At the moment, the disaster that is occurring with the St. Louis Blues is the most bothersome of many heartbreaking events I’ve had with the team since I was a kid.
I thoroughly expected them to win the Stanley Cup in 1980-81. They had an incredible “kid line” of Brian Sutter, Bernie Federko and 54-goal scorer Wayne Babych. Their goalie, Mike Liut, was second in that year’s MVP voting, behind Wayne Gretzky. They had five 30-goal scorers and 10 20-goal scorers. They had a terrific coach in Red Berenson.
But all year long, we waited for GM Emile Francis to make a move for an impact defenseman, and he never arrived that year. Guys like Rick LaPointe, Jack Brownschidle, Joe Micheletti and Bill Stewart were serviceable, but far from stellar.
Late in the season, Micheletti fell down in the neutral zone and allowed the Islanders’ Bob Bourne to skate in alone and score the tie-breaking goal. The Islanders finished first in the standings, the Blues were second. The Blues won a thrilling series over Pittsburgh, but couldn’t hold off the Rangers in the second round and broke hearts all over St. Louis.
Francis got his defenseman that offseason, trading important backup goalie Ed Staniowski, tough defenseman Bryan Maxwell and young winger Paul MacLean (who, in nine subsequent seasons with Winnipeg and Detroit, had three seasons of 40 or more goals and five more 30-goal seasons) for Scott Campbell. Campbell played three games for the Blues in ’81-’82 and retired after that season because of recurring headaches.
We all have our moments. After winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 1999-2000, Marc Bergevin threw the puck into his own net as the Blues lost to San Jose in the first round.
In 1990-91, after the Blues had traded away an entire second line of Sergio Momesso, Cliff Ronning and Geoff Courtnall for Garth Butcher and Dan Quinn, they went into the playoffs confident. But with the lack of forward depth because of the trade, the North Stars knew if they neutralized Brett Hull and Adam Oates that they’d win. Sure enough, Stewart Gavin and Gaetan Duchesne crosschecked Hull into submission, and the Stars beat the Blues and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals.
1996 was ridiculous. After acquiring Gretzky in February, the Blues were primed to win the Cup. Grant Fuhr played in a remarkable 79 regular-season games and played incredibly. But in game two of the playoffs in Toronto, Fuhr was run by Nick Kypreos of the Maple Leafs and injured for the rest of the year with a torn-up knee. Backup Jon Casey was wonderful in relief, but allowed Steve Yzerman’s iconic, Game 7 overtime winner, and it was the Red Wings, not the Blues, who went to the Finals.
Want more depression? This is the franchise that didn’t send a lawyer to an arbitration hearing regarding Scott Stevens, and had him sent to New Jersey as compensation for Brendan Shanahan. It’s the franchise that missed the 1983 draft because Ralston Purina, the team’s owner, left it on the NHL’s doorstep when the league rejected the sale of the team to a new owner who would move to Hamilton, Ontario.
It’s the franchise that had young star defenseman Bob Gassoff die from a motorcycle accident during a team outing. Emerging center Doug Wickenheiser suffered a knee injury during a team snipe hunt in 1985, then endured a battle with cancer before his death in 1999.
Cancer also tragically took the heart and soul of the franchise, Barclay Plager, in 1988 and broadcaster Dan Kelly in 1989. Former star Pavol Demitra perished in a plane crash a couple of years ago.
There’s been a lack of stability at the top, with ownership transferring from the Solomon family, to Ralston Purina, to the laughably frugal Harry Ornest, to the charismatic and aggressive Mike Shanahan group, and then to the Kiel Center Partners, who sold to Bill Laurie, who stripped the franchise before selling to the underfunded Dave Checketts, who reluctantly sold to the current Tom Stillman group.
It’s a franchise that has had head coach Scotty Bowman leave after leading them to three straight Stanley Cup Finals, and go on to win nine Cups with Montreal, Pittsburgh and Detroit. Al Arbour succeeded Bowman, was fired by the Blues and went on to coach the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cups. Jacques Demers and Joel Quenneville also went on to win Cups after leaving St. Louis, along with a litany of players who couldn’t win here.
My expectations for 2013-2014 were extraordinarily high until the last dozen games. Now, everything has fallen apart. It looks like another of those years for the Blues. A franchise that hasn’t been to the Finals since Scotty Bowman left. A franchise that is clearly cursed by Bowman, and won’t win until that curse is somehow lifted.