News » Feature

And Mullets for All: The St. Louis Blues in the Thrash Years

by

comment

The 2020 NHL All-Star Game takes place in St. Louis this weekend, for the first time since 1988. Along with it come concerts, events for the fans, the skills competition and mascot events. The Stanley Cup — which the St. Louis Blues won last year, as you may know — will be in town, which just feels right.

Of course all the hoopla has us thinking about hockey, even more so than usual. The St. Louis Blues have a history that's more checkered than storied. What started as a team of cast-offs in 1967 has seen heartbreak, a near move to Canada, great players, greater characters, collapses and conquests. Last year made it all worth it, but that doesn't discredit anything that came before, so instead we celebrate with a long look back.

If you're in from out of town, we have a guide to all the All-Star Weekend activities, as well as some suggestions for where to eat and drink if you want more than concessions, and some helpful tips about things you can do while you're here that aren't hockey-related.

Let's drop the puck.

The Team Founding

The Blues, like many great enterprises throughout history, were founded out of jealousy and greed. Chicago Blackhawks owner James D. Norris and his partner, Arthur Wirtz, wanted a local rival for their team along the lines of the Cubs-Cardinals hatefest. Norris' old man, James E., had left his son an ownership stake in the Detroit Red Wings, the New York Rangers and the Blackhawks, giving James D. a financial interest in half of the Original Six teams of the NHL. When the expansion of the NHL to twelve teams was announced, James D. saw his opportunity twice over, and St. Louis was announced as the sixth and final expansion city. St. Louis was understandably confused, because the city did not apply to enter the league and somehow ended up with a team anyway. What swung the sixth franchise into St. Louis' lap? James D. Norris' insistence to the league brass that the Gateway City get the final team (over Baltimore, which did apply). Even better (for Norris), Norris owned the rundown St. Louis Arena, which would be the team's new home. Norris got his desired rival, a new tenant and his way one last time, and then died. The St. Louis Blues were born, and the Blackhawks were now owned by Arthur Wirtz, who with his son, Bill, set new standards in penny-pinching for years to come.

Bobby Plager formed the heart of the Blues defensive corps along with his brother Barclay. - COURTESY OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES
  • COURTESY OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES
  • Bobby Plager formed the heart of the Blues defensive corps along with his brother Barclay.

The Legend of the Hard-Checking Plager Brothers

Barclay, Bob and Billy Plager helped raise the team's profile in the '70s, with Barclay and Bob skating together for eleven years. Bob had the hip check, Barclay famously fought Bob while they were in juniors, and Billy didn't last long with the team. The story of two brothers making it to the same team was an interesting one, but not nearly as interesting as watching them play. They were rugged and played with an edge, but they weren't dirty. Besides, they were the good guys: Both of 'em rode the rocket to the Stanley Cup finals in the first years of the team's existence, and their hard-nosed defense was a large reason that the Blues were the last expansion team still standing. (That and the fact that the league brass juiced the excitement by setting up a postseason format that mandated an expansion team would go all the way.) The Blues didn't win a game in the finals, but it wasn't for lack of effort. Bobby had a way with words as well, once remarking, "You don't have to be crazy to play hockey, but it helps." Barclay was named only the second team captain in history, and together the Plagers toplined the stingiest defense in the entire league in 1969, allowing the fewest goals scored against that year. In 1970, they almost repeated that feat but fell to second-best. Sadly, Barclay died at age 46 of a brain tumor in 1988, three days before the All-Star Game, which was held in St. Louis that year. A moment of silence was held in his memory at the game. After this year's long-awaited Stanley Cup win, Bob brought champagne and the Cup to Barclay's grave, completing a circle that had been open for more than 50 years.

Noel Picard was great on the ice and even better on the mic. - COURTESY OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES
  • COURTESY OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES
  • Noel Picard was great on the ice and even better on the mic.

Noel Picard, My Good Friend

Joseph Jean-Noel Yves Picard was claimed by the St. Louis Blues in the expansion draft of 1967. Born on Christmas Day, the big defenseman was known as Noel by teammates and fans. He had a pretty good right-handed shot and a nasty left hook that took a lot of opponents by surprise. Among hockey fans, Noel Picard is remembered for tripping Boston Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr right as Orr scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in the 1970 finals, which resulted in one of the most famous sports photographs of all time. Among teammates, Picard was best known for his jovial nature, love of pranks and ability to fire up the team one way or the other.

