Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Blues

Catching a couple of St. Louis Blues home playoff games on the tube took me right back to 1968.

St. Louis was the first expansion (1967) franchise to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. It seemed so strange to watch Montreal - the other Finalist - go up against a non-Original Six club for all the marbles.

With the dawn of hockey's second-season in the spring of '68, a new dance partner would emerge from the Western Conference to face one of the Senior teams. For fans who cheered in Toronto, Chicago, New York, Detroit or Boston, it would be a case of wait-until-next-year.

 It was an exciting time to be a fan of the National Hockey League. There was plenty to follow, with a flood of new players skating in the league.

In an era, where television was restricted to Saturday night and  mid-week contests, the Blues didn't receive much TV exposure in the Toronto market.

That all changed when St. Louis faced Montreal in the Final. Instead of just reading game reports involving the Blues, it was an opportunity to see them play in their home rink.

Like any new experience, there was so much to take-in. Forty-four-years later, several memories still remain.

Being a Maple Leaf fan, I was pulling for St. Louis to upset the Canadiens. It was bad enough the Blue and White didn't even qualify for post-season play. But to watch Montreal be crowned as new Cup champions would be too much to absorb. Remember, the Leafs were the defending champs. For one series, my allegiance shifted to another group of players - St. Louis became my team.

The second memory is the in-game presentation of a contest played in the St. Louis Arena. In particular, the work of organist Norm Kramer. His ability to churn out tunes which got the crowd clapping and involved in the action was thrilling to observe. The mood was set before the first drop-of-the-puck. When the St. Louis players stepped onto the ice, they were serenaded by Kramer's rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Built by general manager Lynn Patrick and his staff, the Blues were coached by Scotty Bowman. In 1967-68, St. Louis finished in third-place with 70 points. They trailed Western Conference leader, Philadelphia, by 3 points.

Come playoff time, St. Louis opened-up against Philadelphia, followed by the Minnesota North Stars. In each series, the Blues dodged elimination by taking the seventh and deciding games.

This set the stage for the Stanley Cup Final versus Montreal.

In addition to the newness of the event, several factors contributed to the fascination of St. Louis meeting Montreal.

The Montreal connection on St. Louis started with coach Scotty Bowman. His career began in the Montreal organization, with St. Louis providing employment at the NHL level. He took over the bench duties after Patrick stepped down early in the campaign to concentrate on his role as GM.

On the ice, St. Louis had several former Canadiens in their line-up. Included on the roster were Doug Harvey, Red Berenson, Jean-Guy Talbot, Jimmy Roberts, and Dickie Moore.

Standing-out in this group was Moore. Following his retirement in 1963, the Canadiens superstar attempted a comeback with Toronto in 1964. He only got into 38 games with his former rival. Moore signed with St. Louis on December 3, 1967. In 27 regular season matches, he potted 5 goals and 8 points.

His real value came in the Stanley Cup tournament.

The crafty veteran finished tied for second in playoff scoring, with 14 points in 18 games. Point leader Bill Goldsworthy amassed 15 points.

Could this collection of ex-Habs pull-off the ultimate upset?

Their cause was aided by superb goaltending from former Chicago Black Hawk Glenn Hall. From a competitive angle, St. Louis didn't disappoint.

In game one, in St. Louis, the two teams went into extra-time. The matter was settled when Jacques Lemaire scored at 1:31 of overtime. His tally giving Montreal a 3 to 2 victory.

Game two, was another tight contest, with the goal light only coming on once. The hero for Montreal was Serge Savard. The rookie defenceman was used primarily as a spare rearguard and penalty killer by coach Toe Blake. With Dick Duff banished to the box for two-minutes, Savard beat Hall to give his team a one goal advantage. The Blues were unable to beat  Gump Worsley, who manned the crease for Montreal.

Play shifted north for games three and four in Montreal. The pesky newcomers kept pace with Montreal in game three, but it was another cliff-hanger for their supporters.

Red Berenson, who was obtained from New York on November 29, 1967, tied the score in game three, with less than three-minutes remaining on the clock. His marker knotted the score at three apiece. In overtime, the Canadiens once again needed little time to claim victory. At 1:13, Bobby Rousseau hit the twine to put Montreal one game away from a Cup celebration.

On May 11, 1968, game four took place in the Montreal Forum. Similar to games one through three, the second contest in Montreal was a close affair. In a do-or-die scenario, St. Louis held a 2 to 1 advantage after forty-minutes of play. Dick Duff opened the scoring, but St. Louis rebounded on goals by Craig Campbell and Gary Sabourin.

While the middle frame belonged to the Blues, period three was Montreal's chance to shine. And the player firmly planted under the spotlight for Montreal was defenceman J.C. Tremblay.

Early in the third, Tremblay set-up a goal by Henri Richard. At the 11:40 mark, Tremblay got a goal of his own to give the home-side a 3 to 2 lead. Firing the puck from the face-off circle, Tremblay's blast got past Glenn Hall.

There was no further scoring, and Montreal became the first post-expansion Stanley Cup winner to break-out the champagne.

For the Montreal faithful it was both a time to rejoice, and a time to say goodbye to Toe Blake. The legendary bench boss retired, with Claude Ruel taking over the reins in 1968-69.

Commenting on the St. Louis series, Blake told the assembled press core, "St. Louis got great goaltending, and, because of it, were rarely behind in the score for any length of time in the games. That meant they didn't have to open up," said Blake. "They could play their tight, checking style and wait for the breaks. They stayed on top of us with their checking. We didn't get a chance to really break out against them," stated Blake prior to departing into the sunset,

Anyone expecting a lopsided Final, would have been disappointed. Although they didn't record a victory in the Final, St. Louis was a fine representative for the six new teams. With a game plan in place, St. Louis put their best-skate-forward, but it wasn't enough to defeat the more experienced opponent.

For St. Louis, there was cause for celebration, despite falling to Montreal in four-straight. Goalie Glenn Hall was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy (Playoff MVP).

There was no need for the organization, and their fans to sing the blues.

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