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The Blues First Stanley Cup Final Since... Ever? A Petition To Revise History

At no fault of anyone alive today (no, not even the incessantly-fun-to-"boo" Gary Bettman), the NHL really screwed the St. Louis Blues out of an even bigger celebration last night. The series-clinching game was at home. The score line was emphatic (5-1). Laura Branigan's "Gloria" was belted from every tier of the sold-out Enterprise Center. We're now four wins away from having "St. Louis" (other than Martin) etched on Lord Stanley's Cup. What more could you ask for? Well, for the relentless Blues fans I call a friend or colleague or mailman, I desperately wanted the accomplishment to be the first for this devout hockey town. That is a rare joy we all could have shared.  

For all intents and purposes, 2019 will be St. Louis' first Cup Final appearance. Unfortunately, the bright idea of a past president got in the way of that being the truth. Though their was no negative fallout to these decisions way back when, their reverberations could be felt every time a commentator or analyst uttered the phrase "since 1970." If you thought Tuesday was an 11 out of 10, it could have been a 17. 

Today, the league proudly boasts its 102 years in existence. But things got a little dicey in the early stages of the 20th century. There were as many as ten NHL franchises up through 1931. The Great Depression was the first point of contraction. North American involvement in World War II forced a full-blown reconsolidation. 1942 operations rolled out a season with just six competitors. The modern NHL rewards the continuity of the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, and Chicago Blackhawks as founding fathers of this version 2.0. In actuality, they were merely the few that hard times could never kill. The five defunct clubs that won at least one Cup in the "World Series" era weren't so lucky. From the 1915 Vancouver Millionaires to the 1935 Montreal Maroons, most became casualties of Father Time. 

In this, "Original Six" has never meant each club was around at the league's inception. Boston didn't arrive on the scene until 1924; Chicago, Detroit, and New York weren't founded for another two years after that. Clever marketing has redefined the term "origin" and who truly chartered the National Hockey Association/League. It's as if historians altered the way fans collectively misremember this information — a la the Berenstain Bears' Mandela Effect. Store it away for my proposition later; we need to use the same phenomenon to erase the Blues from playing in any Cup Final games prior to Monday.

By the mid-'60s, consistently crowning a member of the Original Six had grown stale. Executives hoped that fresh blood could quickly win the Cup and thus rejuvenate overall appeal for the the league. Capping the quantity at a half dozen franchises for 25 straight years was well behind the times. In 1966, Major League Baseball had 20 teams vying for a title, the NFL had just merged with the AFL (24 total teams) and created our modern Super Bowl culture, and even the NBA had 10 clubs. Seeing the same suspects win each year was getting stale. Seeing the same five teams come to town, month after month, was even tougher to sell.  

We pick up our story in the offseason following the 1966-67 NHL campaign. The league's plan to double to twelve franchises was officially put into motion. Newcomers in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Minnesota, Oakland, and Los Angeles all came in the league together and were sadly lumped into one division. The expansion teams were provided an identical four-team playoff bracket as their elder statesmen. The winner of those eight games (two best-of-seven series) was then eligible to play for the Stanley Cup. Now, having a legitimate chance to win a championship matters in granting such opportunities to new franchises that pop up in a sports league's timeline. Pitting a division of entirely established teams against another entirely built from whole cloth was a galactically-stupid idea; proven by the fact that the Blues went 0-12 in their games before the system was completely overhauled.

No disrespect to any members of those early Blues' rosters, but this upcoming St. Louis/Boston series has already shed light on how ridiculous the division structure was in the National Hockey League from 1967-70. Like Icarus, they flew too close to the sun with wax wings. Their division championships really need to be revisited in the proper context of today. 

