After an absence of 49 years, the St. Louis Blues will once again make a return visit to the Stanley Cup final. The Blues advanced with a 5-1 victory over San Jose in game six last Tuesday.
One of six expansion teams to enter the NHL in 1967, the St. Louis Blues ownership consortium was headed by Sid Salomon, Jr., and his son, Sid Salomon III. The Salomon family was granted the franchise on April 6, 1966.
The hockey department was led by general manager Lynn Patrick and Scotty Bowman. At first, Bowman served as assistant GM and assistant coach under Patrick. A veteran of the hockey wars, Lynn Patrick was a former NHL player, coach and general manager. He had hockey in his blood, following in the footsteps of his iconic father, Lester Patrick. The plan was for both men to work the bench with Patrick directing the forwards and Bowman looking after the defencemen. In training camp, the arrangement was shelved, with only Lynn Patrick remaining behind the bench. Bowman's new spot was in the press box to observe the play from up high and report back to Patrick what he witnessed.
After 16 regular season games, Patrick decided his time was better spent tending to his duties as the general manager. In his place, Bowman descended from the press box to become the head coach. On November 22, 1967, Bowman coached his first NHL game. The Blues lost that night to the Montreal Canadiens 3-1.
The hockey club assembled by Patrick and Bowman was typical of an expansion team. The roster included castoffs with NHL experience and hungry minor pro players hoping to land a job in hockey's top league.
Between the pipes, the Blues had Glenn Hall and Seth Martin. Hall was left exposed in the expansion draft by Chicago after sharing the Vezina Trophy (fewest goals against) with Denis Dejordy. Hall led all goalies with a 2.38 average in the 1966-67 season. Although he was about to celebrate his 36th birthday, there was no reason to believe Hall was washed-up. The Blues gambled that Hall would be a key ingredient to their success and the move ultimately paid off.
A trade on November 29, 1967, brought Red Berenson and Barclay Plager from the New York Rangers. Berenson, a Stanley Cup winner with Montreal in 1965, led the Blues in point production with 51. Plager became the Blues' tough guy and led the NHL in penalty-minutes with 153.
Gerry Melnyk, who spent time with Detroit and Chicago, finished second behind Berenson with 50 points. He doubled his previous best of 25 points with the Detroit Red Wings in 1960-61.
Also up front, NHL newcomers Frank St. Marseille, Tim Ecclestone and Gary Sabourin made the most of their opportunity to be in the line-up. Others with NHL action in their portfolio, like Don McKenney, Ron Schock, Larry Keenan, Bill McCreary and Terry Crisp, all made a contribution.
Scotty Bowman's philosophy of defence wins championships was evident in the construction of the Blues' defensive core. Al Arbour made his debut in 1953-54 with the Detroit Red Wings and went on to win four Cups (Detroit, Chicago, Toronto). Jimmy Roberts was claimed in the expansion draft from Montreal, where he won the Cup in 1965 and 1966. The brother-act of Bob and Barclay Plager kept the opposition on their toes. Also, Noel Picard and Fred Hucul were in the mix.
A native of Verdun, Quebec, Bowman got his start in the Montreal Canadiens organization. It didn't come as a surprise that Bowman and Patrick were on the hunt for personnel with a past or present connection to Montreal. In June of 1967, the Blues signed legendary Habs defenceman Doug Harvey to a contract and sent him to Kansas City to be a playing-coach with their farm team. When the playoffs rolled around, Harvey's new assignment was to patrol the Blues' blueline. Another Canadiens legend, Dickie Moore, was signed as a free agent on December 3, 1967. To further solidify their defence, St. Louis claimed Jean-Guy Talbot, who played with Montreal from 1954-55 to 1966-67, on waivers from Detroit on January 13, 1968.
Their best days may have been behind them, but Harvey, Moore and Talbot brought experience to the room, and Bowman knew this would be beneficial, especially at playoff time.
Besides using Roberts and Talbot on the blueline, Bowman didn't hesitate to place them on the wings, when a spark was necessary.
The St. Louis Blues hit the ice at home on October 11, 1967, against the Minnesota North Stars. The contest ended in 2-2 draw. Larry Keenan, who played two games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1961-62, scored the first goal in team history. They sputtered out of the gate and by the time Bowman took control, the Blues were cellar-dwellers in the West Division. After losing to Montreal in his debut, Bowman's squad fell two more times before turning their fortunes around. The Blues went 23-18-14 to close out the schedule. This was good for third-place and a finish that left them only three points behind front-running Philadelphia.
