Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
Where were you on March 7, 1988?
For one generation decades ago, that important question was where were you on December 7, 1941, and for the next generation it was where you were on November 22, 1963. And for the most recent generation, it was where you on September 11, 2001.
So, with the Calgary Flames visiting tonight and with you, an avid Blues fan, reading this article, it should be quite easy for you to remember the significance of that fateful Monday 28 years ago.
On that day the Blues general manager, the Professor, Ron Caron, orchestrated a major trade. His team, coached by Jacques Martin, was floundering toward a losing season even though the club featured talented forwards like Bernie Federko, captain Brian Sutter, Doug Gilmour and wingers Tony McKegney (who led the team with 40 goals) and Mark Hunter. Goaltenders Greg Millen and Rick Wamsley struggled, though, allowing an average of around three and a half goals against per game, and a potent offensive-minded defense, led by Rob Ramage, Brian Benning, Gaston Gingras and Paul Cavallini, had difficulty clearing the crease and limiting shots against.
The Calgary Flames were the best team in the NHL during the regular season that season, winning the Presidents’ Trophy by two points over the powerhouse Montreal Canadiens. Coach Terry Crisp had a lot of talent to work with, including forwards Hakan Loob (leading scorer with 50 goals and 106 points), Mike Bullard (later traded to the Blues in September 1988 for Doug Gilmour and Mark Hunter), rookie Joe Nieuwendyk, former Blue Joe Mullen and grizzled veteran Lanny McDonald. A superb defense was led by Al MacInnis (25 goals, 83 points), Gary Suter (21 goals, 91 points), and rough, tough Brad McCrimmon. Although veteran Mike Vernon was a good goaltender, the Flames had no decent back up, and Vernon was over-used, allowing three and a half goals per game.
So, Flames GM Cliff Fletcher realized he needed another goaltender and another defenseman if his Flames were to somehow defeat the archrival Oilers (it would turn out to be Wayne Gretzky’s last season in Edmonton) in the upcoming playoffs. It was easy for Fletcher to reach a deal with the wily Professor, who had his eyes on a young Flames prospect loaded with talent, but (supposedly) short on discipline and heart.
In his own words, Brett Hull was viewed as a “pudgy, fun-loving, music-crazed bum” who, as he also noted in his autobiography, was passed over in 1982, the first year he was eligible for the NHL amateur draft. He joined the Penticton Knights of the second-tier BCJHL, scoring 48 goals in 50 games. Once again, no NHL team selected him in 1983 due to a perception that he was not committed to the game and to a lack of conditioning. When Brett scored 105 goals and 188 points in 56 games during the 1983-84 BCJHL season, it got some attention. Calgary drafted him in the sixth round, 117th overall, of the 1984 amateur draft.
Hull accepted a scholarship from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he was named to the WCHA All-Star first team in 1986 after scoring 52 goals, a school record. He was also a Hobey Baker Award finalist for best NCAA player.
After his sophomore season, Hull signed a contract with the Flames and joined the team during the 1986 Stanley Cup playoffs, making his NHL debut on May 20 against the Canadiens. He was assigned to the AHL Moncton Golden Flames the following season, scoring 50 goals and tying an AHL record for goals by a rookie. The following season he earned a spot on the Flames roster, appearing in 52 games, tallying 26 goals and 50 points. However, poor skating, conditioning and commitment were still seen as a problem by the Calgary organization.
On March 7, Hull (and center Steve Bozak) came to St. Louis for goaltender Rick Wamsley and defenseman Rob Ramage. Despite acquiring players that filled gaping holes in the Flames’ roster, Fletcher paid a high price indeed in sending the Golden Brett to the Blues.
Calgary went on the playoffs and won the first round in five games over Los Angeles. Unfortunately, Gretzky and the Oilers (eventual Cup champions that year) swept them in the second round in four games. The Blues suffered the same fate, beating the hated Blackhawks in five games of the first round, but succumbing to the also-hated Red Wings in five games in the second round.
The Flames got the temporary last laugh, though, as they went on to win another Presidents’ Trophy and their first Stanley Cup in 1989 with Ramage and Wamsley prominent players during the regular season. After the championship victory over Montreal, Al MacInnis was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
The Blues eventually won the trade, though, as Hull went on to set many records for St. Louis, including total goals (527), power play goals (195), game-winning goals (70) and hat tricks (27). He is acclaimed as arguably the best player ever to wear the Note. (Many consider Gretzky’s short tenure with the Blues as a reason to exclude him from this designation.) Hull played in eight NHL All-Star games (MVP in 1992) and is fourth all-time in NHL goals with 741. The Blues retired his number 16 in 1995, and a portion of Clark St. is named in his honor, just in front of his statue at the TradeStocks Center.
A majority of hockey writers would easily declare this the best trade in Blues history and the worst trade in Flames history. Thank you, Cliff! Thank you, Ron!