The first step is undo some wrongs. To balance the power, while maintaining some semblance of geographical importance, the following alignment should have been unveiled:  

East Division

o-Boston
o-New York
o-Montreal
o-Toronto 
Philadelphia 
Pittsburgh

West Division

o-Detroit
o-Chicago 
St. Louis
Minnesota
Oakland
Los Angeles

The Oakland (rebranded "California") Seals moved to Cleveland in 1976 and became the Barons. If they would have only started their journey in Northeast Ohio, then Toronto could have moved westward. Both sides of the East/West ledger would have been balanced from the get-go — with three expansion and three deeply-rooted franchises apiece. Alas, too much wishful thinking. In order to see what the West Coast could offer, the league felt it had to jump in with both feet. Ultimately, one became a sacrificial lamb so that future clubs in that region could learn from the financial missteps and flourish. In 2021, Seattle will place five of the 32 NHL franchises in the Pacific Time Zone. Hockey is now doing just fine out there.  

The Blues were the clear-cut class of the expansion clubs. They had a young Scotty Bowman (future Hall-of-Fame coach and record holder with nine Cup wins) behind the bench. They played a brand of physical hockey that was no match for the undersized minor leaguers playing for the other West Division teams. In their inaugural season ('67-'68), St. Louis outlasted the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers and then the fourth-seeded Minnesota North Stars — both in seven games. Note: Arranging 1 vs. 3 and 2 vs. 4 in each bracket's semifinal was the second-dumbest decision in creating that playoff format.

Once in the Final, the Blues' reward for a grueling, hard-fought Cinderella season was the fourteen-time Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens. That's akin to the expansion Houston Colt .45s (64-96 record) meeting up with the Yankees (19 World Championships at that point) in the 1962 World Series. How do you think that league finale would have gone down? I assume about as well as a four-game Blues sweep at the hands of the Habs. However, four one-goal games (two in overtime) did turn some heads. Blues' goaltender, Glenn Hall, even took home the Conn Smythe Award for his Herculean efforts. It was only the second instance (fifth overall) where the playoff MVP went to a player who did not hoist the Cup. Night in and night out, he was by far the best player on the ice. In Game 3, for example, St. Louis was outshot 46-15; Hall made 42 saves to Gump Worsley's 12.   

The experience  Back in the playoffs that following year, this time as the West favorite, St. Louis made much quicker work of their fellow year-old competitors: 4-0 sweep over three-seed Philadelphia and another 4-0 sweep against four-seed Los Angeles. Hungry for revenge, they again ran into Montreal. Again, they were dispelled like a bug flying into a car windshield. The individual game results weren't nearly as close as the prior season. St. Louis' scoring in the four games was a binary sequence: 1-1-0-1.  

Again the champs of the West Division regular season, the Blues won their 1970 first-round matchup 4-2 over three-seed Minnesota. They then beat the two-seed Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 to send St. Louis to the last of their three Stanley Cup Finals. This is the other end of the bridge all commentators tried to span with last night's result. I might be in the minority, but I was sitting there wishing there wasn't any other point of reference to connect. The celebrations were unbridled because the territory the Blues are now in is uncharted. Those good ol' days weren't anything like the party that went on Tuesday.  

Inevitably, the infamous Bobby Orr goal will get played a ton. Note: 
I chose that image to accompany this piece with very good reason. I have a bet with a friend that it will be shown no fewer than 72 times on NBC and NBC Sports Network between now and June 12. Take a shot whenever you see it on your screen. 

The black-and-white photo gives this false perception that the 1970 Cup Final was a competitive one. After all, it was the Stanley Cup Final and it was a dramatic overtime winner. So that means it's up there with Bill Mazeroski and Joe Carter among amazing walk-off shots in a championship setting, right? Not quite. The Blues lost Game 1 by a 6-1 score, Game 2 was 6-2, and Game 3 was 4-1. It wasn't even a series. It was Alabama football dulling out a million-dollar check to my alma mater (Kent State) to kick their ass 48-0. 

And worse, that was the Blues third run up to it. No jitters of it being the first time with a trophy on the line. It was also a new opponent that hadn't been on that big stage since 1958. That's right, St. Louis actually had the playoff experience edge. It all goes to show that miles logged on one side of the bracket was not equal to the other. 

By the time the 1970 Final rolled around, future Hall of Famers to play for those early Blues — Jacques Plante, Glenn Hall, Al Arbour, and Doug Harvey — were all well past their primes. Arbour, Blues' captain and winner of three Cups (with three different teams), was 37 years old. Hall was 38 and Plante was 41. Harvey was 44 and retired after the Cup loss the season before. The rest of the team was a rag-tag bunch of career minor leaguers. You know... like most expansion teams in all sports; nowhere near ready to play for a league championship. 

