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The Blues Exorcise The Decades

Photo: Jeff Roberson (AP)

The thing you have to understand is how big a deal this is. In the coming days, before and after the Stanley Cup Final begins on Monday in Boston, you are going to hear ad nauseam that this is the St. Louis Blues’ first finals appearance since 1970. That is true, and 49 years is a long, long time, but that piece of trivia doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.

Since then, the Blues have generally been pretty good. Rarely great, and rarely bad. I think either of those would, in hindsight, have been preferable to this [gestures vaguely at a half-century of competence as a ceiling]. Greatness can still produce iconic moments even without winning a Cup, and it’s more fun to watch along the way, and it sets up the sort of crushing disappointments that let a fan feel spiritually alive. True badness, the sustained and comical kind, can reach a sort of tragic sublimity, and forge generational links through the sheer futility of the whole thing. Either one is memorable. The Blues have not been, not in a way that resonates beyond the range of the KMOX transmitter tower. Not bad enough to be lovable losers, not good enough to truly break their fans’ hearts, the Blues have always been just sort of there. That is, I submit, the worst of all worlds.

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St. Louis made three straight Cup Finals in their first three years of existence. This was a blessing and a curse. They were clearly the cream of the 1967 expansion crop, and beneficiaries of a playoff bracket that put the expansion teams on one side and the Original Six on the other. The Blues were no Golden Knights; some expansion team had to make the final. But those finals were brutal wake-up calls. In ‘68, ‘69, and ‘70, St. Louis was swept each and every time, twice by the Canadiens and once by the Bruins. To go to three Cup finals and fail to win a single game would be bad enough, but to make things worse, the Blues’ only real claim on history from that era is being on the wrong side of the greatest photo in hockey history. That’s the Blues for you: always in the background.

In the summer of 1970, the NHL changed its playoff format to make it possible for two Original Six teams to make the final. That’s right: the league changed its rules specifically to keep the Blues from humiliating themselves and boring North America for a fourth time.

And so, 49 years in the wildnerness. Except the wilderness wasn’t even really all that remote. More like a bland suburb filled with identical developments, strip malls, and big box stores. Functional and within hailing distance of the action, but with not much to recommend it. Since making the Cup Final in 1970, the Blues have missed the playoffs just nine times. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment under any circumstances. And yet no one thinks of the Blues as one of the league’s most successful franchises, because, obviously, they’re not. Early playoff exits, year after year after year after year, were their legacy. Remember a couple seasons back, when the Red Wings finally ended their streak of consecutive postseasons, and how it was hailed as one of the most sustained stretches of greatness professional sports have ever seen? Those Red Wings made 25 straight postseasons, tying the Blues’ streak from 1980–2004.

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So what went wrong for St. Louis, to never be able to scale the final hill, or even to look up from its base? As many things as there were years, but it can’t really be overstated that franchise’s flaws almost always flowed from the top.

Sid Salomon Jr. was an awesome expansion owner, but his son Sid Salomon III let things slide. Ralston Purina picked up the pieces, but eventually shut down the franchise after the NHL blocked its sale to Saskatoon investors.*

Harry Ornest swooped in, slashed costs and unleashed the family dog in the bowels of The Arena. Mike Shanahan’s group rescued the team and spent record-setting dollars to add star power to the franchise.

But in time those money guys fired Shanahan, then bailed themselves. Bill and Nancy Laurie came along, lost millions and bailed. The Dave Checketts group came along, ran out of money and bailed.

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*This was perhaps the only truly existential crisis and sublime absurdity in the franchise’s history, and I encourage you to read everything you can about it. But in summary: the Blues’ owners, a dog food company, didn’t want to own a hockey team anymore but couldn’t find a buyer. Eventually, they found a group that wanted to move the Blues to Saskatoon; the NHL vetoed that, because nobody lives in Saskatoon. In protest, the dog food company said it was simply going to stop operating the team. And they did precisely that, refusing to take part in the 1983 draft. Seriously. They didn’t send anyone and they didn’t draft any players. There were seven Hall of Famers in that draft. It’s hard not to wonder how far the ‘90s teams might have gone if they had been around that year to consider picking, oh I don’t know, Dominik Hasek. (The league eventually rounded up a group of investors and the Blues were sold just days before the deadline for folding.)

The Blues, in the ‘90s and into the pre-lockout 2000s, had some truly great players. Those teams with Al MacInnis and Brett Hull and Chris Pronger were always good, but all won their Cups elsewhere. Many of the Blues legends were in the house in St. Louis last night, to swap the stories and take part in a new one.

“But it was after it hit zero,” Brett Hull said, “when all of a sudden the flood of emotions hit me and I’m looked at Bob Plager, and I’m like ‘Oh my God.’ I watched Kelly Chase out here and he was crying. I go, ‘I don’t know if I cried that much when I actually won [the Stanley Cup]’ and we still haven’t won anything yet.”

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That is what I’m trying and likely failing to get across, at least to non-Blues fans: the decades of balmy frustration that led to this point. Just because the lights have not been as bright or the failures as spectacular as those of the Leafs or Sharks or Canucks doesn’t make it any easier for those who have lived it, either on the ice or in the stands. The Blues are here, in the Cup Final, now and finally, and with this team. They were in last place in the NHL on New Year’s Day. Their goaltender was fourth on the depth chart to start the season. Their head coach still has the “interim” title. Frankly, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s better that way.

Now the Blues will either shock the world and themselves and win the damn Stanley Cup, or they’ll go down in crushing disappointment after giving their fans the ride of their lifetimes. Both can be blessings. If you don’t believe that, just ask anyone who’s never had the chance to experience either.

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