Before games, Picard would point at teammates and bellow, "This is the team that didn't want you!," a tactic that united the Blues even as it fired 'em up.

Picard was also lucky. He was in danger of having his foot amputated in 1971 after his horse fell on his ankle, shattering it. The doctors were able to repair most of it, allowing him to return to the team for one more year, but he wasn't the same player. The Blues waived him, and he retired a year later.

That's when he assumed his role on the broadcast team as the color guy, next to the legendary Dan Kelly. Games became even more entertaining with Picard in the booth. He referred to everyone as "My goo' frien'," thanks to his Quebecois accent, which got thicker as the action heated up. Picard always had a smile in his voice, which gave even losing games a rosy hue. Many former players have worked the booth in the years since, but when the clock is ticking down and the Blues are threatening to come from behind, Noel Picard's voice is the one that rings in my head.

Al Arbour was the team's first captain. - COURTESY OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES
  • COURTESY OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES
  • Al Arbour was the team's first captain.

How the Blues Became A Real Team

With the onset of the New Six teams to match the Original Six teams, it was necessary for the league to hold a dispersal draft. In short order, aging vets were shipped out to the new teams, and the Blues ended up with a strange mix of future hall of famers. There was Doug Harvey and his seven Norris Trophies for best defenseman; Dickie Moore; and the legendary goalkeeping tandem of Jacques Plante, who won six Stanley Cups, and Glenn Hall, who played 552 consecutive games between the pipes. Less flashy but no less significant was the arrival of Al Arbour, a rangy centerman who wore glasses on and off the ice.

Arbour played well and became the first Blues player to wear the captain's "C" on his sweater, which meant the team listened to him on the ice and in the locker room. When his playing days came to a natural end, he transitioned naturally into the coach's job in 1970.

It wasn't a smooth ride for old Al. Sid Salomon III, the team's executive VP, had an itchy trigger finger for making player trades and cashiering coaches. By December 1971, Salomon had traded away a huge chunk of the team and had hired and fired Al Arbour, Scotty Bowman and Sid Abel in the span of 62 games. With Abel's departure, Salomon threw Arbour back on the carousel on Christmas Day to ramrod a team whose collective heads were spinning in sixth place in the Western Division.

Everything changed during a fateful trip to Philadelphia on January 6, 1972. (What is it with Philadelphia altering the trajectory of St. Louis teams in midwinter?)

The Blues were down 0-2 in the second period, and Arbour thought the refs were calling a shoddy game. He got on the ice to talk to referee John Ashley at the end of the period, which is frowned upon. Ashley gave Arbour a two-minute penalty, which Arbour shrugged off like an old overcoat. He followed the ref toward the dressing room, at which point someone in the Philadelphia stands poured a beer on Arbour's head.

Bob Plager wasn't going to stand for that. He would later tell Sports Illustrated's Mark Mulvoy that "it was the first time all year someone had stood up for us. It brought us together." As the beer poured into Arbour's ears, Plager only wanted to talk to the goon who dumped it, so he climbed over the glass, with teammates hot on his heels.

On their heels were the riot police, who were swinging nightsticks at anybody in a Blues sweater.

When the dust finally cleared, Al Arbour needed ten stitches, while player John Arbour (no relation) got 40 stitches. Fellow Blues players Floyd Thompson, Phil Roberto and the Arbours were all handcuffed and taken by paddywagon to the Philadelphia police station and charged with assault. (Charges were eventually dropped.)

After that night, the Blues were changed men. Al Arbour's organized practices got the team on the same page, but his willingness to fight the refs (and the city of Philadelphia) lit a fire under the Blues that drove them into the playoffs. There was no fairytale ending, sadly; they were outgunned in the semifinals by the Bruins who shellacked 'em 28-8 in only four games. Where was Laura Branigan when they needed her?