One surprisingly-competitive anomaly had a statue-worthy moment and it has slowly reframed that Final for those of us who weren't even born yet. If the Blues won that game, moving their all-time record in the Final to 1-11, then the series would have gone back to Boston Garden where the Bruins would have likely handled their business in convincing fashion. The Blues were outscored 12-3 in that iconic building during the first two games. Would a "Gentleman's Sweep" (4-1 outcome) 49 years ago really make this rabid fan base feel any different today? Of course not. Reposition the series as a +1 after the '70 Final.  

In total, the Blues were outscored 43-17 in three trips to the Final. Specifically, the 20-7 disparity in the '70 Final was the largest margin of defeat (-13) in Stanley Cup history. That unfortunate record stood until those same Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in 2011, with a series score of 23-8 (-15). The NHL clearly botched this experiment royally; chess emphatically vanquished checkers.

I'd never call for a banner to be brought down from the rafters at Enterprise Center, especially over poor judgment by a league. If those involved had the ability to use the next 51 years to contextualize the 1967-68 expansion plan, I'd think they would feel like they made a mockery of the "Western Conference" Champion. At least my Golden Flashes receive a large sum for being laughed at by fans of legitimate college programs. The Blues never asked to be anyone's punching bag. 

True, the Blues did have to win their way there. The opportunity to ride the "kiddie" ride to the Final was not something they could control. Amassing 24 playoff wins — to keep showing up each season — was. Those players' accomplishments can never be disparaged. But the Black Hawks (spelled as two words back then) were an unequivocally superior team. The 1968 and 1970 East Division runners-up, or another Original Six club, should have represented the West in all three Cup Finals that fell into St. Louis' lap. 

At 27-31-16 in their first season, the Blues wouldn't have even qualified for the western half of the playoff bracket. A properly-aligned Chicago and Detroit would have bumped St. Louis out of the top four in the division.

And those penultimate series were the true test for the Cup; everyone involved with the sport knew that. the East Division champ was the champ. The subsequent matchup with Blues was essentially a victory lap; a westward road show to geographically spread the game. It did succeed in bringing the greats to new parts of the continent. But it did St. Louis dirty, like the Generals against the Globetrotters.

My petition to the league is to retroactively cut off the 1968, 1969, and 1970 tournaments at the East Division Final. Crown that loser the true Stanley Cup runner-up. It really wouldn't change that much. The ultimate outcome (two Montreal Cup victories and one for the Bruins) could remain unedited in the record books. Strike these "exhibition" losses from the Blues' permanent record. 

1968: Canadiens over Blues (Black Hawks) 
1969: Canadiens over Blues (Bruins)
1970: Bruins over Blues (Black Hawks)

This amendment would not pull down banners, vacate wins (not that there are any), or change the way St. Louisans fells in love with that team from the very beginning. All of those greats — like the Plager brothers — would remain demigods in this town; commended for what they did as the scrappy three-seed in the West Division playoffs of '68. But their story should really stop there. Don't let it go past the desirable parts and into a tarnished ending (looking at you Game of Thrones).

Where does rewriting the history books end? There have been 17 other instances of teams swept in the Stanley Cup Final since 1939 (when the best-of-seven format was adopted). Do they all get their "0-fer" records in those series expunged? No, don't be silly. Only the 1996 Florida Panthers and 2018 Vegas Golden Knights can match the 1968-1970 Blues as Stanley Cup Final participants within their first three seasons. That's the extent of the list for those with a viable excuse in not winning it all. And Vegas' argument certainly falls apart quickly

Don't get this plea twisted; this is not a legacy rewrite. The five St. Louisans taken in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft would have still existed had the Red Wings or Black Hawks won the West Division in those early years. Youth "hockey schools" involved mainly Canadian-born players teaching the game to the locals. The city took to hockey in a way few other cities have ever matched. The desire to pick up the game was not dependent on making the Stanley Cup Final three consecutive seasons. The proud alumni (many of whom were in tears last night) would have still have had their painful close calls with destiny.  

