Thursday, June 13, 2019

Reminiscing Blues

Congratulations to the St. Louis Blues on winning the Stanley Cup!

I do not follow either the Blues or the Cardinals as I did in my younger years. That does not mean they are not my favorite teams or that I do not root for them. Marriage, family, and my salvation by Jesus Christ changed my life’s perspectives and replaced many of my earlier loves. Yet, when it comes to hockey, I always root for the Blues.

Having been disappointed by the team for many years, I did not watch many of their games (or an entire game) until they reached the third round of the playoffs. We’ve been close before and everything quickly evaporated. But, from that point on, I, like most of the city, have analyzed every shift of every game (“Shoot the puck, man!” “Clear the zone!”). While I suspect my excitement level would have been much, much higher many years ago, last night was exciting. What a wonderful sports story the Blues 2018-2019 season will make for future generations. I’m glad I saw them win it.

During the final five minutes of the game, I unexpectedly received a text message from a former high school classmate, Brian. The two of us were in the same grade in our small school system for all twelve years, I believe. We also attended Southern Illinois University and received our bachelor’s degrees there at the same time. We’ve only talked a few times since then. But, what truly united us was not our school experiences; it was the St. Louis Blues.

In his text, Brian admitted he had not watched much of the Blues since the mid-1970s but was on the edge of his seat during the seventh game. The third goal last night eased his anxiety a bit. He, like I, could not believe the Blues were about to accomplish what the two of us had dreamed DECADES ago.

Back in October of 1967, Brian invited me to go with his parents to see a hockey game. Why he invited me is a question I never asked. The Blues played their first game on October 11 and the game we were attending was their 5th game of their existence. I knew little of hockey apart from the mechanical hockey game my parents gave me a few years earlier. St. Louis had a minor hockey team, the Flyers, but I did not watch or follow them. I think Brian’s family did which was the reason behind their interest in the Blues. So, the Blues were brand new to St. Louis and Bruce was brand new to the NHL.

On October 21, 1967, I accompanied Brian and his parents to the old Arena on Oakland Avenue. I seem to recall our seats being up somewhat and near one end, but I am uncertain. There before me was a sheet of ice with two goals, one large red line, two blue lines, and smaller red lines crossing the goals. I was glad the scene in front of me replicated the layout of my mechanical hockey game. At least something was familiar.

There were probably some empty seats, I don’t know. My eyes were fixated on the speed of the skaters on the ice. I knew none of the players. So, and so was playing left wing. Wing? That play was offside. Offside? Icing was called. Icing?! When a penalty is called, the penalized team must play a man short?! Goal! Red light!

Brian’s family provided some education as the game progressed. I quickly understood the offside rule (which has changed considerably since then) and what a two-line pass meant. Icing was a bit more confusing, but, by the end of the game, I had that down as well. And I understood what a power play was and how exciting it could be (the Blues scored a power play goal that night as well as gave up a short-handed goal).

Over the years, I have researched that first game since, at the time, I had no clue who was who. The game ended in a 3-3 tie with Gerry Melnyk, Ron Stewart, and Larry Keenan scoring the Blues goals while Ted Irvine, Gord Labossiere, and Real Lemieux answered for the Kings. But, the position which truly caught my attention was goalie. The Kings goalie was Wayne Rutledge who stopped 33 of 36 shots. But, as Brian’s parents informed me, an NHL All-Star played goal for the Blues: “Mr. Goalie” Glenn Hall.

Neither goalie wore a mask. Few did then. Hall was amazing, also stopping 33 of 36 shots. He played his final four years with the Blues and won the Conn Smythe trophy in the 1969-1970 playoffs for his performance. In their second season, the Blues added veteran goaltender Jacques (“Jake the Snake”) Plante and the two of them won the Vezina trophy for the best goaltenders of the year. Plante was an originator of the goalie mask and convinced Hall to wear one in his final years.

The game that night ended in a tie, a slight let-down since my favorite sport, baseball, never ended in a tie (ties do not occur these days in the NHL). But I will never forget the experience. I was hooked on hockey and a life-long Blues fan. The four of us went to a White Castle (also a first for me) and discussed hockey over burgers. What a terrific evening that was.

Brian and I attended Blues games as often as we could. In her junior year of high school, Debbie won two tickets to a Blues game and offered them to me while I was spending three weeks practice teaching at her school. I grabbed them and gave one to Brian leaving her in the lurch. My love for the Blues was a given. It would be another year before I would be in love with her!

Brian and I even attended Blues games while at Carbondale, one time driving after classes and arriving in the middle of the second period. Usually, I had standing room only tickets at the games since they were cheaper, and the place was sold out in the early days. I would take my old-style school bell and ring it as loudly as I could when the Blues scored. Why, we even met Glenn Hall walking into the arena before one game. I think it was Brian who asked him, “Glenn, Glenn, do you feel sick at your stomach?” Mr. Hall did not respond but the question was very timely. You see, Hall would be ill before any game he started. We just wanted to know if Hall was the starting goaltender that evening.

Our love of hockey never transferred to ice skating. I tried to ice skate once and realized it was not meant to be (I also cannot roller skate). I don’t know if Brian can ice skate or not. But the two of us started floor hockey in my dorm on my floor and had several of my dormmates join us. Using tables for goals, a plastic puck, and real sticks, we checked, shot, and scratched the floor many times during our college days.

Yes, lots of fond memories were resurrected while watching the Blues win their first ever Stanley Cup. I’m grateful I was able to witness the completion of a fifty-two-year dream last night.

Congratulations, Blues!

No comments: