Though he never lived to discover the difference between a hockey puck and a lacrosse stick, Pierre Lacl√®de Li-guest—the French fur trader who founded St. Louis 205 years ago—would be a Blues fan today. Everybody living within a long slap shot of the Arena at 5700 Oakland Avenue is a Blues fan today, from that Tulsa couple who just bought season tickets to that nice man, Stan, who owns the restaurant up the street. The Blues, who frolicked off with the National Hockey League's West Division championship, are St. Louis today, as much so as the Post-Dispatch, W. C. Handy's namesake song, El Birdos and beer. Pierre Lacl√®de Liguest would be a Blues fan all right; he'd have a pair of seats for sure, somewhere in the Parquets.
As the Stanley Cup playoffs got under way this week, tickets were as hard to find in St. Louis as Detroit Tiger fans. But that is only typical of the whole season. The Blues averaged 14,155 for 38 home games, 26 of which were sellouts. Already about 12,000 of the Arena's 14,500 seats belong to season ticket holders, and there just aren't enough of those penthouse boxes to go around. (Anheuser-Busch, Dempsey-Tegeler, Falstaff and Southwestern Bell Telephone, to name just a few boxholders, are in at $2,500 a year.) The Arena is a fashion showcase for St. Louis women in sable and mink, Givenchy and Dior, their escorts in very fine threads. "We come to see the fights," says Mrs. A. J. Gala, a lady of taste. "Those boys are so strong, well, you just know they can take care of themselves."
Blues fans would jump off the Gateway Arch for their team and vice versa; there isn't another crowd in the NHL quite like this one. Pumped up by a silver-jacketed organist named Norm Kramer (whose technique has been scouted by Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), the crowd is in a froth even before the Blues take the ice. When the players appear at last, Kramer swings into the St. Louis Blues, and the crowd comes to its feet. If the pace of the game is slow, Kramer often pounds his left hand on the bass keys and his feet on the pedals in a plea for action. In this atmosphere the Blues have become a phenomenal third-period team, outscoring the opposition 72 goals to 40. Thirteen times this year they have come back either to tie or win in the final period, three times in the last five minutes. At home the Blues lost only eight of their 38 games.
"That crowd is worth a goal a game to us," says Scotty Bowman, the team's coach and general manager. "One night in Chicago we lost 3-1 but played a good third period. I have to believe that if we're home, in front of our fans, somehow we tie 2-2."
The Blues' scene is a love feast. Love flows down from the owners, Sidney Salomon Jr. and his son Sid III, and back up to them. Three years ago the Arena was aromatic of livestock shows. Today, after a $2.5 million refurbishing by the Salomons, it is second in splendor only to the Los Angeles Forum. There is an Arena Club, done in Old English, with burnished wood furnishings, low lights and thick red carpeting, while out in the seats there is a hockey "feel" to the building; the sight lines are excellent. The Blues' ice-making machine is one of the few that doesn't leave tracks—it is driven over a red carpet before it reaches the ice.
The Salomons' tender loving care notoriously extends to the Blues' players. Any man who does something to enhance the team's name—scores three goals in a game, makes the All-Star team, plays a major role in a key victory—gets a gold wristwatch. Not any gold wristwatch, mind you, but a $750 Patek Philippe, thin as a half dollar. Last Nov. 7, Gordon (Red) Berenson (see cover) went a little wild, scoring six goals in a game with the Philadelphia Flyers. For this extraordinary feat the Salomons presented Berenson with a 1969 Chevrolet station wagon with a canoe on top and a Browning 20-gauge shotgun inside. "In New York or Montreal," said Red, who has played for both cities, "all you'd get would be a handshake."
Last spring there was a highly publicized trip to Florida—players and wives, 10 days, all expenses paid. The Blues loved it, of course, but there was some out-of-town grouching. "I think the Salomons are on very thin ice with that kind of stuff," said George (Punch) Imlach, coach and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "I'm sure Scotty Bowman, as coach, thinks it's great because it makes his job easier when he has a happy, motivated team. But from a management point of view it's bad. It puts every other club in the league in an impossible competitive position—a position we shouldn't have to be in. After all, I'm not allowed to call my players together and say, 'You win tonight and I'll give you $5,000 to split among yourselves.' That just isn't permitted, and I'm afraid the Salomons are getting very close to just the type of thing the league wants to avoid."
