Saturday, April 14, 2012

When the Blues Were Fun

Some sports teams win regularly, like the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Giants, or the St. Louis Cardinals. Winning teams have great players that hit home runs, score goals, or throw a lot of touchdown passes. Whether they win championships or not, these teams are contenders, and fans love to root for a contender. Whether the team has top players or not, some guys are just fun to root for.

One such team was a favorite of mine in the early 1970’s – the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League.

The NHL was the smallest professional sports league in North America for 25 years from 1942 until 1967, playing with just six teams. The league doubled in size in 1967. All of the new teams were placed in the Western Division, with the original six remaining in the East. The St. Louis Blues finished 3rd in the division in their first season. They made the playoffs and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals against the powerful Montreal Canadians. Although the Blues lost four straight to Montreal, hockey fever had taken over in St. Louis. 

The Blues finished first in the Western Division the next two seasons, advancing both years to the finals. They lost four straight to Montreal in the team’s second season, and again the next season (1969-1970 – my first season in St. Louis) to the Boston Bruins. 

Although they made the Stanley Cup Finals in the first three years of the team’s existence, they were really just the best of the worst. The entire Western Division was comprised of expansion teams, with few of the star caliber players enjoyed by the established Eastern Division powerhouse teams. 

By the time I started rooting for the Blues, the other Western Division teams were more competitive, and the Blues did not finish first in the Division again until 1976-77. They did, however, make the playoffs every year until the 2005-2006 season (the 2004-2005 season had been cancelled over a labor dispute). To date though, St. Louis has never won a game in the Finals.

The Blues may not have been a power team in terms of star players with goal-scoring prowess, but they were exciting to root for. They had a great lead announcer in Hall of Famer Dan Kelly. His partner may not have been in the Hall, but former NHL defenseman Gus Kyle was entertaining in a way that he never intended. 

Kelly had the voice, the style, and the knowledge to keep fans riveted during games – especially radio games. Kelly knew the game and the players so well that listeners always knew exactly what was happening. Although you couldn’t see the action, Kelly made it real enough for listeners to picture the scene. His voice inflection and volume rose and fell with the action in a natural rhythm that helped to tell the story of the action on the ice.

Dan Kelly was, plain and simply, an exceptional sportscaster.

His broadcast partner, Gus Kyle, had his own unique way of adding to the magic of the Blues’ radio and television broadcasts. Gus was a blue-collar guy, and it came through in his speech, but always in an entertaining, honest manner. One could not help but like Gus Kyle, just from listening to his commentary during games. His comments often left the listener shaking his or her head in wonder, but they were uniquely Gus – he was one of a kind.

An intense, hotly contested game was always, in Gus’ words: “a real barnburner.”

None of us were ever exactly sure what that meant, but on the other hand, you didn’t really need a translation. We knew what Gus was saying. 

Body checks are part of hockey, and after an especially hard hit, Gus would say:

“I’ll bet his socks changed feet on that one!”

Gus may not have been eloquent, but there was no mistaking his meaning. It wasn’t only Gus’ comments though – it was what he did in the booth that added to the entertainment. 

One night while Kelly was calling the play, listeners suddenly heard crashing and scuffling sounds through the microphones and Kelly’s voice stopped in mid-sentence. For several minutes, we had no idea what had happened. We knew the game was still on the air – other than the banging and thumping sounds, and Kelly’s silence, we could still hear the sounds of the game going on. 

Several anxious minutes later, Kelly returned to the microphone. In his composed, professional manner, he apologized for the unprofessional interruption. He informed listeners that flames had suddenly erupted from a small trashcan that was under the desk and out of the broadcaster’s line of sight. Apparently, a lit cigarette had found its way into the paper. The banging and scuffling sounds broadcast over the KMOX radio waves were the frantic efforts of the broadcast crew to put out the fire in the tiny confines of the booth. 

Another time, as the action on the ice became intense, Kelly suddenly yelped loudly into the microphone. His cry of anguish and surprise was completely out of character. Kelly almost immediately regained his composure and continued to call the action until the next whistle stopped play. Only then did he tell listeners what had happened. Gus had been so caught up in the game that he jumped out of his chair, knocking over a cup containing cold soda and ice. The icy torrent splashed directly into Kelly’s lap, prompting the surprised shout.

