Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman
Fifty years ago when I watched my first live NHL game at the Old Barn on Oakland, I never dreamed I would one day be watching the St. Louis Blues playing hockey at Busch Stadium, the home of the Cardinals. And yet, here we are, outside in the chill of an early January winter, welcoming in a new year at an outdoor hockey game.
And how appropriate it is that the Blues’ opponents today are the much-loathed and despised Chicago (or Shitcago as my wife likes to say) Blackhawks, currently the biggest arch rival of the Note now that the octopus-loving Detroit Red Wings have relocated to the Eastern Conference. Blues Nation has come to abhor the Blackhawks even more than the Wings since the Blues now play the Hawks five times a season ( in contrast to only two with Detroit) and have met them in the Stanley Cup playoffs in two of the last three years. It’s hard to believe, but the last time the Blues met the Red Wings in postseason play was in 2002, almost 15 years ago.
Overall, these two divisional rivals have clashed 12 times in the playoffs, with Chicago winning eight series to St. Louis’ four. The Hawks have triumphed in 35 individual contests, with the Blues victorious in 28. Since 1993, though, the Note has won three of four series and 16 of 22 games. So far this season, Chicago has won two of three bouts, one in overtime, with each team scoring a total of ten goals.
For some of us veteran (read: older) Blues’ fans, it is hard to hate the Indian-head logo on the red Blackhawks jersey since our first memories of hockey came when Chicago’s farm team was located in St. Louis. I was in junior high school when the St. Louis Braves took the Arena ice and the likes of Alain “Boom-Boom” Caron, Phil Esposito and Jack and Fred Stanfield thrilled us with exciting offensive forays that seemingly always resulted in goals. Solid defenseman included Gary Kilpatrick, Lloyd Haddon and Doug Jarrett, while goaltenders Jack McCartan (a hero of the 1960 U.S. Olympic gold-metal club) and Roy Edwards manned the net. Other notable Braves over the years included Dennis Hull, Lou Angotti, Camille Henry, Wayne Maki, Pat Stapleton and goaltenders Dave Dryden and Denis DeJordy.
The best hockey game I have ever seen was against the Blackhawks, and it was also the first time I saw them in person. It was on November 23, 1968, the night before this 20- year old soon-to-be teacher was scheduled to fly to Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio, Texas, for basic training. A St. Louis native, I was an education major at Miami University in Ohio and flew home just before Thanksgiving to say my goodbyes and, of course, to see one last hockey game before interrupting my college studies to enter the military.
And what a game the hockey gods treated me to! Jacques Plante put on a one-man show, stopping 44 shots from the likes of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita Jim Pappin and Kenny Wharram. Bill McCreary scored the lone goal for the Blues in a thrilling 1-0 victory. The final two minutes were an eternity as a jam-packed Arena crowd hooted, hollered and cheered the boys on to an improbable victory over the powerful, talent-rich Hawks. Even good defenseman like Doug Harvey, Jean-Guy Talbot, Noel Picard and Bob and Barc Plager could not seem to get the puck away from the skilled Chicago forwards, who peppered the agile Plante with rubber seemingly at will. The cantilevered roof almost came off when Plante gave his traditional “V” salute to the ecstatic fans at the end of the game.
The most recent major thrill the hockey gods blessed me with happened during last season’s playoffs in game seven of the opening round against Chicago. The now-departed Troy Brouwer scored the winning goal at 8:31 of the third as the Blues defeated the Blackhawks, 3-2. Once again, the roof almost came off when 19,950 frenzied fans screamed with joy as Brouwer jammed the puck into the net after almost missing it as he fell. Robby Fabbri and Paul Stastny assisted on the game-winner.
It was a roller coaster-ride of a game as the Blues took a 2-0 lead on goals by Jori Lehtera and Colton Parayko, only to have Marion Hossa cut the lead in half at 18:30 of the first period. Andrew Shaw tied the game with a power play goal (of course) during the second period, leading to Brouwer’s heroics in the third period. Brian Elliott backstopped the victory with 31 saves, some of them quite spectacular.
Others may remember other Blues’ triumphs over the Blackhawks as more exciting, citing the game in which Hawks’ goaltender Eddie Belfour had a major meltdown after Craig Janney scored in overtime of game four to give the Blues a 4-0 sweep in the semifinal playoff series in April 1993. Still others will say Brent Johnson’s run of four games, three of them shutouts, in the opening round series in 2002 was the most memorable.
Even more observers might say the longest playoff game in Blues’ history was the greatest Blues-Hawks game ever. Alexander Steen beat netminder Corey Crawford for a goal 26 seconds into the third overtime in game one of the 2014 playoffs. St. Louis won game two; however, Chicago won the next four in a row to take the series.
Yes, it’s almost time to drop the puck and enjoy the greatest game on earth in the chill (and rain?) of a cold wintry day at the ole ballpark. Let’s go Blues!