There are many things about the St. Louis Blues that bucked the odds. About everything. Things like the fact that they're the only team from the 1967 expansion to have never won the Stanley Cup, even though they've been to the Finals three times. Or the fact that they not only, you know, exist at all, but have a passionate fanbase right there at home.
St. Louis was never even considered in the 1967 expansion. It was a justifiable choice; the city had only fielded one hockey team, the St. Louis Eagles, for a year or two in the 1930's. The Eagles had the distinction of scoring the first-ever penalty shot goal in 1934, from a player named Ralph Bowman. Other than that, the Eagles were terrible. In their lone year of existence, they went 11-31-6 and finished last in their division. They had also lost a huge chunk of change because they were somehow relegated to playing in the Canadian division, which meant they had to spend exorbitant wads of cash to play their divisional games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Maroons, Montreal Canadians, and New York Americans. Travel back then was almost exclusively by train too, which couldn't have done much for the players' playing shape. No one would buy them, and the NHL refused to let them take a year off, so they were finished. At the beginning of the 60's, the city was also home to the St. Louis Braves, a farm team to the Chicago Black Hawks for a few years, but that was it.
In 1967, the Blues were the final expansion team created. The Minnesota North Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Oakland Seals, and Los Angeles Kings were already taken care of, and the sixth team was originally supposed to be placed in Baltimore. The Wirtz family, owners of the Chicago Black Hawks, also happened to own an arena in St. Louis. They were busy trying to sell the thing because the Braves had since left and, let's face it, the place was a shithole. So the Wirtz family pressed the league into moving the Baltimore team to St. Louis, even though other cities which had bid for teams included Buffalo, Vancouver, Cleveland, and Louisville while St. Louis had, you know, not actually expressed any interest in a team. The Wirtz family had pull, though, and St. Louis got its team.
The Blues were named for the old WC Handy song "St. Louis Blues." The team originally hired Lynn Patrick to coach, but the Blues ended up getting off on the wrong foot in the beginning because Patrick just up and quit 16 games into the Blues' inaugural season. To replace him, though, the Blues found this guy named Scotty Bowman. You might know him as, well, THE GREATEST FUCKING COACH THE SPORT OF HOCKEY HAS EVER KNOWN!!!!! The Blues were Bowman's first head coaching job, actually, in a long and prosperous career which would see him win The Holy Grail NINE TIMES. And, well, of the five teams Bowman coached, the Blues were one of the two that never won the Stanley Cup. That isn't to say he did a bad job with them, though. His team was comprised of roster leftovers - aging stars like Doug Harvey and Dickie Moore. But Bowman managed to get the best out of his players. His goaltending tandem, if you can believe it, was comprised of Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante, and you KNOW those guys were good. He also got the goods out of team Captain Al Arbour, New York Rangers castoff Red Berenson became the Blues' first big star, and Phil Goyette, a player who was merely decent, produced the best season of his life.
The Blues were given a bit of help through the league's flat out dumbassed divisional format. Those six new teams meant the NHL would now be creating a whole new conference, as opposed to the Original Six years where there were no division or conference standings at all. The league decided to employ the lazy method of conference creation, which meant that since the six teams they added literally doubled the size of the league, they would just make the Original Six the Eastern Conference and shove the n00bs into the Western Conference. Also, the fact that there was a talent disparity between the Class of 67 and the Original Six meant the Originals could beat the shit out of the little guys for the next few years. While Bowman's first team finished with a losing record, the playoffs were easy pickings for a coach of his caliber, so he got the team to the Finals in 1968, where he lost to the Montreal Canadiens. In 1969 and 1970, he finished first with winning records and returned to the Finals, but the talent disparity kept showing and the Blues were slaughtered both years by Montreal again in 1969 and the Boston Bruins in 1970.
In the 70's, the NHL finally changed the alignments around a little bit, but all this meant was that the Black Hawks were moved to the Western Division. Around this time, Berenson was traded and Bowman left to coach in Montreal. Between the losses and the presence of the Black Hawks and the rising Philadelphia Flyers, the Blues basically got trounced while Philadelphia and Chicago destroyed everyone and everything in their paths. While the Berenson trade had brought in Garry Unger, St. Louis's defense might as well have just watched the team from home because they played the welcome mat to teams that weren't the Blues. In the meantime, the owners made a lot of dreadful financial decisions which led to the Blues getting sold.
