Inside the NHL
No fans in the National Hockey League have endured quite what St. Louis Blues faithful have in the team’s first half century.
A franchise that entered the season tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the NHL’s longest title drought at 51 years is back in the Western Conference final for the first time since 2016. And the fact it advanced with St. Louis native Pat Maroon scoring on goaltender Ben Bishop, a St. Louis product, in double overtime of Game 7 last week tells you all that’s needed about hockey’s Gateway City growth.
There are many things about the St. Louis experience and legendary players like Bob and Barclay Plager, Red Berenson, Bernie Federko, Garry Unger, Brian Sutter, Brett Hull and Chris Pronger that folks bringing the NHL to Seattle would like to emulate. But there’s also one no NHL team would dare copy: The Blues’ absolute futility at parlaying regular-season success into meaningful playoff runs.
Sure, they made three Stanley Cup Finals their inaugural three seasons starting in 1968 after the NHL created an expansion division where the winner between fledgling franchises automatically advanced to the championship round.
But nobody really counts those, largely due to the newcomer Blues being obliterated 12-0 in Finals games by more-established Montreal and Boston teams those three seasons – prompting a complete playoff-format overhaul.
In the 48 ensuing years when they weren’t spoon-fed a Final berth, the still Cup-less Blues made it this far just three previous times and never beyond. They came closest to another Cup Final in 1986, when, after a Doug Wickenheiser overtime winner in Game 6 capped a miracle comeback from a 5-2 third-period deficit, they dropped Game 7 by a goal to the Calgary Flames.
They more recently lost in five conference-final games to the Colorado Avalanche in 2001 and then in six to the San Jose Sharks in 2016. How fitting that they spent 24 hours last week waiting to see which of those franchises would meet them in a rematch – with the Sharks securing that honor with a Game 7 victory over the Avalanche.
But it’s all the other seasons when the Blues flat-out tanked in the playoffs that sealed their reputation for futility.
Since their last appearance in the Final in 1970 – with Bobby Orr scoring a famed Cup-clinching overtime winner for Boston as ex-Seattle Totems great Noel Picard watched in dismay – the Blues have won their division seven times, only to not advance past the second playoff round. In four of those years, the most recent coming in 2015, they failed to survive even the first round.
Still, at least they’ve had their off-ice act together. The 1970s had seen some shaky ownership that nearly resulted in the Blues moving to Saskatoon in 1983 before the NHL blocked a proposed sale and forced a local deal to keep the team in place.
On ice, there were mostly sub-.500 seasons until a dream 1980-81 campaign that occurred with onetime Seattle Americans goaltender Emile “The Cat’’ Francis serving as the Blues’ general manager. Francis had drafted a goalie named Mike Liut, who that season almost single-handedly carried the Blues to a franchise-record 107 points that stood for 20 years.
Liut that season barely lost the league MVP vote (42.68% to 41.80%) to Wayne Gretzky and helped vault the franchise into a stretch where it would miss the playoffs just six times in 40 years. Alas, in typical Blues fashion, the 1981 playoffs saw Liut and company bounced by the New York Rangers in six games in the quarterfinals.
In terms of regular seasons, though, the Blues became NHL royalty and didn’t miss the playoffs again until 2005 – making 25 consecutive appearances. In the meantime, their popularity grew to where hockey is now finally flourishing throughout greater St. Louis and the state of Missouri.
A 277,000 square-foot practice facility for the Blues is being built for $78 million in Maryland Heights, Mo. The St. Louis Community Ice Center will have four NHL ice surfaces – including one outdoors — one more than the three sheets planned for the Seattle team’s practice facility at Northgate Mall.
Officials in St. Louis have predicted the venue will generate more than a million visitors annually.
The Missouri firm designing the St. Louis complex, Generator Studio, is the same one working here on the Northgate Mall facility. NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke and his older brother, Tim, head of the Oak View Group company revamping KeyArena, grew up near St. Louis and attended Blues games at the Checkerdome.
Back then, in the early-to-mid 1970s, the Leiwekes saw an energetic, scrappy group of Blues that, unfortunately, tended to win more fights than it did games. Missouri remained among the nation’s slowest-growing states for hockey despite the NHL’s presence in St. Louis and briefly in Kansas City as well.
Without that growth, the Blues featuring a local product like Maroon was unthinkable given there were no Missouri players in the NHL until Pat LaFontaine debuted with the New York Islanders in 1984.
But Liut and company launching the Blues on their streak of regular-season success eventually paid off. A number of former Blues greats from the 1980s-2000s, like Federko, Al MacInnis and Keith Tkachuk, also remained in the city upon retirement and helped grow its youth-hockey culture.
USA Hockey says there were 3,382 registered players in the state by 1990-91 and 7,604 as of last year.
There have been 14 additional Missouri natives to reach the NHL – eight still active — since LaFontaine. Five St. Louis products were taken in the 2016 entry draft alone, including Tkachuk’s son, Matthew, now a rising star with the Flames.
All that’s missing now for St. Louis hockey fans is a Stanley Cup championship. This year’s playoff foray has been the reverse of the usual Blues formula.
They stumbled through a terrible first half of the regular season and were written off. But the Blues embarked on an 11-game win streak in late January behind rookie goalie Jordan Binnington and finished a league-best 24-7-3 down the stretch.
And so far, they’ve produced in very un-Blues-like fashion these playoffs and on paper seem a strong bet to meet Boston in a rematch of their last Final appearance 49 years ago.
Just don’t expect too many Blues fans to take that bet. After all, their team already lost Game 1 of the conference final in San Jose on Saturday night.
And when you’re a Blues fan from the “Show-Me’’ state, you know full well the playoffs can still go sideways from here.