Under my restructured format, 1969 is the one Final appearance you could argue the Blues might have still earned. The Bruins would have remained in the East (unable to meet Montreal in the Final) and that was the best-equipped Blues team to beat a Chicago or Detroit for the West crown. Those 88 points were the franchise best until the 1980-81 season, in a time when the regular-season schedule expanded to four more games per year.  

However, I feel confident saying the Red Wings, who didn't even qualify for the four-team East Division playoff in 1969, would have represented the West if given the chance. Fifth place — out of the traditional six — was still a way better hockey club than any that had only played a single season. Their 78 points and 33 wins would have been good enough for the two seed in the other division; quantities earned against steeper competition. This disparity cannot be overstated nor overlooked.  

If anything, this revisionist history should actually be welcomed by Blues fans. Who in St. Louis wouldn't want two more Cup Final losses in Chicago's archive? The move also adds retroactive time to the "pain and suffering without a Final appearance" clock. And as fans, don't we secretly love this? Being a diehard supporter of a sports team sometimes means craving those reasons you die hard; the plays where lesser men would justifiably jump off the wagon. Maybe that's just me. I quietly harbor a sadistic point of pride that my Cleveland Indians haven't won since 1948 (and that I can list you out all 71 subsequent winners in order). I would honestly be bored to tears if they won it all at the rate of the New England Patriots. Which championship would have any distinguishable sentimental meaning? Seeing my Cavs finally exorcise the demons — in the fashion they did, against the iconic team they overcame — makes that waiting totally worth it. It makes for these moments where a grandson, son, father, and grandfather can all relate/connect/weep/scream in exaltation.

Blues fans fall into this martyrdom category; those that proudly display the empty trophy case like a testament to their unwavering loyalty. Making this particular Stanley Cup run the true first time feels like suitable reparations for the St. Louis families that have never not bled blue. So, if you could wave a wand and make those previous Cup Final appearances disappear, would you? 

⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻⸻

I'm aware it's an unpopular/contrarian/out-on-a-limb take to suggest the fans of a team that got to hang multiple banners during their franchise's infancy have any grievances at all. They stepped right into the league and were granted unequal odds — relative to the established group — to play for the most-coveted trophy in the world. On three consecutive turns, they drew that lucky card in the deck which bypasses all major obstacles on the game board. The rules essentially sent them directly to the final showdown, just by participating. That sure doesn't sound like anyone that should be crying foul. But I would argue that with time comes perspective. What did St. Louis gain by being embarrassed once they got there? 

Thankfully (typed tongue-in-cheek) the Blues didn't mess around and win one of those early appearances. Doing so would have changed the entire essence of what it means to be a modern Blues fan. Going after a second Cup isn't as sexy. And that late-'60s fan base was nowhere near ready to handle the weight of being National Hockey League champions. For the record, neither were the Vegas Golden Knights last June. In both cases, a win would have also cheapened any future title victories. Expansion teams are supposed to struggle to earn their place over time.

If the Blues somehow pulled a seismic upset in any of their attempts, the outrage in cities like New York and Boston would have been deafening. At that time, the Rangers hadn't won a Cup since 1940; the Bruins since 1941. New York hadn't even appeared in a Final since losing Game 7 in 1950. If some upstart club got to side-step the gauntlet to have their names etched on the Cup, the system would have been scrapped even sooner.   

Did you not see Gladiator? The outmatched amateurs, thrown to the professional fighters, are supposed to die for the spectator's amusement, not actually win. In that, the hodgepodge roster of Blues were to make a good show of it all, but never supposed to see their names on the Cup. It was more about getting the greats (future Montreal Canadien Hall of Famers: Worsley, Savard, Duff, Lemaire, Cournoyer, Vachon; future Boston Bruin Hall of Famers: Orr, Bucyk, Esposito, Cheevers) in front of crowds west of the Mississippi. 

