Bernie: Hail To The Chief, Craig Berube, For Being The Best Leader in STL Sports Since Tony La Russa

Not that there was any real chance of coach Craig Berube leaving the Blues, but this is a happy day for the franchise and those who love The Note.

The Stanley Cup champs made it official by signing Berube to a three-year contract to stay on as their coach and leader.

After Berube’s sensational worst-to-first turnaround of the troubled Blues, it was impossible to comprehend this team being coached by someone else.

Berube — one of the toughest, honest and straightforward individuals to ever play in the NHL — put his personality into the Blues. The beloved and respected “Chief” gave the Blues a winning plan, cultivated a hard-shell style of play and attitude, instilled his players with renewed purpose, and transformed a dysfunctional outfit into a unified, unbreakable force that never surrendered when confronted by potentially devastating moments of adversity.

This was one of the greatest coaching jobs we’ve seen in any year, in any league, and in any sport. The Blues had the fewest points in the league on Jan. 2, reinvented themselves to personify Berube’s competitive character, and went 30-10-5 during the run-up to a stunningly beautiful and inspirational  postseason … a historically unique postseason.

In their 52nd year overall, and in their 51st season of on-ice competition,  the Blues won their first Stanley Cup. And Berube coached them to it by getting his players to buy in, disconnect their ego, prioritize the team over individual pursuits,  physically pound opponents into exhaustion, and skate through every gauntlet that stood in the way of this intense mission to raise the Stanley Cup.

“You just hold people accountable whether it’s through ice time, where they fit in the lineup on a nightly basis,” Berube said during Wednesday’s news conference to announce his contract agreement. “But it’s really conversation with the players more than anything. And just putting in a team-first mindset, and drilling it into the team.”

This is remarkable, really. Think of the legendary, venerated coaches that have led the Blues  franchise. Four of the top five winningest regular-season coaches in NHL history coached the Blues.

Of course I’m referring to Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville, Al Arbour and Ken Hitchock. In their coaching careers, the famous four combined for 3,765 regular-season wins, 550 postseason victories, and 17 Stanley Cup championships.

Two other Blues’ coaches, Mike Keenan and Jacques Demers, each won a Stanley Cup elsewhere. But none of the six coaches mentioned here — with their combined total of 19 Stanley Cups won — could lead this tormented, hard-luck franchise to the NHL’s ultimate achievement.

Berube …

He did it.

Berube did it after GM Doug Armstrong fired coach Mike Yeo and promoted Berube from the assistant-coach role just before Thanksgiving.

Berube did it despite going 3-5-1 in his first nine games behind the bench.

He did it with the team’s goaltending in a state of flux. He did it by having the coaching courage to turn the No. 1 goaltender job over to an untested and largely overlooked 25-year-old rookie named Jordan Binnington.

Berube did it after making hardcore decisions with his personnel, the most notable example being the demotion of longtime Blues’ forward Alex Steen, an alternate team captain, to the fourth line.

He did it by benching one of the most senior veterans, forward David Perron, for taking foolish penalties.

Berube did it despite his team being in a precarious position after a 3-1 home loss to Dallas on Jan. 8. At that stage of the season the Blues were exactly halfway through the schedule, with 41 games played. They had a 17-20-4 record and the second-worst points total (38) in the Western Conference. Only LA Kings, with 37 points, were more pitiful than the Blues at that time.

Berube and his Blues did it despite having to play 25 of their final 41 regular-season games on the road. It didn’t matter. The Note went 14-6-5 in the 25 road games and 28-8-5 over the final 41 contests. The Blues posted the the most points by an NHL team (61) after Jan. 8.

Berube and his Blues did it despite being victimized by the hand-pass debacle in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final.

They did it as the only Stanley Cup champ in league history to reach the mountaintop with a losing postseason record (6-7) at home. They did it by winning 10 of 13 postseason road games including three at Boston in the SC Final. The Blues of Berube did it by fighting for an 8-2 record in Games 5, 6 and 7 over four postseason rounds.

This may have been the sequel to the “Miracle on Ice.”

Berube’s team became Berube.

Berube’s team became a real team …

Team Berube.

“He gave us a lot of confidence,” Blues center Oskar Sundqvist told reporters after the Blues’ won Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in Boston. “He’s a demanding coach, but he’s fair. Everyone’s playing so hard for him, everyone really wanted to win for him. He did a hell of a job and we made it.”

The Chief is the hockey equivalent of Tony La Russa when TLR managed the Cardinals: a tough, tenacious, ferocious, relentless and intimidating presence that could fill any room with a glare or scowl.

A leader who is feared … but respected and loved.

A boss willing to confront underachieving players — but by using  superb communication skills instead of sledgehammer bullying.

A leader that understands that he must win the respect of his players by working hard, preparing hard, and showing respect in turn.

It isn’t easy to impress Larry Robinson, one of the all-time greatest NHL defensemen and winner of astonishing 10 Stanley Cups as a player (six times), coach (three) and senior consultant (one.)

Robinson, who assisted Doug Armstrong this past season, watched Berube from close range after the Blues made the coaching change. Robinson helped Berube make the transition from assistant to coach by servng as an assistant coach for Chief’s first 15 games.

“He made everybody accountable, he held everybody accountable,” Robinson told sports columnist Stu Cowan of the Montreal Gazette. “It didn’t matter who you were or what you did. If you screwed up you heard about it. He’s a really good communicator. If he’s got something to say he doesn’t waste any time saying it. He just grabs the guys right away and talks to them about it.”

Yep. Berube is hockey’s Don Tony. Berube and TLR have similar traits. They know how to masterfully sharpen their team’s edge. They are effective motivators. They’re unafraid to make lineup changes. They know how to get their teams ready to invade any town, and walk into an opponent’s den, and take over the place.

And both are champions that led iron-willed St. Louis teams to epic wins under the most challenging of circumstances. TLR’s final season of managing the Cardinals was 2011. We’ve waited a long tie for another La Russa to take charge, and make history. He’s here. His name is Craig Berube, coach of the Blues.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie