The Cup. My Town. My Memories.

Jun 13, 2019   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

Cup, meet St. Louis. These people have been waiting a long time to welcome you. (Click on any image to enlarge)

It only took something like 52 years. In the fall of 1967, just after the St. Louis Cardinals cemented themselves as the sports anchor for a great sports city by winning the World Series (over the Boston Red Sox, by the way) the St. Louis Blues took the ice at the old (and classic) St. Louis Arena. They were part of a six-team expansion of the historic but quaint National Hockey League. It wasn’t a bad plan by the NHL. Expansion teams are almost always terrible, so if six new teams were added to double the size of the league, why not put them all in one division together? Parity is better than disparity.

The Blues somehow managed to win their side of the ladder that first year, beating fellow rookie franchises the Minnesota North Stars and the Philadelphia Flyers to advance all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they would play the Montreal Canadiens. That’s a bit like a World Series between the Toledo Mud Hens and the New York Yankees. The Canadiens swept the series 4-0, and it wasn’t that close. The next year, in ’69, the Blues made it back again but once more fell in four straight to Montreal. Another year later, it was their third trip to the Cup Finals and it was the Boston Bruins turn to sweep them. And that was it.

The team with the charming “blue note” logo on their chest would have their ups and downs. Stars came and went, wins and losses generally lined up with more of the “L’s” than “W’s” but there were good teams in there, and some great players. The franchise reached its low point in the mid-70s, when on the verge of financial collapse the original owners, the Salomon brothers, sold the team and the building to Ralston Purina, a St. Louis-based giant in the pet food industry. Ralston bought the club out of sense of local loyalty. They basically just saved the franchise. They also changed the name of the Arena to the Checkerdome. Anyone around at that time will never forget that. By the early 80s, the team was again bleeding money and Ralston wanted out. When the proposed sale of the team to a group that would relocate it to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was announced, the NHL put up a stop sign. They would not approve that deal. So, Ralston basically handed the team to the NHL and said “We’re done.”

Only at the last minute did the NHL find a buyer, a guy named Harry Ornest who had made his “fortune” in the vending machine business. You can’t make this stuff up. Though they ran on a shoestring and plodded along for years, the franchise was finally safe and viable. Then, through the 80s, 90s, 00’s and teens, the Blues played hockey. Sometimes very well. Sometimes not so. They never sniffed the Cup through all those years. They never got back to another Stanley Cup Finals.

A lot of us miss this place, but progress waits for no one

In 1994 they finally moved out of the Arena and into a new downtown building. That was a sad day for many of us. The Arena had been built in the late 1920s as the home of the National Dairy Show (again, can’t make this up) and it too had seen its better days. “The Old Barn” was continually being renovated, once the Blues moved in, but it finally got to a point where nothing much more could be done. What could never be taken away from it, though, was the atmosphere in there. They probably would not allow a builder to replicate it, today. It was one large bowl of seating for 18,000, and the angle of the grandstands was enormously steep. In any location, the person sitting directly one row ahead of you would never block your view. Their head would be somewhere near your knees.

It was loud. For many years it was smoky. The place rocked. I saw too many concerts there to count, and my ears are still ringing from a few of those shows by The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Rush.

Around 1980 a new sports franchise came to town, and they shared the Arena with the Blues. They were the St. Louis Steamers of the new Major Indoor Soccer League. If you’ve read my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” you know that team changed my life. There was a point there, in the early to mid-80s, when the Steamers packed standing-room-only crowds into the Arena regularly, playing those fierce New York Arrows, or Kansas City Comets. And let’s not forget the Wichita Wings and the Hartford Hellions. Or the Cleveland Force, for that matter. Meanwhile, the Blues were again struggling to find their footing in the St. Louis sports landscape. It was just never easy for the Blues.

As for The Old Barn, I was lucky enough to finally work there in two different capacities. First, as an usher during my first couple of years of college at SIU-Edwardsville. My apartment at SIUE was approximately 25 minutes from the Arena. I tested that timing pretty regularly, just getting to the ushers check-in vestibule inside the back entrance with a minute or two to spare, on many nights. I saw an awful lot of Blues games that way, although technically speaking we weren’t supposed to watch the games, we were supposed to face the fans in our sections. But hey… ┬áThen later, after the Steamers died and the St. Louis Storm came to town in 1989, I was hired as Vice President – Sales and Marketing. Our offices were in the tower on the left side of the photo above, on the third and fourth floors. To work for a franchise there, even if it was indoor soccer, was an honor and a thrill. Learning the hidden passageways and secret hallways deep within the bowels of the place was sort of like earning your Arena brotherhood badge.

Now, about my personal Blues fandom. I was a huge fan when they came to town. I was also 11 years old. My dad bought two season tickets behind one of the goals, in the Arena Circle sections. The seats in the Arena were blue nearest the ice (the section known as the Parquet) then a wide band of yellow seats around the middle of the building (Arena Circle) then another section of blue seats all around the top (Upper Circle). Our season tickets were in the top row of the yellow seats.

My dad and I went to a lot of games. It was electrifying, and it helped that the NHL did that expansion the way they did. When the Blues played the North Stars, Flyers, Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, or California Seals, the games were competitive and the Blues looked pretty good. The “proof in the pudding” always showed up in the Finals.

My dad also worked a winter job in those days. Baseball scouts did not make much money, and as great as his playing career had been he was never paid enough to fully retire and relax. Most winters, he worked at Casey’s Sporting Goods in downtown Kirkwood, where we lived. I’d often go back to work with him after dinner, and I clearly remember how the Blues and hockey in general had exploded in popularity then. It seemed the whole store was full of pucks and sticks. I can close my eyes and see nearly every inch of that store. And I can still smell it.

I stayed a huge fan for a few more years, but there often seemed to be a kind of division in my town. St. Louis was, is, and always will be a baseball town. Over the course of my lifetime the Gateway City has lost two NFL teams; the original Cardinals (aka The Big Red) and the Rams. St. Louis couldn’t or wouldn’t support the NBA (the Hawks) or the ABA (the Spirits). The Steamers came in with a bang and for a while a lot of people thought indoor soccer was going to be around forever. It wasn’t. The Blues, meanwhile, had an avid core fan base but couldn’t seem to get over the hump. And in suburban St. Louis, where I grew up, there seemed to be a slightly perceptible line between baseball and hockey fans. The Cardinals were everyone’s team, but kind of in a heartfelt blue-collar way. The Blues played to a slightly more affluent suburban audience, or at least it seemed that way at the time. It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part. I didn’t sit down and analyze it, but my heart was always with baseball. I’m a baseball guy first, by birth. That doesn’t mean I stopped being a Blues fan. I’ve been a Blues fan since Day 1, although much of it, basically the last 30 years, has been from afar.

I still paid close attention when I was living in St. Louis, and I still went to a number of Blues games each winter. But baseball would always be my first love. That’s just how it was. So on and on it went. For decades. There were some great Blues teams, and I’d always follow along and watch them on TV. I probably ventured down to the Arena, just across Highway 40 from Forest Park, for four or five games a year then, as well. My gosh, there was nothing like hockey in the old Arena. There was also nothing like making the trek in from the huge parking lots surrounding the building, on a windy and frigid January night, just trying to survive until the interior warmth of The Old Barn welcomed you like a warm cup of hot chocolate. With marshmallows.

Over those decades, the Blues’ old expansion brethren found their legs and didn’t seem so much like expansion teams anymore. OK, well not the California/Oakland Seals. That franchise never worked. The Seals ended up moving to Cleveland to become the Cleveland Barons. See? It didn’t work. The Barons lasted only two seasons before merging (seriously) with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978. It’s amazing to think that as recently as my senior year in college the NHL was still in such flux. But the Flyers, Penguins, and Kings, all became solid NHL fixtures. When the Penguins win a Cup these days, it’s as if one of the oldest, most historic, and storied franchises in league history has done it. They’ve only been in the league since the Blues joined. The histories are just a little different. As for the North Stars, they got to a couple of Finals but they never won the Cup in Minnesota, and they moved to Dallas in 1993. Doors close and doors open. The North Stars’ move opened the door for the arrival of my current “home town” team, the Minnesota Wild.

St. Louis certainly gets spoiled by the Cardinals. So much so, that when the Red Birds are just “good” but not “great” there is a general feeling of frustration, but it is always tempered with hope. 19 National League pennants and 11 World Series championships will absolutely give fans hope. It’s one of the greatest franchises in baseball history, and I’m proud to be the son of a Cardinal and part of the Cardinal family. Yes, it’s a bit cliche and maybe even tiresome, but Cardinal fans are often referred to as the best fans in baseball. That’s a partisan statement that would be disputed by fans of many other teams. And that’s a good thing. Everyone should have that passion. There’s enough of it to go around.

Blues fans have recently been dubbed things like “long suffering” but I don’t see it that way. Long suffering would indicate the team has rarely been competitive. They’ve often been very competitive. And the atmosphere at Blues games continues to be fantastic, year in and year out. Their fan base is loyal and large. They’re passionate. There’s no “suffering” in being a Blues fan. Until last night, the overall mission was just incomplete. It had been incomplete for most of my life.