They were the first team from the 1967 expansion to reach the Stanley Cup final in 1968. And their journey to play for the Cup didn't come easy. In both the quarter-finals (Philadelphia) and semi-finals (Minnesota), it took the Blues seven games to advance.
A huge underdog going into the final, St. Louis had the difficult task of trying to upset the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs coasted to the final, as they swept Boston and lost only one game to Chicago in the semi-finals.
Looking down his bench, Scotty Bowman knew the former Habs in his line-up - Picard, Harvey, Berenson, Roberts, Talbot, Moore - were aware of what it would take to slay Goliath.
The 1968 Stanley Cup final opened on May 5, in St. Louis. For those expecting Montreal to cruise, game one showed St. Louis wasn't about to concede an inch. It took double-overtime for the Canadiens to emerge with a 3-2 victory.
Over the next three contests, the pattern of one-goal decisions continued, with Montreal being on the winning-side. They won game two by a score of 1-0, and took game three, on home ice, 4-3 in overtime.
On May 11, Montreal was in a position to win the Cup at the Forum.
In the first period, Dick Duff's third goal of the playoffs opened the scoring and gave Montreal a 1-0 lead. The Blues, knowing their Stanley Cup dreams were on the line, played with a sense of urgency in the middle the frame. A CP story the next day described how they bounced back with two goals:
The Blues took over in the second period when Cameron (Craig) beat Lorne (Gump) Worsley in the Montreal nets at 6:53. Cameron poked the puck behind Worsley from the corner of the crease after teammates Al Arbour and Tim Ecclestone had dug the puck out from the corner in successive attempts.
A power play goal by Gary Sabourin at the 7:50 mark, then gave St. Louis a 2-1 advantage:
Gary Veneruzzo moved the puck from behind the Montreal goal and took it out to the face-off circle before slipping a perfect pass across to the waiting Sabourin.
Not to be denied, the Canadiens didn't let their fans down. Goals by Henri Richard and J. C. Tremblay in the final twenty-minutes of regulation time, sparked Montreal to a 3-2 victory and the chance to hoist the Cup. After the game, Toe Blake announced his retirement as the Canadiens coach.
While Montreal captured the big prize, one member of the St. Louis Blues was recognized for his outstanding play in the playoffs. That player was goalie Glenn Hall. He was named the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Playoff MVP. The award was named after the legendary owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs. His son, Stafford Smythe, commented on Hall's accomplishment. "Hall is well deserving of the trophy. He had three terrific series. If (the) Canadiens had been able to break through his goaltending they would have bombed St. Louis."
Glenn Hall's role in helping the Blues stay competitive in the post-season, is documented in Tom Adrahtas book - Glenn Hall: The Man They Call Mr. Goalie.
Coach Scotty Bowman said of his veteran goalie: "He's the reason we went as far as we did ... After all, a guy really accomplishes something when he goes into a series with the Canadiens as Glenn Hall did ... and comes out of it with the Conn Smythe Trophy. Being the outstanding player in a series where you have so many great players is really something."
Teammate Dickie Moore said: "Without Glenn Hall, a tremendous goalie and person, we would never have been in the finals."
And what did Hall, who broke into the NHL with Detroit and won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 1961, think of his contributions and the accolades that came with it?
"I consider this more a team trophy (the Conn Smythe) than an individual honor. I think they must have considered the Blues' overall effort when they selected me ... It was one of the most satisfying honors I've ever received. I'd like to think I've never worked harder than I did this season. And I'd like to think that no hockey team ever worked harder than the Blues."
Asked to explain his success in the playoffs, Hall stated, "I was more relaxed this year. In Chicago, they said, 'Win.' Here they said, 'Play well.' When you're a farmer, if you miss a strip of field, nobody gets too excited. But in hockey if the puck gets past you, people get upset."
St. Louis returned to the Stanley Cup final in 1969 and 1970. Like their experience in 1968, the Blues were swept by Montreal in '69, and swept by the Boston Bruins in 1970. Game 4 on May 10, 1970, at Boston Garden, will always be remembered for Bobby Orr's overtime Cup-winning goal, and the iconic photograph that captured the moment.
Tonight, St. Louis will once again battle Boston in the 2019 final, and hope they can chase away the Stanley Cup blues.