Hockey's Historic Highlights

Blues Not the Only St. Louis Pro Hockey Champions - Part One

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

Blues Not the Only St. Louis Pro Hockey Champions - Part One

Posted October 14, 2019

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Members of the St. Louis Flyers

The cover of the Hockey News 2019 Commemorative Edition said it all: “CHAMPIONS GLORIOUS”,  adding “From Worst to an Unbelievable First” , to accent the rise from futility in January to finality in June. 52 years as a part of the world’s premier circuit, one of the six franchises added in the 1967 expansion, the St. Louis Blues were the only surviving club to have failed to have the honour of hoisting Lord Stanley’s famous silver chalice in the loop’s long history.  Five decades of coming up short is a long time in any measurement. But, as the old adage has it: “the longer you wait for something the more you appreciate it when you get it!” And every Blues player, fan, and executive will add a hearty “amen” to that.

   Anyone who has ever competed in sports will testify that it is almost impossible to match the thrill of taking home all the marbles. This writer has experienced it in hockey four times—with the most significant triumph represented in an “All Ontario” championship.  That was in 1952—a “Juvenile” level victory. Perhaps the icing on the cake was being rewarded by playing in Maple Leaf Gardens.

   But Shunk Junction Rink, or the Enterprise Centre in St. Louis, it matters not—a championship is still standing at the head of the line!

   Their first campaign in the Big Time saw them conclude the regular season in the middle of the (Western Division) pack. But in the post-season they eliminated the Flyers and the North Stars, earning then the privilege of facing the mighty Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals. And, while they were swept four straight, every match was decided by only a single goal. Glenn Hall’s performance between the pipes was unforgettable, rightly being awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy.

   They finished first in the West in 1969-70; ousted Minnesota and Pittsburgh, and came face to face with the overpowering talent of the Boston Bruins. Again it was a four-zip series—and the Missouri gang couldn’t match their opponents step by step as well as they had in 1968. But they were competitive every contest. It all ended, of course, with that memorable swan dive by Bobby Orr, as he salted away the season for good.

  Over the next half decade they produced good seasons, fair seasons, and poor ones. They failed only nine times to make the playoffs; four times they entered the finals. Perhaps the biggest blip on their screen took place in 1983. Emile “Cat” Francis had taken over as GM and President in 1976. At his suggestion the Ralston-Purina Company purchased the team. But the novelty of big league shinny soon lost its appeal; and in 1983 they were in a hurry to rid themselves of the franchise.

  The problem was—nobody wanted it. That’s when the hockey world experienced a high reading on the game’s Richter Scale. “Big Bill” Hunter, who had been involved in the founding of the WHA in 1972 offered to move the shaky entity to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on the Canadian prairies. Red flags flashed and red flags waved at the prospect of Big Time hockey should ever settle on the smallish city, which many considered to be located on the borders of the Arctic Circle. Many at every level—from fans to players, to executives echoed the tumultuous Harold Ballard’s jibe—“players perched on dog sleds trying the find their way the Saskatoon”.

   That chuff was made in sarcasm. But there was a least a genuine chuckle which came out of the schmozzle. When Francis was asked what he thought would be his take if the sale went through, snapped: “A year’s supply of dog food!”

   To make a long boring story short…….the NHL nixed the deal—on a 13-5 vote they forced the Blues to keep singing their theme song in Missouri. The League took over the club—depriving the fraternity from their draft picks that June—awaiting a Moses to take them out of the wilderness.

   That rescue eventually came in the person of Harry Ornest.

   Except for a couple of nimbus clouds in the early New Millennium, the sky continued to be bluer in the Gateway City (so named because it was considered the gateway into the new territory where it was settled). For one thing, the team can brag about a 25-season playoff appearance streak, the third longest in NHL history. Then, in the fall of 2013, the fearless forecast of the collective prognosticators at the Hockey News predicted that the Blues would be Stanley Cup winners come June of 2014. They had jumped the gun by a handful seasons—but now history has been made.

     But there have been other pro championship teams in the Missouri centre.

     It is impossible to read the game’s history without knowing there have been other pay-for-play clubs making their home ice the St. Louis Arena. The Eagles, transplanted from Ottawa’s faltering NHL franchise in 1934-35, struggled through a single dismal campaign, finishing dead last, winning only 11 games in the 48-game schedule.

    The Braves were one of Chicago’s farm squads in the developmental Central League, with their home in the Mound City (referring to the ancient Cahokia civilization’s man-made mounds which once covered part of the city’s present site) from 1963 through 1967. They originated as the Sault St. Marie (Canada) Thunderbirds as members of the Eastern Ontario Pro Hockey League—switched to Syracuse—then mid-season to St. Louis on December 31, 1962.

   But it was the Flyers, members of the American Hockey Association from 1928 through 1942, and part of the American Hockey League from 1944 through 1953, who proved to be the city’s head honchos of the game, racking up no less than five crowns during their tenure in that loop.

  While “Doc” Gibson was moulding his International (Pro) League in Houghton, Michigan, the ice game was thriving in the Missouri metropolis. As early as 1902 a league plied its trade, playing in the Checkerdome, complete with artificial ice since 1899. The loop consisted mainly of university, university alumni, and high school septets. At the same time, in preparation for the 1904 World’s Fair, to be hosted in St. Louis, one elite squad was being groomed to represent the city in the invitation tournament which was a part of the gala affair.

