat St. Louis 4-3.

The Blues were the hottest ticket in town. The men wore their suits and ties, the gals their minks. Dinner at Musial and Biggies and then the Arena and Blues hockey were the social event on Saturday nights. And the rest of us listened on KMOX (KXOK) or watched on KDNL-30 (KPLR-11). The games were always sold out and the fans had a true love affair with the team.

In the early 70's the NHL reorganized, the competition got tougher, the team fell back and the arena started to empty. These were the Unger years, maybe the only reason for the "classy" fans to show up. Gary Unger broke the NHL record of 630 consecutive games played during the 1975-76 season, and later pushed his "iron-man" streak to 914 games before coach Al MacNeil benched him on December 21, 1979. Unger tallied nine 30+ goal seasons during the 1970s and ended his career with 413 goals and 804 assists.

St. Louis installed Emile Francis in 1976-77 as coach and wins the Smythe Division (32-39-9), as rookies Bernie Federko and Brian Sutter debut. In the mid 70's the team started to regroup under Emile Francis. Even though the Blues brought this Championship to the Salomons, the crowds weren't good. The "blue seat" fans had not returned and the rumors started about the Blues moving. Ralston Purina bought the Arena (Checkerdome) and the Blues.

St. Louis (45-18-17) wins the Smythe in 1980-81 thanks to 10 20-goal scorers. Wayne Babych scores 54 times, while Bernie Federko tops the club in points (104). The team had brought on a lot of rookie talent in the late 70's (Liut, Federko and Sutter in '76, Currie in '77), and with Federko behind the net they were coming into their own. But Ralston Purina decided to sell the team and the 'moving' talk was back. Harry Ornest bought the team, kept it in St. Louis and kept the support of the blue collar crowd. Which was great, a blue collar crowd for a blue collar team.

St. Louis (37-31-12) in 1984-85 wins the Norris Division, getting big numbers from Bernie Federko (103 points), Joe Mullen (40 goals), and Brian Sutter (37 goals).

We lived 127 miles from the arena. But I still bought my first full season tickets; yellow seats, on the corner, north (offensive) end. My boys were old enough to go to the games with me, but not old enough to drive. In 1985, Harry was losing money and contemplated relocating the team out of St. Louis, a move that inspired members of the St. Louis business community to formulate a plan to purchase the Blues and keep the club in St. Louis.

After a seven-game tussle, St. Louis beats Toronto for the Norris title in 1985-86, winning the finale 2-1. In 1986-87 they were Norris Division Champions again. The Norris is tightly bunched but no one has a winning record. St. Louis (32-33-15) comes out on top, as scrappy center Doug Gilmour explodes for 105 points. In the Norris semis, Toronto upsets St. Louis (4-2) while Detroit sweeps Chicago.

We got Hull from Calgary in the 87-88 season and made Sutter coach in 88-89 season. While we never got to put up a banner, this was as good a style of hockey that the Arena had seen. The only problem was Hull. He started bringing out the "blue seat" crowd. I've used this term twice now, so let me define The Blue Seat Fan. They sit too close to the ice to see the game! But they don't really care because the only reason they're there is to be seen, it's an evening out. And they knew nothing about the game. They always show up late and leave before the game is over. Sometimes before the start of the third period. They sit in a high priced seat, because it's high priced They fly first-class, they go to a hockey game first-class. To be first-class, it must cost more. Hence, they thought the high priced Hull was the heart of the Blues. Certainly not a cowboy like Sutter.

By 1990, however, it became evident (to them) that the long-term viability of the Blues required building a new hockey arena The Kiel Center - The House That Hull Built. Also obvious (to them) was the need to replace the St. Louis Arena The Arena - The House That Hull Tore Down, a sixty-five-year-old building (with true class) that lacked many of the amenities needed for a "first-class" professional sports team. Amenities? I thought we were here to see a hockey game.

By 1992, they'd won. Sutter was fired and construction started on the Kiel Center. There was not one banner put up while Hull was a Blue. So, what was it that gutted twenty-seven years of hockey history? It certainly wasn't overflowing crowds brought in by a winning team. It was the "blue seat" fans overwhelming need to be first-class. Too bad, It was great while it lasted.



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