I’ll admit I wasn’t paying attention when, at midseason this year, the Blues had the worst record in the NHL. I was focused on the disappointment of our local team, the Wild. I wasn’t exactly dialed in when the Blues went on some long winning streaks to get back into contention. They make the playoffs a lot, so when they did that and the Wild did not, it wasn’t news to me. I obviously knew the Blues had never won the Cup because I lived through even the earliest seasons, but my brain voted against doing the math to come up with the 52 years part of the equation. And then they started winning round after round.

The Blues bandwagon is a big one, and it’s very welcoming. I didn’t feel out of place during the second and third rounds when my original hometown team started to look for real. I was fully onboard the mythical bandwagon, standing and waving, by the time they got to the Finals against the Boston Bruins, the last team to beat them in the final round back when I was about to turn 14. Beginning the series, the Blues’ entire record in the Stanley Cup Finals was 0-12. Three straight sweeps.

When they stunned the Bruins in Boston, by winning in overtime in Game 2, they not only notched their first Finals win, they broke the barrier.

It was a very hard fought series, and as is often the case during the Stanley Cup Finals that’s an understatement. When two physical teams go at it at 100% for every second of every game, there seems to be no space out on the ice. Big bodies are everywhere. Hits are delivered, passes can’t get through, sticks are always in the way. For even a first-time viewer, it doesn’t take more than a minute to realize why winning the Stanley Cup is roundly considered the most difficult feat in sports. It’s phenomenal what these athletes put themselves through just to hoist that big silver trophy.

And that’s how it went for seven games. Game seven just happened to be in Boston. Winning a Finals game (three of them to that point) had been accomplished. Could actually winning the Cup be possible?

We had a dinner get-together with one of Barbara’s former colleagues last night, at Mall of America. It was wonderful and the company was stellar. I was trying not to think of the game.

We got home during the first intermission. By the time I turned the TV on and got settled, the Blues were up 2-0 with about 15 minutes to play in the second period. I had no idea who had scored for them or how. I didn’t care. The freaking St. Louis Blues were up 2-0 in the seventh game of Lord Stanley’s playoffs. I was glued to the TV while sitting on a sofa in Minnesota. The second intermission seemed to last about an hour.

When the third period started, I couldn’t help but join millions of Blues fans by mentally mapping out how this all could end. If they gave up three and lost, it would be heartbreaking. But, at least your mind has the ability to chant the old “They have so much to be proud of” mantra.

And this happened. Way to go Blues! Way to go St. Louis! I’m Gateway Proud!

And then they scored a third. And a fourth. And the clock was ticking down. The Bruins got one late, but there wasn’t enough clock left. The final minute was a pre-celebration celebration. When the horn went off, I had tears in my eyes.

My brain was instantly flooded with memories of sitting next to my dad at the Arena, of the smell and look of the building, of the Blues streaming out of their locker room to take the ice in front of another standing ovation. These were overlapped with visions of Casey’s Sporting Goods, of shooting rubber pucks at my dad’s unprotected legs in our garage, and of the absolutely unabashed purity of being a fan at such a young age, with my father so often by my side. Family. Hockey. Blues hockey.

52 years. A franchise that has seen more highs and lows than most. A franchise that literally escaped moving to Saskatoon by the width of a stick blade. Fans who have put up with it all and cheered lustily all along the way. The Stanley Cup is coming home to St. Louis. It’s hard to fathom.

How did my hometown follow along during Game 7? All at home on their sofas, like me? Well, no.

More than 18,000 showed up the Blues home arena in downtown, to watch on the big screen and have their own “home game” while their team was in Boston.

The Cardinals were on the road, but they opened Busch Stadium for Blues fans in a great show of “we’re all one big St. Louis sports family” and around 19,000 more went there, watching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoffs in a beautiful ballpark built specifically for that other sport in town. Others just wandered around downtown, or packed local bars. Somehow, after all that celebrating, thousands more were out at Lambert International Airport to welcome the Blues’ team charter when it landed during the wee hours. The players brought the Cup to the fans, allowing them to reach out and touch it.

This was for the Salomon brothers, who brought the team to St. Louis and who resurrected an ancient but iconic building for them to play in. It’s for the greats who came before this group. It’s for Red Berenson, Al Arbour, Noel Picard, Glenn Hall, Bobby Plager, and Jacques Plante. It’s for Garry Unger, Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter, and Mike Liut. It’s for Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Adam Oates and even Wayne Gretzky. Yes, Wayne Gretzky played for the Blues for a little while, in ’95-’96. It’s for all the guys who have worn the blue note proudly.

It’s for the fans. The passionate and loyal fans. During this improbable run, they never stopped believing. Against all odds, they always had their team in their hearts.

It’s for St. Louis. I am so proud to be a St. Louisan.

Way to go Blues!

I’ll see you all next week. As always, if you just read this blog and enjoyed it, please take the time to click on the “Like” button at the top.

 

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