  In fact they were simply known as the “World’s Fair Team”, decked out in white knickers, and black sweaters with the numbers 1904 emblazoned across their chests. To hone their skills for the coming contests the club hopped on board a train to Michigan to face the Portage Lakes, Gibson’s elite entry in the IHL. There, in back to back contests, they were taught how to play the game at its highest level—rather lose at hockey at the highest cost. Not much was said about the scores. Sufficient to say that when the Michiganders made a courtesy return visit, one contest saw the home-towners bombed 24-0.

   But better things lay ahead. In 1925-26, pay-for-play shinny came to that area of the United States, in the form of the Central Hockey League—and a year later teams from Chicago, Detroit, Duluth, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Winnipeg formed the American Hockey Association.

  By the time the 1928-29 schedule was in place, St. Louis was added to the circuit. The Winnipeg contingent had proven to be at a rather inconvenient distance from the rest of the fraternity. So Frank D. McDonald of the St. Louis Star and Times joined with Earl Reflow to move the last-place franchise to the mound city.

   The fortunes of the former Manitoba Capital squad did not change in its new locale. In fact the first three campaigns did not spell headline material. They ended each season looking up the ladder at the rungs of every other club in the loop. They won their first tilt against the Minneapolis Millers—but pickings were slim after that. Harry Cameron, former NHA and NHL star, was the most formidable competitor in the line-up. Mind you, Rene Boileau, for a different reason, carried some notoriety with him. In order to promote their presence in the Big Apple, the publicity department of the newly-formed New York Americans, billed the Quebec-born French Canadian as “Rainy Drinkwater”, a full-blooded Indian from the Caughnawaga Reserve. That failed to add much to the “goals scored” column either. The team also lost $15,000.

  Previous to year two, “Moose” Jamieson, who had anchored the blue line for Duluth, was pried away to become playing coach, and to shore up the defense corps. Forward Larry Goyer led the circuit in goals and points, winning the scoring crown. They managed a thirteen-point improvement, however still landing at the bottom of the heap. Even their new togs didn’t help. Previously they had sported a purple and gold outfit, with a strange design which made the purple portion look like the braces of a farmer’s overalls. Now they wore a more traditional pattern, white and green, with an airplane of the chest.

Rene Boileau in the sweater with a strange design which made the purple portion look like the braces of a farmer’s overalls.
Rene Boileau in the sweater with a strange design which made the purple portion look like the braces of a farmer’s overalls.

   1930-31 recorded more of the same—tied for 6th with Minneapolis in points, but with more losses.

   The highlight of the 1931-32 season was the opening of the 14.000-seat St. Louis Arena (aka “Checkerdome” for a few years several decades later). A mere 500 fans sometimes attended in the old location, and, even though contests seldom were “sell-outs”, fan support did increase. The legendary “Shrimp” McPherson (see Postscript) became their new playing coach. But they escaped the basement thanks in part to the Buffalo Majors club, which folded the end of January.

  Finally, the subsequent schedule brought some needed light at the end of the tunnel. They finished second in total points and qualified for the playoffs for the first time. The playoffs consisted of a double round-robin tournament between the top three teams. The championship was decided on the last game, with Kansas City and St. Louis entering the game both with a 2-1 record. KC won the overtime match 1-0.  Indeed things were looking up.

   Perhaps it was anticipation of their change of fortune that prompted another change in uniform design. This time the apex centred on a broad white band around the midsection, with huge “ST. LOUIS” block letters highlighted. The top half of the sweater was red, the bottom half was dark blue. The scoring prowess of Paddy Paddon, “Shrimp” McPherson, and Pete Palangio led the team to finish in a tie for first place. But again, they lost out to Kansas City, in the 1934 finals.

   What is ironical about the 1934-35 season is that success finally came. But it was also the campaign which featured the NHL transferring the floundering Ottawa Senators to the Gateway City. The “Eagles” as they were called, flew in the same broken-winged manner in which they had in Canada’s Capital. They won only 11 contests, and finished with 28 points. The once-storied Bi-Town franchise was dead and buried. The only redeeming factor was Syd Howe’s second-place finish in the scoring race, though he was helped by his late-season trade to Detroit, where he went from sixth to second league scorer.

   For the Flyers, it meant being bumped from the (future) Checkerdome to the band-box Winter Garden. This spelled out in 1,200 being the average attendances stat. Another fly-in-the-ointment could easily have stalled their progress. “Pop” Wainwright, owner of the club, began to be careless when it came to paycheques. The team was ready to throw in the towel—but cooler heads prevailed, and the stalemate was avoided. They charged on, coasting to a 12-point advantage in the standings at season’s end. Once more Paddon, McPherson, and Palangio paved the way to victory with their scoring feats.

  St. Louis received a “bye” and faced the Tulsa Oilers, who had ousted Kansas City in the semi-finals. The series was billed as a “best of five” affair, but the Flyers swept their opponents three straight to win the crown. While the Oilers tallied first in the last game, the visitors notched six replies making the final score 6-1. They were proud champions with a capital “C”.

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