This story appears in the May 6, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
The Stanley Cup trail is often referred to as a marathon and not a sprint, a trope as tired as the Bruins were of having to wait for 10 days for the finals to start. Marathons are done in two-plus hours or six, depending, and runners might hit the wall. In the playoffs the wall—like the jackhammer Blues—hits back.
This year’s finals offer a riot of hockey color from Boston, featuring a rapscallion with a Warrior Alpha DX stick instead of a BB gun in winger Brad Marchand, erudite captain Zdeno Chara, practically perfect Patrice Bergeron and bulletproof goalie Tuukka Rask—that’s two u’s, two k’s and no rebounds. While the Blues might not have a Marchand-like pest, they do have an earworm, the bouncy 1980s pop song, “Gloria,” which they blast every time poised rookie goalie Jordan Binnington backstops another win. There are multiple dimensions to these finals, unlike the last time the Bruins and the Blues played for the Stanley Cup, in 1970, when everything was neatly captured in two dimensions, thanks to an enterprising newspaper photographer with a Nikon F camera.
Consider his picture. There soars the nonpareil Bobby Orr, horizontal. His stick is in his right hand while his left reaches for the Boston Garden rafters in celebration of his Cup-winning goal. Now shift your focus. The puck just outside the crease is at the feet of Glenn Hall, Mr. Goalie, the man who once played 502 consecutive games without a mask. There, centered in the background, is Noël Picard. He was a jovial but sturdy defenseman—“a one-man wrecking crew,” Scotty Bowman, St. Louis’s coach in the late 1960s, calls him—who an instant earlier had wrapped his blade around Orr’s left ankle, launching Orr into the stratosphere of the imagination. Hoist by his own Picard, if you will.
The oft-told story of Ray Lussier’s shot is as fascinating as the shot Orr tucked through Hall’s five-hole. Lussier worked for the Boston Record-American. His assigned stool for the overtime period was near the Boston net, but he cadged a photo slot at the opposite end, in the Bruins’ attacking zone, because a Globe shooter had retired to a concession stand before the extra period to slake his thirst on a 90° Mother’s Day afternoon. Pinching from the right point, Orr whipped the puck to center Derek Sanderson behind the net and continued skating toward the goal. Taking a return pass, number 4 ended Game 4, 40 seconds into overtime. Lussier fired off three frames. The photograph splashed in his newspaper 36 hours later was the third.
“My dad never revealed the name of the Globe photographer, out of respect for a comrade,” Randy Lussier says. “He took it to his grave.”
Like college students and aggressive drivers, the photo is omnipresent in Boston. It is around the corner from the dressing room at the Bruins practice facility, prominently featured in a time line of the franchise’s history. A billboard-sized version looms in the concourse on the fifth floor of TD Garden, one of many Boston-related exhibits at the arena’s Sports Museum. “If we had it any smaller, people would question us,” curator Richard Johnson says. “Bobby was a household deity. And that picture is the secular talisman, the touchstone.”
There are four framed prints across the street at The Fours, the 43-year-old pub whose name needs no explanation: An autographed copy behind the host station, two above dining booths and another next to the upstairs women’s bathroom. Peter Colton, owner and manager for three decades, was finishing eighth grade in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood when Orr turned the Garden into Kitty Hawk. “That’s when people fell in love with the Bruins,” Colton says. “They never get tired of looking at it. Brings them back to a good time.”
And, naturally, the photo is displayed in Matt Grzelcyk’s boyhood home in nearby Charlestown. The Bruins defenseman is straight Boston. His dad, John, has worked on the Garden’s changeover crew for 51 years, including the night of Game 4. Today a cluster of old Grzelcyk family snaps is situated on a side table in the dining room, reminders of family beach vacations and such. But they all yield pride of place to Lussier’s photo. “That one is out for display,” Grzelcyk says. “I don’t know if I could name a friend who doesn’t have it. . . . Growing up in Boston, I think it means everything.”
So gaze again at the 22-year-old Orr. His flight is the link between Stanley Cup finals nearly a half century apart, but it also is the last taut strand of hockey’s frayed innocence. He soars for eternity wearing a look of rapture and amazement, hockey’s Peter Pan. But when he landed splat on the ice on May 10, 1970, it was the St. Louis Blues who found themselves the NHL’s Lost Boys.