"I can see it creating problems for the rest of us, all right," says Red Kelly, coach of the Los Angeles Kings. "Maybe a fellow will score six goals and want to know where his new car is. You tell him he doesn't get a new car, and he says, 'Trade me to St. Louis.' "
All this makes the Salomons simmer. "I think Mr. Imlach owes us an apology," says Sid Jr. "We're not trying to tell or show anyone else how to run their clubs. We paid $2 million for this franchise and we're entitled to run it the way we please—provided we stay within the league rules, as we have done. Hockey is business, and we're only following the same formula we've used for years in the insurance business—treating people the way we like to be treated. There are a lot of insurance agents working for us who could make 15% or 20% more with somebody else, but they stay with us. They're happy with us."
"Look," says Sid III. "Dad and I own a hotel in Florida. It's half empty in May. Dad and I are sports fans. We like athletes and we like to be around them. We enjoy golfing and fishing together, just taking it easy. We're going to Florida again this spring. We told the players back in November that we'd be going even if we finished last."
It is ironic that the Salomons, who have turned out to be the NHL's most generous owners, got their franchise only through the indirect aid of Chicago Owner Bill Wirtz, who is not notably spendthrift. Wirtz and his father, Arthur, along with the late Jim Norris, had owned and lost money on the St. Louis Arena since the 1940s. When the NHL decided to expand to 12 teams in 1966, the Wirtzes saw an opportunity to unload the Arena once and for all. The owners of the NHL's six established teams are unusually close; before long all were pushing for a franchise in St. Louis, the owner of which would have to purchase the Arena. The price—$4 million—and the dilapidated state of the building frightened off every prospective owner except the Salomons.
Sidney Salomon Jr. is 56, soft-spoken and suntanned the year around. While amassing a fortune in insurance he became a Democratic Party bigwig, helping put Harry Truman on FDR's 1944 ticket. When the Blues are home he is down in the team's carpeted dressing room, talking hockey like a farmer from Flin Flon. Sid Salomon Jr. is a sports fan; one of the few bad investments he ever made was in the old St. Louis Browns baseball team.
Sid III is 30 and equally tanned but not so soft-spoken. He even dresses with exuberance, favoring cashmere sport jackets, silk ties and shiny buckle loafers with square placekicker toes. Sid III attended the University of Miami, then joined his father's firm and has never failed to sell $1 million worth of insurance in a year. Like his father, Sid III is a sports fan, and it was at his urging that the Salomons eventually bought the Blues.
"My son had been after me for six years to buy into hockey," Sid Jr. recalls. "I was interested but I didn't want the responsibilities of a majority owner—I still remembered the 280 people who came out to watch our Browns play one day. As for hockey, I said all along I'd be happy to come in as a minor investor, say 10%. Then, one Saturday morning when we were in Florida, one of our friends called and said if nobody came forward pretty soon St. Louis wasn't going to have a hockey team at all. I looked at my son, he looked at me and we decided to try for it.
"I wasn't afraid of the Arena. I've lived in St. Louis all my life and I was thoroughly familiar with the place. All it needed was a little fixing up. We ran a quick appraisal on it and found it to be a good buy at $4 million, if only for the land on which it stood."
On April 5, the Salomons, along with their lawyer and public-relations man, were notified in the Plaza Hotel in New York that the St. Louis franchise was theirs. "The committee had asked us to say a few words to the press, who were waiting outside," says Sid Jr. "It was a Monday night and, being an ex-sports-writer, I knew news would be pretty scarce for the next day. I said, 'Gentlemen, we only have two or three minutes, but it would be to our advantage if we could name this team right now. Nobody else has come up with a name, and those fellows out there need something to write about.'
"We started kicking names around fast—mostly space names, like Mercurys and Apollos, things like that, since McDonnell Aircraft is the biggest employer in the state. Nothing clicked. It was time to go outside. Then it hit me. I said, 'What about the Blues—the St. Louis Blues?' It had a great identity with the city and it gave us an instant theme song. It was a natural. We all liked it, but then our lawyer, Jim Cullen, said, 'Sid, you could be asking for a lawsuit. I think we should clear it with the Handy estate first.'
" 'Tom,' I said, 'if that's the way your mind reacts, then we've got to use the Blues. The publicity surrounding a lawsuit like that would be priceless.' So we went out and told everybody that the last city to get a team was the first to have a name for it, and the next day papers all over the country had headlines like, THE BLUES ARE REBORN, THE REBIRTH OF THE BLUES, ST. LOUIS IS BLUE AGAIN."
"They needed a play-by-play announcer for this year," says Gus Kyle, the club's sales director and radio-TV color man, "so Sid III took off last spring, and do you know who he came back with? Dan Kelly, who did the Canadian Broadcasting Company's telecasts of the Montreal Canadiens. Dan may be the best play-by-play announcer in hockey."