Bernie Federko is still the Blues all-time leader in points scored, 30 years after he retired. - COURTESY OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES
  • COURTESY OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES
  • Bernie Federko is still the Blues all-time leader in points scored, 30 years after he retired.

The Federko-Sutter Tag Team

Mustachioed Bernie Federko was the most gifted scorer the Blues ever saw (until Brett Hull), and he had the great misfortune to be completely overshadowed by the once-in-a-millennium talent of Wayne Gretzky. Brian Sutter was one of six rock-ribbed brothers who made it to the NHL, and he was the most pugnacious by far of all of them. Together Bernie and Brian made the team not just successful in the late '70s and early '80s, but a joy to watch. Bernie was a crafty passer and natural scorer who was a magician with the puck. He would set up shop behind the opposing team's net and dish assists to his teammates, racking up more than 50 assists a year for ten consecutive seasons ('78 to '88). Sutter was more of a primal force, scoring 30 or more goals six times in a season and notching more than 150 penalty minutes in those years. Sutter's greatest gift was his ferocious will to win: No player in team history hated losing more than Brian Sutter. He would fight, he would stand in the goalie crease and tip pucks in while opposing defensemen whaled on him with sticks, fists and full-body cross-checks, and he could single-handedly carry the team to victory when they were behind late in the game.

In the 1986 playoffs, the Blues fell behind 5-2 to the Calgary Flames late in game six. Sutter could barely lift his arm above his shoulder because of a lingering injury, but there he was in the crease with twelve minutes left in the game and the season, deflecting in a goal to make it 5-3. Greg Paslawski eventually tied it for the Blues in the dying seconds, and then in overtime Bernie Federko fed Mark Hunter, who's shot was blocked. Doug Wickenheiser potted the rebound and the Blues completed the Monday Night Miracle — the greatest game in team history until 2019 — and forced a game seven that didn't go nearly as well as the preceding game.

The Federko-Sutter years are the greatest era of Blues hockey, at least to my mind, and yet most of the hockey world was watching the Edmonton Oilers run the table. Bernie eventually got the call from the Hall of Fame in 2002, a little late but better than never. Federko's number 24 was retired by the team in 1991, while Sutter's number 11 went into the rafters in 1988, shortly after he retired.

Brian Sutter gave his all on the ice every night, and still almost got shipped to Saskatoon. - COURTESY OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES
  • COURTESY OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES
  • Brian Sutter gave his all on the ice every night, and still almost got shipped to Saskatoon.

The Drafty Ballad of Saskatoon

In 1983, Blues owners Ralston Purina announced they wanted to sell the team. Nobody was interested, but Ralston Purina was the least interested of all. They worked out a deal to sell the whole shebang to investors in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, but the NHL refused to approve the sale. The Blues fought back by officially skipping the NHL draft that year, and then told the league to "take the team or we'll sell the players, the equipment and the name to the highest bidder." Then the fight got nasty. The league refused to take the team, Ralston Purina terminated the majority of the staff, and the players were left hanging in the wind. The NHL eventually took control of the team and announced a search for new owners, but on a timeline. If no one bought the team, the league would dissolve the Blues and allow the other eleven teams to draft its players. Harry Ornest and a group of investors saved the team with just days to spare. Saskatoon got nothing, but it retains the immortal honor of being the boyhood home of hockey legend Gordie Howe; the birthplace of a pair of the NHL's greatest enforcers, Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard; and the only place on Earth where professional wrestler and actor Rowdy Roddy Piper could possibly be born. Current St. Louis Blues forward Brayden Schenn was also born there, which means a piece of the Paris of the Prairies is now in St. Louis.

Jacques Plante won his seventh Vezina Trophy with the Blues in 1968 as part of tandem with Glenn Hall. - COURTESY OF MISSOURI HISTORY MUSEUM
  • COURTESY OF MISSOURI HISTORY MUSEUM
  • Jacques Plante won his seventh Vezina Trophy with the Blues in 1968 as part of tandem with Glenn Hall.