It wasn't until 1980 that the team was good enough to make the playoffs again. Of course, this is the NHL, the league where going to the playoffs means you've snagged the eighteenth spot in a 16-team league, but something weird was happening: The Blues were actually getting better. Starting in 1980, the Blues went to the playoffs for 25 years straight, and at this time, they were playing guys like Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter, and Wayne Babych. In the 1981 season, the Blues won 45 games and nabbed 107 points, but they also kept getting into playoff purgatory. In 1983, the Blues didn't bother to send anyone to the NHL Entry Draft. The team was owned by Purina, who had taken over after that first sale out of civic responsibility. But when their chairman retired, his successor was more about business than anything, and he basically left the Blues to rot. When the Blues finally found a buyer, that buyer had his heart set on moving to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, but the NHL said no because it didn't want to lose a market as big as St. Louis. After that, Purina just took the Blues and said to the NHL, "Fine, here you go. They're yours now." They were about to fold when Harry Ornest swept in and bought the team.
Ornest ran the Blues on a shoestring, but interestingly enough, the players really didn't mind. Brian Sutter said it was because St. Louis reminded them of the rural Canadian cities where many of the players grew up. Ornest needed many of his players to defer their salaries to help operating costs, but in the end, they always got paid. While Ornest was running the team, the Blues had only 26 players contracted - 23 in St. Louis, three on their farm team in Montana. most teams during those years had around 60. The players seemed to like Ornest, though, and they were competitive most of the time, especially when Doug Gilmour was drafted in 1982. In 1986, the Blues reached the Conference Finals, and while Doug Wickenheiser's overtime goal in game six is one of the greatest moments in team history, it didn't keep the Blues from losing game seven to the Calgary Flames. That goal is known to Blues fans as the Monday Night Miracle.
The Flames actually caused quite a bit of pain for the Blues in the 80's. A lot of their players ended up being traded to Calgary, and young Blues stars including Gilmour, Rob Ramage, and Joe Mullen were keys in the Flames' 1989 Stanley Cup victory. When Ramage was traded to the Flames, though, it was the Blues who managed to get away with murder. The Flames had this hotshot kid running around in their farm system for a few years, and in the 1988 season, he was finally brought up to Calgary for what seemed to be an extended period of time while the Flames worked on his conditioning, as if a guy who posted 26 goals and 50 points in 52 games needed more coaching. On March 7, 1988, Rob Ramage and goalie Rick Wamsley were sent to Calgary. what the Blues were asking for in return were Steve Bozek and this kid, who went by the name of Brett Hull.
Hull became the centerpiece of the Blues. The Blues started grabbing some incredible talent around this time, including Adam Oates, Brendan Shanahan, Al MacInnis, and Grant Fuhr now turned the Blues into straight up contenders. Hull became one of the NHL's great superstars, a guy mentioned often in the same sentence as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Hull put up video game numbers, and it's frequently argued that the only player better than him during this period was The Great One. Unfortunately, the Blues were still trapped in playoff purgatory, and never managed to pull themselves through the second round. In the 1991 season, the Blues posted the second-best record in the league but were beat in the second round by the Minnesota North Stars, a Cinderella team with a losing record. That pretty much summed up the playoff life of the Blues in a nutshell.
Mike Keenan was hired to coach for the 1995 season. They were hoping he would be able get the Blues through the playoffs. It wasn't a bad decision; after all, he had just won the Stanley Cup the previous year with the New York Rangers. Things were gonna change under Keenan, lemme tell ya! And change they did! Fan favorites Shanahan and Curtis Joseph were traded away! To make up for them, he brought in…. WAYNE GRETZKY! The Great One went to St. Louis in February of 1996, which meant he played 31 games for the Blues. In those games, he put a whopping 37 points on the board and brought the Blues within a game of the Conference Finals. Unfortunately, the chemistry everyone was expecting him to develop with Brett Hull never developed. More to the point, Keenan bitched about him in public. Keenan had that problem, see; he just frequently didn't get along with his players. After the season, Gretzky left in free agency to sign with the Rangers. Keenan and Hull didn't get along any better, and that instigated Hull leaving for the Dallas Stars in 1998, even though Keenan was fired in 1996.