The Blues began life as a real estate play. When the Original Six doubled to 12 teams for the 1967–68 season, St. Louis was offered a conditional franchise, ahead of Baltimore, if a suitable owner and arena could be found.
Arthur Wirtz would see to that.
Wirtz owned the Chicago Blackhawks. He also owned the St. Louis Arena, which, through his staunch self-interested support of the city some 300 miles south, was destined to again become an NHL barn in the literal sense. (The arena was built in 1929 for the National Dairy Show and housed the woebegone St. Louis Eagles in ’34–35.) To secure a franchise, Sid Salomon Jr. and his son would have to pay $4 million—double the expansion fee and more than $31.5 million in 2019 dollars—to take the dilapidated building off Wirtz’s hands.
Sold! Not that St. Louisians initially were. Shoved into the newly created West Division with their expansion brethren—and playing an unbalanced schedule that limited home games against established NHL teams—the Blues averaged fewer than 9,000 fans the first season. Of course the consolation prize was a plausible path to a Stanley Cup finals; the West Division winner just had to beat the other new clubs. The Blues reached the final in their first three years.
Those were rollicking teams, brimming at times with distinguished last-call legends such as Hall, Jacques Plante, Dickie Moore and Doug Harvey, and buttressed by Red Berenson, a nifty center who had been a Rangers spare part. The Blues also boasted a murder of Plagers, the beloved fraternal gong show of Bill, Bob and Barclay, plus Picard, whose thumping of the Flyers’ Claude Laforge in the 1968 playoffs planted the seed for the Broad Street Bullies. “Nothing compared to our intrasquad games,” says Cliff Fletcher, the Blues assistant general manager who would go on to manage three NHL teams. “You’d have two Plagers on one side and another Plager and Picard on the other. There wasn’t a safe place on the ice.” The Canadiens swept the surprisingly competitive Blues in the 1968 and ’69 finals, but Orr, Phil Esposito and the powerhouse Bruins toyed with St. Louis in 1970. The NHL expanded again the following season, Chicago shifted to the Blues’ division, and a mostly promising start morphed into what would become the dubious distinction of the NHL’s longest active Stanley Cup drought: 51 years.
This might be more discomfiting were the futility not shared with the oft-mocked Maple Leafs, winners of 13 Cups but none since 1967. There is a qualitative difference between the two: Toronto failures tended to be clown-car crashes. St. Louis was just another team, a flyover franchise. Other than ’77, when they were on the brink of insolvency and saved by civic white knight Ralston Purina, and ’83, when they were on the brink of moving to Saskatoon and ownership skipped the draft, forfeiting all the team’s picks, the Blues generally have been solid citizens. St. Louis squandered the Brett Hull years in the early ’90s and the Chris Pronger–Al MacInnis era a decade later—but it did make the playoffs for 25 straight seasons between ’80 and 2004, close to Boston’s record 29.
“Players in St. Louis got away with a lot of stuff compared to, say, players in Toronto or Montreal,” says Kelly Chase, who had 1,497 of his career 2,017 penalty minutes in his eight seasons with the Blues. He is now an ambassador for the team after 18 years as a radio analyst. “Not the same pressure, the same level of accountability. St. Louis appreciates effort as much as the results. Work hard, give a damn about the city, and sometimes that seems to be enough.”
“They were always making one more little deal just to make the playoffs, never showing long-term vision,” says Pronger, who played nine seasons of his 18-year Hall of Fame career on the Blues’ defense. He still lives in St. Louis. “They thought like a small market, concentrating on cash flow. . . . See, this is a traditional town. On Thursday nights you go to the same restaurant. You still hang out with your grade school friends. And it was almost a tradition the Blues would find a way to lose. You’d always hear that a player would have to leave St. Louis to win a Cup.”
There were close calls. In 1986, St. Louis lost Game 7 to Calgary in the Campbell Conference finals. In ’91, after a four-for-two swap that brought defenseman Garth Butcher and center Dan Quinn from Vancouver, the Blues lost the Presidents’ Trophy by a point to Chicago and fell to the North Stars in the second round. But no failures were more heartbreaking than the pratfalls at the turn of the millennium, when St. Louis coughed up two Stanley Cup fur balls.
