Lighting the Lamp, With Rick Ackerman
There have been many highly skilled All-Star hockey players who have worn the Note during the 50-year history of the St. Louis Blues, including Red Berenson, Garry Unger, Bernie Federko, Brett Hull and currently Vladimir Tarasenko. As much as Blues fans adore their stars, however, there is also love for the lesser-skilled personalities who have made a huge impact on Blues’ Nation.
The first was a burly, slow-skating defenseman from Dysart, Saskatchewan, named Gus Kyle. Kyle never actually played for the Blues, although he logged 203 NHL games (6 goals, 20 assists and 362 penalty minutes) with Boston and tonight’s opponent, the New York Rangers. Kyle was a five-year veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police when he joined the Rangers in 1949.
During his brief NHL career, Kyle made a name for himself, though, by being one of the rare NHL defenseman to give the legendary Maurice “Rocket” Richard great difficulty. In his book, famed Canadian broadcaster Dick Irvin Jr. (son of Dick Irvin, HHoF 1958) noted he couldn’t identify why Kyle had so much success in shutting down the Rocket, yet could not help but wonder why Kyle was not on the ice when Richard scored the Cup-winning goal against Boston in game seven in 1952.
When his playing days were over, Kyle coached the Calgary Stampeders of the WHL for several years before jumping to the NHL ranks with the Chicago Blackhawks organization in 1962 as head coach of the Hawks’ farm team in Syracuse, N.Y. That club transferred to St. Louis the same year as the Braves. Kyle did it all for the Braves. As well as coach, he sold tickets, helped with public relations, and even reportedly assisted with maintenance at the Old Barn on Oakland.
In 1967 Kyle was hired by Sidney Salomon, Jr. as ticket sales director for the brand-new NHL franchise in St. Louis and then joined the KMOX’s radio broadcasting duo of Jack Buck and Jay Randolph. With an unabashed, enthusiastic demeanor, Kyle quickly endeared himself to the listening audience, coining the phrase, “It’s a real barn-burner tonight, folks!” The following season, Kyle found himself partners with Dan Kelly and for the next 16 years they worked together to provide fond memories for generations of Blues fans.
According to George Csolak, a Blues beat writer for the old Globe Democrat, “Dan didn’t have a lot of tolerance for his partner’s sense of humor. I remember sitting next to Dan and Gus in the press box at Toronto back in 1982. Jack Brownschidle was playing defense for the Blues and carried the puck over the blue line only to be called offside by the official. Gus said, ‘Dan, the linesman called that play offside because Jack’s nose crossed the blue line before the puck.’ When they went to break, Dan looked at Gus and said, ‘What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know his parents listen to our broadcasts back in Rochester, New York?’” Kyle retired in 1983 and remained in the St. Louis area, passing away in 1996 after battling heart disease.
Another low-skill, high-impact former New York Ranger was a small (5’7”, 155lbs.) goaltender from North Battleford, Saskatchewan named Emile Francis (HHoF 1982). Francis revolutionized the use of a baseball-style catching glove for net minders as early as 1947 while playing for the Blackhawks. He was soon traded to New York (95 total NHL games) and then bounced around the minors before retiring in 1960. Francis joined the Rangers’ organization, coaching in Guelph, Ontario, before returning to the Big Apple in 1965 as general manager and head coach. “The Cat” left New York to join the Blues in 1976 as general manager and executive vice president, also coaching in 124 games, with a 46-64-14 record.
And it was Emile Francis who kept the Blues in St. Louis during those tumultuous times in 1977 when the franchise was almost lost. With a $7.5 million mortgage on the Arena and fat contracts for players who could not attract fans, the Blues were practically bankrupt. Francis even stopped attending league meetings since he had no money to travel. He told players to tape up broken sticks when they came to him for new ones. He even had a garage sale, selling old equipment and jerseys ($30 apiece) to raise money. My brother actually bought two of those old beauties, handing $60 directly into Mr. Francis’ desperate hand.
Francis somehow persuaded Ralston-Purina chairman R. Hal Dean to buy the Blues and the Arena in July 1977, saving the club. As reported by Gerald Eskenazi of the New York Times, Francis said, “Ralston told me the only way they’d take the team is if I ran it.” And run it he did. However, in 1981, Dean retired, and Ralston’s new chairman, William Stiritz, wanted to sell the team since it had lost over $10 million in the previous six years. In January 1983, Ralston told a shocked Blues’ Nation that it had received a purchase offer from Bill Hunter, one of the founders of the WHA and former owner of the WHA Edmonton Oilers. On April 19, Ralston authorized the sale to the Saskatoon entrepreneur for around $12 million. Although Francis left the organization in early May to join the Hartford Whalers, the franchise was finally saved for good when California businessman Harry Ornest stepped in and bought the Blues in late July.
Yes, we love our star players, yet it is legends like Gus Kyle and Emile Francis who worked behind the scenes to promote the St. Louis Blues and keep them a part of our collective hearts and souls. Without them, there would most likely be no professional hockey in St. Louis.