"When we're on the road, I'm not required to put the team up in hotels where we get a rate," says Scotty Bowman. "The Salomons believe the players should stay where you get a feel of the city you're in. In Los Angeles we stay at the Ambassador and in Boston, the Sheraton-Boston. And whenever we're on the Coast, Mr. Salomon wants me to take the players out to dinner at some real nice restaurant. The players still get their meal money—the dinner's on Mr. Salomon."
The highly motivated Blues have made Scotty Bowman a celebrity around St. Louis. And, since he is dark-haired, good-looking and still a bachelor at 35, female Blues fans also have their motivations. One night when Bowman was a guest on a radio talk show a woman called in and said, "Scotty, I just wanted to say how much we all love you and the Blues. We hope you're happy here and that you'll stay forever. So a few of us girls are going to get together and find you a nice St. Louis girl to marry. That way you'll be completely happy."
The Blues depend heavily on three players—Goalies Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante and Center Berenson, whom fans have nicknamed The Red Baron. Hall, 37, was sensational last season, keeping the Blues close to the Canadiens in a stirring battle for the Stanley Cup, and over the summer Bowman got Plante from the New York Rangers. Plante, 44, was one of the great goalies during the 1950s. He retired in 1965 because his wife was ill, but last June he let it be known that he wanted to make a comeback. Bowman promptly drafted him—to guffaws from coaches who considered Plante too old. Now it's Bowman who is laughing.
Dividing time equally this year, Hall and Plante became one of the finest goal-tending teams in NHL history. They each had a flock of shutouts and won the league's Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the team giving up the fewest goals. Bowman refuses, by the way, to play Plante against his old team, Montreal, and Hall, a former Black Hawk, against Chicago. "Why give those clubs any reason to get fired up when they play us?" he says.
Yet perhaps Bowman's most significant job has been keeping both goalies—poles apart in style and temperament—operating compatibly. On a club with a less forceful coach their differences might have resulted in chaos. Hall is quiet and reserved, merely doing the job he is paid to do; Plante does his job, too—but he is a showman, even a ham at times, and he loves the fans' adulation. Bowman, by toning down Plante and building up Hall, has successfully exploited the competition between the two while keeping both men happy.
Hall and Plante keep 'em out; Berenson pops 'em in. He is fair-skinned, a pair of high cheekbones giving his face a gaunt, drawn, almost undernourished look. He wears his red hair in a long brush cut and is much like Hall in manner. Berenson graduated from the University of Michigan with a business degree in 1961, which got him his first nickname: The Intellectual. In Montreal and New York there were always centers ahead of him—Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Jean Ratelle and Phil Goyette. Skating mostly as a penalty killer, Berenson scored only 30 goals in his first six seasons in the NHL. Bowman, however, had never forgotten the 23 goals Berenson once scored in 30 games for the Hull-Ottawa team. In November 1967 he swapped Ron Stewart to the Rangers for Berenson, even-up.
With Berenson leading the way, the Blues leaped from last place to third and into the playoffs for that exciting struggle with Montreal. This year, combining long, flowing strides with a hard, deceptive shot, Berenson led his division in scoring. Indeed, he has become the West's first superstar.
Berenson, Plante and Hall are the crowd pleasers on a team otherwise rather dull to watch—for two periods, anyway. Bowman has the Blues playing a highly disciplined, well-organized game, the wings going up and down the boards as if on a track, the defensemen careful not to be caught up ice. Most of the forwards are just good, cherub-faced youngsters who can skate and check. The defense, led by Doug Harvey (hurting), 44, Al Arbour, 36, and Jean Guy Talbot, 36, sets the tempo of the game—and racehorse hockey it isn't.
The Blues feel Hall or Plante can stop the initial shot of an attack—regardless of who shoots—so they concentrate on sweeping away the rebound. "We feel if we can go into the third period no worse than a goal behind, we have a pretty good chance to win," says Bowman. "So we play it cozy through the first two periods and—if necessary—take our chances in the third."
Without the Salomons, of course, there would be no Glenn or Jacques in town, no Scotty, no Red Baron. "It is like a dream," says Jacques Plante. "I still cannot believe this is really happening to me. These men are so much like one of us. With other teams there is a wall between the owners and the players. That is not true here. These men have money and they aren't afraid to spend some of it on us. They are interested in us not just as hockey players, but as human beings. They want to know what we feel, what we think, what our problems are. So we put out extra for them. In sports you always try to give 100 percent, but sometimes it is very hard. Maybe you are hurt or sick or just tired. You think maybe you cannot make it tonight. But then you think about these wonderful men and you say, 'I will try it tonight and see how I feel.' "