It was an old-fashioned gangland showdown. On one side was the Over-the-Hill Mob from Minnesota: guys named Gump and Big Cesare and Dino and Muzz. On the other side were the Mod Bombers from St. Louis: the smart young turks known as Wolfman, Phil the Intimidator, the Three Bears and the Mighty Micks. They were fighting for control of the Mississippi River waterfront and, secondarily, a shot at the Stanley Cup.
The war between the North Stars and the Blues had raged for six games, each side winning three times at home. Then the Blues invaded Minnesota for the final bash. "The North Stars think we are afraid of them," said Garry (Wolfman) Unger, the young St. Louis center with the long, gold locks. "They think they're going to skate over a bunch of kids. Huh! A few good raps and you won't even see the old men."
One old man the Blues definitely were not going to see was 42-year-old Goal-tender Gump Worsley. Bob Plager, middle bear of the St. Louis brother trio, had crashed into Worsley at the goal mouth in the sixth game of the series down in St. Louis, and at game time three days later Gump was still somewhat punch-drunk. "I'm ready," said Cesare Maniago, who had shared the goaltending job with Worsley all season. "I went to see The Godfather last night, and now I'm in the right mood."
There was one St. Louis soldier, though, who worried Maniago and all the North Stars. If Phil (The Intimidator) Roberto had spelled himself Roberteau, he would probably still be playing for the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens traded him to St. Louis at Christmas-time, and Roberto had become the enforcer up front that the Blues had always lacked. "He likes to rap people," Unger said. "He's got some of their guys thinking more about what he's going to do to them than what they should be doing themselves."
April 24, 1972
Roberto's essential cup assignment against the North Stars was to harness Bill Goldsworthy, a right wing who had scored 31 goals during the season. "I, ah, talked to him," Roberto explained. "Nothing serious, just plain talk." He also carried a big stick, with which he would crack Goldsworthy every time he touched the puck.
Minnesota seethed. "I'm really disgusted with the way Roberto's been playing," complained Wren Blair, the general manager "He's getting away with murder. He's working the law of diminishing returns to his advantage. He's trying his damndest to intimidate our guys by taking cheap shots when he knows someone won't fight back. Sure, he gets penalized, but as the game goes on the referee begins to think, 'Jeez, I've already given him seven minutes, and if I give him any more it might look as though I'm out to get him.' So Roberto plays the rest of the game without any worries." What bothered Blair most of all, though, was that Roberto, who had only 15 goals all year, had turned into the Blues' best scorer, with six goals and five assists in the first six cup games.
Besides attending to Goldsworthy, the Blues realized they had to contain the slick center, Jude Drouin, who is one of hockey's best playmakers. "Drouin doesn't like the rough stuff," Bob Plager said, "so I'm going to work on him early. The first time he comes near our net I'll rap him lightly on the ankles with my stick. He'll get mad, and I'll tell him, 'I do it so the referee never sees me, and the next time I'm going to hit you with a two-hander.' If he doesn't believe me and hangs around the net again, well, he'll get that two-hander."
The Blues knew the enemy, all right, but were still getting acquainted with one another. Most of their older players had been swept out in the purge that followed the dismissal of Coach Scotty Bowman last year. There were three different coaches by Christmas, and 39 different players during the season. The biggest turnover was in goal, where the Blues rejected four candidates before finally settling on a 31-year-old minor league retread, Jacques Caron, in midseason. "I knew if I waited long enough my time would come," said Caron. "I told my wife I'd make it to the NHL when I was 32, but I beat that by a year." Caron became Blues property a year ago when Sid Salomon III, who runs the club, bought the Denver franchise in the Western League. "I needed an excuse to get West to play golf," said Sid the Third, "and, well, someone had to scout Denver against Phoenix and San Diego."
At throbbing Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington the message board flashed a reminder to the fans: "When Stars come out, let's hear it." They heard it in Duluth. The Blues took the lead midway in the first period on a goal by Gary Sabourin, who neatly deflected a slow shot by Bob Plager past Maniago. "Nice," Plager said. "Usually my shots travel so slowly that when the guys try to deflect them, they stop them instead."
Caron was larcenous in goal through a scoreless second period, particularly against Barry Gibbs, Murray (Muzz) Oliver and Jean-Paul Parise. Roberto had Goldsworthy and a few other North Stars looking over their shoulders, and Bob Plager, as he had promised, kept tapping away at Drouin's ankles in front of the Blues' goal. Still, the crowd roared on, and just before the third period began the message board flashed: "Let's show 'em we love 'em." For five minutes the Met was your friendly insane asylum.
The North Stars needed only 15 seconds to tie the score. Charlie Burns, a 36-year-old handyman who used to coach the team, sneaked behind the Blues' defense and slid a backhander between Caron's legs. Again the North Stars pressed furiously, pelting Caron with pucks. Indeed, the Blues got the puck past the red line only once in five minutes. The place was jumping, and when Unger came onto the ice the crowd whistled. "Let them whistle and call me names," Unger said. "If they didn't know who I was, they wouldn't be whistling."
In the last minutes of regulation time, as the Stars dominated play, the board begged "Help." But, with 32 seconds left, Caron stopped the Stars' best move—a shot by Oliver from 15 feet, and the game went into overtime. Caron and Maniago repeatedly matched big saves, and then the Mighty Micks struck for the young turks. Danny O'Shea, a former North Star, took the puck across and passed to his brother Kevin, who fired it in from 35 feet at 10:07. "The puck hit the post," Maniago said later, "and then it bounced off the top of my stick and fell into the net."
For the first time the Met asylum was quiet and the message board was speechless. Given a heart, it might have wished the Blues luck against their semifinal opponents, the Boston Bruins. Now there's a mob.