Friday, May 18, 2012

More of the Blues

Recently, I penned a piece on the St. Louis Blues being the first 1967 expansion club to reach the Stanley Cup final - Full Story.

Coming across a VHS copy of the Blues first regular season tilt in Toronto, I couldn't resist watching the game. It was played on December 30, 1967.

The night previous to their encounter with Toronto, St. Louis hosted Pittsburgh at home. The Blues edged their opponent 2 to 1, with Gerry Melnyk connecting for the game-winning-goal.

Instead of departing for Toronto immediately after their Friday evening game, St. Louis travelled by air on Saturday morning. They arrived at noon, which left little time to prepare for the Leafs.

Toronto fans, hoping to see a couple of  established NHL stars now donning a Blues uniform, would be disappointed. Glenn Hall was a scratch due to the death of his father on Christmas Day. Former Canadiens winger Dickie Moore was sidelined with cracked ribs.

After spending many, many hours working on research, it is a pleasure to witness footage of events on tape, as opposed to digesting newspaper reports and content contained within a biography or historical account. Having just finished the research for the Blues Cup run in 1968, it only added to the anticipation of viewing the telecast from late 1967.

For the opening face-off, coach Scotty Bowman sent out a line consisting of Red Berenson (centre), Don McKenney (left wing) and Gerry Melynk (right wing). On defence, Barclay Plager and Jimmy Roberts patrolled the blueline. The starting netminder was Seth Martin.

Right from the get-go, it was evident Toronto found their skating-legs before St. Louis. At 1:36 of period one, Mike Walton scored to give Toronto the lead. The distinctive tone of public address announcer Paul Morris telling one and all of the vital statistics. The Leafs would add two more tallies in the opening frame (a second by Walton and one by Jim Pappin) and head into the intermission up by three.

Goalie Seth Martin was forced out of the game at 10:20 of period two with a pulled groin muscle. The Leafs were in command having built-up a 5 to 0 margin.

Martin's replacement, Don Caley, had a stunning resemblance to another goalie - Terry Sawchuk. Bill Hewitt and Brian McFarlane, working on the broadcast for Hockey Night in Canada, both commented on this aspect.

Caley had the Sawchuk "look" down-pat. His mask was similar to the legendary puck-stopper, who began his career with Detroit, and Caley adapted what has come to be known as the Sawchuk Crouch. While most in the goaltending fraternity kept the top portion of their body straight, Sawchuk bent over at the waist. This allowed him to maneuver more quickly on his skates and provided improved vision of screened shots.

Once in his cage, Caley was peppered with warm-up shots from his teammates. This is one tradition which sadly disappeared over time. For those who weren't fortunate enough to see an NHL battle in-person, it was a rare opportunity to witness the process.

Although the Leafs hammered St. Louis 8 to 1, the lopsided score didn't dampen the experience. There was so much to take-in. Don't forget, almost forty-five-years has passed since the NHL doubled in size.

Of course, the first thought is to compare the quality of the '67 game with the present day product. Very quickly, it becomes evident pursuing this avenue is a waste of time. Way too many factors come into play - different era, different equipment, different ice conditions, different coaching methods, different mentality - to accurately determine how much the game has improved or not improved.

One aspect remains in place - hockey is hockey - no matter the generation. The pure enjoyment of soaking-up two rivals fighting for every inch of ice never becomes mundane.

Here are some observations from December 30, 1967.

It was interesting how the flow of action wasn't all north-south. On numerous rushes, the last option involved a routine shoot-in. Instead, stickhandling and passing became key skills.

The most physical player for either squad was Bob Plager. A big, rugged defenceman, Plager dished out several punishing hits. Also, he didn't hesitate to expose himself to injury by dropping low to block shots. Without any head protection, a wicked blast could inflict major damage.

Away from the conflict at ice level, it was a delight to bask in the atmosphere and mood surrounding the event.

To start, the broadcast was recorded in glorious black and white. For many of us, this is the format we recall being on our TV screen as we enjoyed a soft drink and a snack, while watching with family and friends.

Crowd shots captured by the camera provided insight on the importance of attending a game at the Gardens. Both men and women, young and old, dressed in their Sunday-best. Sure they didn't make much noise, but their response to situations, good or bad, didn't seem contrived or over-the-top.

Then, there is the venue - Maple Leaf Gardens.

All eyes and attention glued to the ice surface, with no markings or signage causing a distraction. The place for promotion or marketing wasn't on the ice or boards. The location for this sort of material was situated away from the action.

Behind Johnny Bower, at the south-end of the Gardens, were two signs divided by a clock framed in a Christmas reeve. One sign read "MERRY CHRISTMAS", and the other "HAPPY NEW YEAR".

At the north-end, a sign promoted an upcoming game to be held at 60 Carlton. On January 7, 1968, the Italian Nationals were scheduled to take-on the Canadian Italians.

When the final bell rang to mark the conclusion of play between Toronto and St. Louis, balloons were dispersed from the Gardens rafters.

"We wish everyone, everywhere, a very happy, prosperous New Year, 1968," said Bill Hewitt to a national audience.

For the St. Louis Blues, it would be both a prosperous and happy New Year. Their initial trip to Toronto was one stop on their long journey to the Stanley Cup final.

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