As someone who grew up in St. Louis and actually remembers the likes of the Plager brothers, Red Berenson and Bobby Gassoff, tonight’s Blues-Blackhawks playoff series has special meaning.
I thought it would be interesting to look back at where this franchise has been over the past 40+ years, and where it is today from the perspective of a lifelong fan of the team. (with the scar tissue to prove it.)
The Blues were one of six expansion teams the NHL added to the league in the late 60’s, (along with hilariously named California Golden Seals) and they didn’t waste any time creating a rabid fan base. Thanks to the beauty of YouTube, we are able to take a look back.
The home games were all sellouts during the first couple of seasons as the city embraced this new, fast paced sport. I remember my Father taking us to the games and to this day, I’ve never witnessed anything quite like it. Here I was, this 6-year-old kid, singing at the top of my lungs along with the other 18,000 fans,
“OH WHEN THE BLUES….COME MARCHING IN…OH WHEN THE BLUES COME MARCHING IN! YES I WANT TO BE IN THAT NUMBER…WHEN THE BLUES COME MARCHING IN!!!!”
Even today, I still get a chill when I hear that song.
Plus, It didn’t hurt that Dan Kelly, who would become the greatest hockey play-by-play announcer ever, was calling the action on KMOX radio.
What a time to be a kid in St. Louis. Back then, if you played roller hockey with your buddies after school, you became Dan Kelly as you took over the play-by-play duties of your own breakaway:
“Here’s HEWITT…I MEAN BERENSON, THE RED BARON…number #7, around his older brother and the mailbox! What stick handling skills! He’s got a breakaway, all alone! In on Kenny Dryden. He shoots….HE SCORRRRRRRRRRESSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!”
I’ve played a lot of sports since, but those roller hockey games after school and all day on the weekends, were the most brutal, competitive games I’ve ever been involved with.
Coming home with a split lip or bruised knee was a badge of honor on our block. We used to set up games with other blocks around the neighborhood and we’d literally play all day long. Eventually, towards the end of the day as the Sun was going down, you’d hear someone’s Mom call out,
“GATHER UP YOUR GEAR AND GET BACK INSIDE!…DO YOU HEAR ME?”
We’d all nod silently to each other. It was a knowing look, a bond between competitors. We’d all talk tough, but Moms, or at least my Mom, wasn’t to be trifled with. Like a league commissioner with an iron hand, she could pull the plug on the whole thing anytime she wanted. It wasn’t unusual for us to come home from school and find that all of our hockey gear, skates, sticks, gloves, etc were nowhere to be found. I can still hear her explanation as I tore up the house.
“That’s what happens when you don’t pick up after yourselves and keep your rooms clean.”
Still, it was a glorious time and none of it would ever have happened without the Blues arrival in St. Louis.
Eventually though, all things wear off and the team settled into a period of mediocrity marked by a series of questionable management decisions. Those raucous sell-out crowds at the Arena became a distant memory. There was even talk of the team moving to someplace in the outer regions of Canada.
The Saskatoon Blues?
No, this wouldn’t do. Eventually, through thick and thin (and a few missed paychecks along the way) the team survived and was able to stay in St. Louis thanks to an investment from Ralston Purina.
Their only requirement? We wouldn’t be playing at the Arena anymore. No, the Blues would now play their home games at the…..CHECKERDOME?
So the team survived but the damage had been done. It always seemed like they were one small step away from financial ruin. Over the years, great players, players in their prime like Joey Mullen, Doug Gilmour, Adam Oates, Brendan Shanahan, Curtis Joseph, and the deepest cut of all, Brett Hull, were either developed or acquired and then jettisoned, often in favor of some other team’s rejects or the always present, “financial considerations.”
They did however, have some teams over the years which could have….no wait, that’s incorrect, should have won the Stanley Cup, if not for some unlucky bounce freak injury or head scratching mistake at the worst possible moment.
Exhibit A—I give you Blues goalie JON (BLANKING) CASEY.
It was game 7 of a vital playoff series with hated rivals Detroit. While filling in for the injured Hall of Fame goaltender, Grant Fuhr, Casey let in one of the softest goals in NHL playoff history. It doomed a 1995-96 Blues team which was absolutely loaded with talent! Not only did we have “The Golden Brett” and his minions, but “The Great One” himself, Wayne Gretzky!
Yes, the greatest player in the history of the NHL was a Blue for all of 31 games!
May 17, 1996. This would be his last game as a Blue. Even the great ones know when to exit stage left. His next Stanley Cup awaited in New York.
That one almost pushed me over the edge. I had to take a break from my Blues if for any other reason, to maintain my sanity.
But I’d be back. Blues fans are like that. Especially those of us who remember how special it was in the beginning.
Yes, we’ll complain, we’ll wonder why the hockey Gods demonstrate this kind of cruelty, we’ll whine about some goal in 94 which should have been disallowed or some trade the team should never have made (Yes, that Vancouver trade) but we’ll always be back. We can’t help it. We’re Blues fans.
We can take anything.
We still believe that eventually we’ll see that Stanly Cup Parade down Market Street downtown. We believe because we have to believe.
So tonight represents a fresh start. Blues….Hawks….And it’s a rivalry with a bit of history.
March 17, 1991. Chicago Stadium. The participants:
For the Hawks, Stu “The Grim Reaper” Grimson….Dave “Charlie” Manson….Mike “You Lookin’ At Me?” Peluso
The Blues counter with Scott Stevens, who was universally despised and feared throughout the league for his vicious elbows to the head which at one point, I believe concussed 37% of the league.
They still refer to it across the league, in hushed tones as…..“The St. Patrick’s Day Massacre!”
Tonight the Blues begin the process of deciding their future. I only hope it’s half as exciting as their past has been.
Let’s Go Blues!