The Presidents’ Trophy Blues beat San Jose in their opening game of the 2000 playoffs and were leading Game 2 when defenseman Marc Bergevin grabbed the puck in the slot and, like a second baseman making a backhand shovel to the shortstop to start a double play, inexplicably flipped it past his own goalie, the stunned Roman Turek, to tie the score. “We hadn’t faced any real adversity that year and clearly didn’t know how to deal with it,” Pronger says. “That goal rattled us. We went from, Everything is positive and we can do no wrong, to suddenly, We can do no right.” As time was expiring in the first period of Game 7, Sharks winger Owen Nolan, two strides inside the red line, unleashed a shot that handcuffed Turek and gave the Sharks a two-goal lead. The Blues lost.
Turek was better the following spring. At first, anyway. The Blues had traded center Craig Conroy to Calgary for Cory Stillman in March—“Conroy was an important guy in the room, an offensive player who had sacrificed himself for the team to become a great checker,” Chase says—but the deadline swap barely warranted a footnote after St. Louis eliminated the Sharks in six and swept Dallas to reach the conference final. Therein lay the problem. That quick series left the Blues with nine days off before the next round against Colorado. “I learned later from some of our Czech and Slovak guys that Roman liked his beer,” Pronger says. “So now we’re in the conference final, and he figures it’s getting serious. He’d have a couple of beers to relax, to reduce the stress, but during the layoff it seems like he changed up his routine. He went cold turkey.” And Turek surely played like one. The teetotaling tender was giving up goals that were softer than oatmeal, paddle down, essentially using his stick as a ramp that allowed pucks to all but scurry into the net. The Blues dominated play but were out in five.
In the most Blues-ian of moments, St. Louis—home of the Budweiser Clydesdales, the mecca of Michelob—squandered a shot at the Stanley Cup because of a problem with a goalie drinking beer. He stopped.
Welcome to June 2019. The Blues no longer cry in their beer. After abusing San Jose in the Western Conference Final with feral checking, solid goaltending and a second playoff hat trick from Jaden Schwartz, Chase says, “they’ve moved out of the cold, gotten rid of the smell that they can’t win.”
The man with the chiseled face who helped air out the musty franchise is coach Craig Berube, who replaced Mike Yeo last November. Berube’s relevant NHL numbers: 1,054 career games, 61 goals, 241 fights and 3,149 penalty minutes. That’s 1,000 games the hard way.
Of course Berube always had been a hard guy. On a hot summer day in 1983, a series of boxing matches were held to raise money for the Ladies Auxiliary in Williams Lake, B.C., where the 18-year-old Berube was playing for the Mustangs of the Peace-Cariboo Junior Hockey League. The event was called So You Think You’re Tough. Berube fought three times and won the $1,000 top prize, whipping men twice his age, according to former coach John Van Horlick. Frustrated after Berube landed several consecutive punches, a tough-guy biker type resorted to “street-fighting tactics,” Horlick recalls, and began kicking Berube, who hopped out of the ring. Once emotions cooled, Berube told his coach, “Well, I might as well get back in,” and pummeled the fellow. Like Ray Lussier’s photo, Berube is black-and-white.
“Since December we’ve basically been playing what amounts to playoff games. We’ve been hardened,” says general manager Doug Armstrong, whose team had the league’s worst record on Jan. 2. “And one thing I’ve seen from Craig is that in a Gen X or Gen Z world, hockey players still respond to old-school ways from a coach—things like directness without condescension and accountability. The social aspects are different with millennials, but at the rink they respond how NHL players have for years and years.” Like in Bobby Orr’s day.
The 1970 final is just a reference point in the continuum of the game to many of the Blues, none of whom were born when Orr retired in ’78. But Flying Bobby matters, the game’s most famous image. You didn’t have to be there in the steamy Garden that day because a photographer with a Nikon and a sense of the moment was.
“To get a rematch with Boston all these years later is pretty cool,” says Rob Ramage, a defenseman who played on the team that was almost shanghaied to Saskatchewan. He, like many who wore the Blue Note on their chests, also lives in St. Louis. “One Saturday, maybe ’96 or ’97, we had an alumni game here against the Bruins. Esposito and [Ken] Hodge were playing. I think [linemate Wayne] Cashman, too. I can tell you it was a bigger deal for us than our fans because we knew the history.” Ramage pauses. “We felt the history.”