During the early years of the millennium, the Blues kept contending through contributing efforts from aging veterans: Chris Pronger, Pavol Demitra, Pierre Turgeon, Al MacInnis, and Roman Turek. In 2000, they even won the Presidents' Trophy, but still bowed out of the first round despite taking the San Jose Sharks to seven games. The next year, they finally returned to the Conference Finals, but lost to the Colorado Avalanche. They remained competitive for the next few years, but they were getting progressively worse. Finally, in 2005, the playoff streak ended. By 2006 the Blues were the worst team in the NHL. They didn't return to the playoffs until 2009. They've been in perpetual build mode since then, and they missed the playoffs the next two years. Finally, things started glowing again in 2012 when the Blues became the first team to put 100 points in the standings and make the playoffs. They even managed to make it to the second round that year, beating the Sharks in five games. Of course the Blues, being the Blues, lost in the second round, but there's hardly any shame in that this time because the team that swept them was the Los Angeles Kings, who eventually won the Stanley Cup.
Seven players have had their numbers retired by the Blues: Al MacInnis, Bob Gassoff, Barclay Plager, Brian Sutter, Brett Hull, Bernie Federko, and Wayne Gretzky. I usually don't include Gretzky's name on the retired player lists because his number is retired everywhere in the league, but The Great One WAS a Blue! Even if it WAS for just 31 games, he legitimately suited up 31 times in St. Louis, and little time or not, that makes it perfectly legit. Even so, it's Hull who is the eternal face of St. Louis hockey. Brett Hull was nicknamed The Golden Brett, a takeoff on the nickname of his hockey legend father Bobby Hull, who was called The Golden Jet. Brett's numbers actually eclipsed his pop's, and there is even a statue of him outside the Blues' arena. Being a Buffalo Sabres fan, I'm of course morally obligated to hate Brett Hull, but on a visit to St. Louis last year, I couldn't help but photograph Hull's statue as I walked by. Other greats who have been Blues include Doug Gilmour, Dale Hawerchuk, Adam Oates - his line with Hull was called Hull and Oates - Scott Stevens, Guy Lapointe, and Peter Stastny.
The Blues have that one certain notable name as a coach. That would be Scotty Bowman. It was in St. Louis where Bowman got his start. He would go on to coach five teams in his sterling career, winning Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens in 1973, coaching possibly the mightiest dynasty in NHL history which won the Stanley Cup four straight years in Montreal from 1976 to 1979. He moved on to coach the Buffalo Sabres, where he never reached the Finals despite posting an overall record of 210-134-60. He then took the reins in Pittsburgh for two years, winning the Stanley Cup in 1992. Finally, he concluded his career with a nine-year stint in Detroit with a 414-204-88 record (that's taking the ridiculous overtime loss stat and adding them to the total losses) and three more Stanley Cups. His only failed experiment was in Buffalo for some reason. You can't look at his time in St. Louis as a failure when he got to the Finals three times, not considering the circumstances he had to work with.
The Blues have very pronounced rivalries with the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. While time has now made the Blues one of the league elders with a storied history, it doesn't change the fact that they're the baby of those rivalries. The Blackhawks and Red Wings, after all, are both Original Six teams. The Red Wings have won the Stanley Cup eleven times, more than any other American team. The Blackhawks have a much more spotty on-ice history but have still won the Stanley Cup four times. The Hawks, in other words, have won the Stanley Cup more often than the Blues have even been to the Finals. Unfortunately, the Detroit rivalry will be gone next season, as the realignment will put the Red Wings into the Eastern Conference where they'll be allowed to grind up the Canadiens, Sabres, and Boston Bruins.
The Monday Night Miracle is one of the Blues' identifiers. So are those three Finals appearances with Bowman at the helm. Their distinctive logo is recognizable anywhere, and the Blues fanbase has, against the odds, become one of the most fervent and knowledgeable in hockey, even if it's still one of the most hidden. They're highly ranked in attendance. But one unique marker in Blues history comes from the 1970 Finals. Now, the 1970 Finals weren't in any way close. St. Louis's opponents were the Boston Bruins, who were thoroughly dominant by then and were never going to be stopped. The Bruins ultimately swept the Blues, and while the Blues arguable played better through every progressive game, the series still never produced anything close - the goal differentials in games one, two, and three were respectively five, four, and three. The fourth game, however, went to overtime, where the legendary Boston defenseman Bobby Orr scored the game winner. Blues defenseman Noel Picard tripped him while he made the shot, though, and so Orr ended up being photographed as he flew through the air with his arms triumphantly raised. It is probably the most famous picture in the history of hockey.
I like the Blues and wanted to give them a better rating, but I just couldn't. It doesn't say very much good that Wayne Gretzky walked after 31 games, or that the Blues cling to a playoff streak which is only the third best in sports as an identifier. Still, they're rich in history, are great now, and have had some great players and top-notch moments. So don't let my rating discourage any adopting fans. The NHL needs the St. Louis Blues.
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