When the league doubled in size that fateful offseason, there was a conscious effort to place four of the new franchises (Oakland, Los Angeles, Minnesota, and St. Louis) in markets well beyond the league's East Coast comfort zone. It was an initiative to shift the geographical epicenter of the average NHL fan. Think about the NFL and now MLB games in London, Mexico City, etc. When you view it under the lens of a PR stunt and less like a fair fight, the narrative sure changes. 

This particular desire to expand was the fullest definition of that word. It was as much about growing the league's reach — from a viewership/listenership perspective — as it was in providing the Original Six more games and a variety of teams to play. The goal was to get the Stanley Cup in more living rooms; broadcast by more radio stations that start with a "K" and not just a "W" (Eastern U.S.) and "C" (Canada).
If the NHL could have landed a New York vs. Los Angeles Stanley Cup Final in any of those first three years, the entire old vs. new mission might not have been abandoned. Humdrum St. Louis on repeat was clearly too much for this league to stomach.  

If you subscribe to my outlandish theory that there is someone to blame for letting the Blues win those darn division championships, then the irony is thick. The person that deserves the ire is the namesake of the very trophy players posed with on-ice last night. The third president of the National Hockey League, Clarence Campbell, oversaw all the expansion efforts of the late '60s and early '70s. Today, the modern hardware that goes to the Western Conference Champion bears his name. He's the guy that put the Blues in a position where they never belonged.   

Because this is officially logged as the fourth Cup Final appearance in 51 St. Louis Blues seasons, that ratio of years in existence to title opportunities sure paints an inaccurate picture. It allows for lesser storylines — such as the 2018 Capitals' quest to end their drought — to be viewed as more compelling. That Washington franchise came into the league later than St. Louis ('74 vs. '67) and had appeared in a Stanley Cup Final as recently as 1998. The Caps' longest consecutive playoff streak was 14 seasons; the Blues had a 25 year run from 1979-2004. St. Louis has now made the playoffs 42 of their 51 seasons (82.4%), decimal places better than the iconic Montreal Canadiens (83 of 101; 82.2%) for the best rate in NHL history. That's far more painful to be that highly competitive year-after-year-after-year and come up short. But because the Blues show up in on Wikipedia as four-time finalists, somehow their fans aren't nearly aggrieved? That's awful. Strike the trio at St. Louis' birth and this is a much better story for NBC to tell. After all, "there's nothing more powerful in the world than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story than..." 

This doesn't even include the worst-to-first potential of the Blues coming from a dead last point position on the morning of January 3, 2019.

To me, last night's convincing Game 6 win wasn't "the first conference championship in 49 years." Just say "ever" or "in franchise history" because it should have been (and now will be forever in my mind). Ending a long drought is one thing, but accomplishing a feat for the first time is so much sweeter. 
The party atmosphere awaiting the Seattle Mariners and Detroit Lions for finally playing in a World Series and Super Bowl, respectively, is going to be epic. Even with unfinished business, the celebrations would rival those typically seen in winning the bigger prize. This is what the Blues were supposed to have; the relief of finally getting over a previously-insurmountable hurdle. The tears of former players in attendance epitomized that "you did what we couldn't" mentality. 

The narrative of getting back there does a disservice to how big this moment truly is in the history of St. Louis hockey — all because a ludicrous decision was sold as a litmus test for traditional powerhouses against upstart hockey cities. 

The 2019 Stanley Cup Final has already been billed as "A rematch, 49 years in the making." Bullshit. It was never a match the first time around. Should the Blues lose their first two games at TD Garden, then the press rumblings will be how they are still searching for their first Stanley Cup win in their 15th attempt. That is unfair pressure to place on these players; not their cross to bear.

In hindsight (and my humble opinion), the magic of this season would be better off if the Blues had never climbed to these heights before. More "Feels Like The First Time" (Foreigner) and a little less "Gloria" (Branigan). That's how I'm treating my experience as I tune in for what should be a fantastic series. I badly want my newest hometown to do it; almost as much as I yearn for the days where each and every cocky Boston sports team implodes in embarrassment.  

Dear Blues, go get that first Cup victory in your first appearance in franchise history.* No one will be able to put a damper on that party, then. 

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