Great Goalies I Have Known

The miraculous ascension of Jordan Binnington to rock-solid, number-one goalie is all the more miraculous in his second season. For years upon years, hardcore fans watched heralded and unheralded goalies get hot and carry the team to the postseason, only to have everything fall apart. Mike Liut had a phenomenal run in the '80s but was undone by a serious groin injury. In 1989, Curtis Joseph arrived and established himself as a steady netminder. By '92, Joseph had come into his own and became a force between the pipes, leading the Blues to an upset against the hated Blackhawks in the playoffs. By '95 he'd been traded away. Former Dallas Stars backup Roman Turek arrived in 1999 and racked up seven shut-outs on his way to the William M. Jennings trophy for fewest goals allowed. The San Jose Sharks ate him up in the postseason, and the next season saw a similar predilection for allowing soft goals in the playoffs. He was succeeded by Brent Johnson (great, then not) and then, in tandem, Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott (same story, despite the fact that Brian Elliott still holds the team record for most shutouts in a season with eleven). Year after year, goalie after goalie — even Martin Brodeur showed up in the parade of almosts. Until Jordan Binnington, forever may he reign.

Tony Twist was the most feared enforcer in the NHL for a long stretch. - COURTESY OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES
  • COURTESY OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES
  • Tony Twist was the most feared enforcer in the NHL for a long stretch.

The Behemoths

What the Blues lacked in goaltending stability, they more than made up for with their ability to nurture tough guys. From Bob Gassoff to Ryan Reaves stretches a long and proud lineage of heart-and-soul players who stuck up for their teammates, protected the stars and fought all comers. Bob Gassoff was the early template, a burly defenseman who wasn't the biggest guy on the ice but usually the baddest. He bounced between the minors and the majors from 1973 to '75, but made an impact with his fists. Gassoff racked up 866 penalty minutes in just 245 games. His career was cut short in 1977 by a fatal motorcycle accident. The team retired his number.

Kelly Chase and Tony Twist overlapped for a few years in the mid-1990s, forming a potent combo on the ice. Chase was a heart-and-soul guy who wasn't the biggest bruiser on the ice, but that never stopped him from going toe to toe with anybody. As for Twist, at six-foot-one and 245 pounds, he was a true heavyweight. He rearranged Rob "Razor" Ray's face during one bout, and that was after he cracked Kirk Tomlinson's helmet with a punch while playing for the Nordiques. Even the toughest guys were reluctant to fight him after seeing the carnage he could wreak.

Ryan Reaves is another big body who fought more than a few times for the Blues (and for his current team, the Vegas Golden Knights), but fighting is on the wane in the NHL. Enforcers are loved by teammates and a segment of the fans, but the specter of head injuries is too big to ignore.

Maybe that's for the best. Chronologically between Gassoff and Twist came Todd Ewen, who was willing to go with anybody who wanted a fight. He famously knocked out NHL heavyweight enforcer Bob Probert in a fight, but he also wrote a children's book (A Frog Named Hop) and played four instruments. Perhaps no player better epitomizes the dichotomy between enforcers on and off the ice than Todd Ewen. On ice, they're a force to be reckoned with. Off the ice, they're mostly quiet guys who value friends and family, which includes the guys they fight. Ewen was no different. After his career ended, he coached youth teams at all levels out in Chesterfield. The toll the game took on his body was a time bomb: In 2015, after a long struggle with depression, Ewen died at the age of 49 by his own hand. Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University examined his brain and found stage-two CTE, a form of brain degeneration likely caused by repeated brain trauma. The brawlers are always fan favorites, but the price may be too much to pay.

Longtime referee Kerry "Hair Helmet" Fraser remembered Ewen online with a tiny pair of hockey pants made out of tape. Ewen made them during a game while he was a healthy scratch and gave them to Fraser after the game. It was a welcome reminder that there's more to life — and more to the men who devote their youth to the game — than hockey.

We’re keeping you informed…
...and it’s what we love to do. From local politics and culture to national news that hits close to home, Riverfront Times has been keeping St. Louis informed for years.

It’s never been more important to support local news sources. A free press means accountability and a well-informed public, and we want to keep our unique and independent reporting available for many, many years to come.

If quality journalism is important to you, please consider a donation to Riverfront Times. Every reader contribution is valuable and so appreciated, and goes directly to support our coverage of critical issues and neighborhood culture. Thank you.

Tags