It should be noted that regardless of what was happening in the booth, Kelly – the consummate professional broadcaster – never berated or blamed his partner for the gaffs. We all knew that Gus had simply been caught up in the excitement of the game. It just added to the magic of Blues’ game broadcasts. Such moments were that much more memorable because those games were on radio, not television. Listeners could only stare at the radio dial and wonder at what was happening.

Of course, most of the entertainment value involved the players who made up the Blues. 

Later years saw some of hockey’s best players in a Blues uniform, including Wayne Gretzky, Joe Mullen, Brendan Shanahan, Adam Oates, Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, Curtis Joseph, Pierre Turgeon, Mike Liut, Chris Pronger, Brian Sutter, and Bernie Federko. Several on that list are now members of the Hockey Hall of Fame – exceptionally talented players who played in St. Louis.

Before that though, in the early days of the franchise, the team was staffed with names that only an old fan would likely remember. Scoring leaders from the early years included Red Berenson, Gerry Melnyk, Gary Sabourin, Phil Goyette, Frank St. Marseille, Chris Bordeleau, Bill Sutherland, and Garry Unger – not exactly household names like Gretzky or Hull, but they were fan favorites in the old St. Louis Arena.

Berenson was a legitimate star, but he was traded away in 1970, to the chagrin of Blues fans. Unger came to the Blues in the Berenson deal, and he lent some flair and flash to the game with his long blond hair, usually perfectly in place even while he was flying down the ice. No doubt, many cans of hair spray spent their lives keeping Unger’s hair looking perfect. Unger was a skater and he was a scoring leader for several years. His passion for the game made him a fan favorite.

For the first few years, the Blues did have two eventual Hall of Fame goaltenders – Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante. By the time these two old warhorses played in St. Louis they were well past their prime. They both played well for the Blues – two crafty old veterans, earning the respect of fans. 

The defensive corps in those years included Al Arbour (later a Hall of Fame coach with the New York Islanders), Jim Roberts, and Noel Picard. These men were old school defensemen – very few goals between them. Bobby Orr of the Bruins was the rare defenseman in those days – most blueliners scored few points; their job was to protect the defensive zone, not lead the charge. As a result, most defensemen of the era were not especially exciting to watch.  

But there were three men who played defense in those early years who were some of the most memorable to ever play in St. Louis.

The Plager Brothers – Barclay, Bob, and Bill - were a wrecking crew; some of the roughest, rowdiest men ever to play hockey. These guys would fight anyone, anywhere, anytime – even each other. They didn’t score many goals, but that wasn’t their job. The Plager Brothers were on the ice to make bodies fly. They were some of the hardest working athletes any of us had ever seen, and they endeared themselves to St. Louis fans with their brand of hard-nosed, blood and guts, black and blue, take out the bad guys style of play.

It was ‘old time hockey’ – just like the fictional Hanson Brothers of the 1977 film ‘Slapshot’. The Plager Brothers were fan favorites due to their bruising style – a style that was prevalent in the NHL at the time. Most teams had what were referred to as ‘goons’ – big men whose purpose was to intimidate opposing players. (Today’s NHL has a much stronger emphasis on skating and playmaking skills). 

The Plagers took their brand of in your face hockey to a higher level than most. They weren’t especially big, but that never stopped them from throwing their weight around to the delight of the hometown St. Louis fans. Opposing skaters caught with their heads down (looking at the puck on their sticks) often found themselves floating through the air, tumbling on the ice, and on several occasions – flung over the boards by well-placed Plager brand hip checks. It was old time hockey at its finest, and the fans in St. Louis filled the Arena to watch the fun. 

Hockey is still played in St. Louis, and as mentioned, many Hall of Fame players have skated on St. Louis ice in recent years. An old friend who still lives there tells me it’s not quite the same feeling as it was in the early days of hockey in the old Arena with the patched roof where a tornado ripped a hole more than 50 years ago. Barclay Plager died in 1988; Kelly one year later, and Kyle followed in 1996. Three years later, the Arena was demolished.

For those who remember, there was something special about the Blues brand of old time hockey called by Kelly and Kyle, and played by the Plager Brothers.

Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts'.

He also writes about baseball for Climbing Tal's Hill, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat, and is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America.

He lives in Central Texas with his wife and family.

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