Outside the Arena in St. Louis gleams a massive orange-and-yellow neon sign. Occupying the far left section of the sign is an electronic hockey player in the uniform of the St. Louis Blues. Every night during the season the player repeatedly draws back his stick and blasts mighty shots toward a net at the far right of the sign 250 feet away. As each shot flies toward the goal, the words HOME OF THE ST. LOUIS BLUES—NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE appear in dazzling blue letters, and in a gaudy splash of red the puck sails unerringly into the net.
Early in the season the only thing the real, live Blues had in common with that electronic hot shot was the uniform. Not scoring was their specialty. So adept were they at missing the net that they looked like odds-on noncontenders for the Stanley Cup.
But look at the Blues today. They are right up there with the top teams in the expansion division of the NHL. Why? One man. Scotty Bowman. Three months ago, when St. Louis was last in the West and Goalie Glenn Hall was the one player not giving fans the lowercase blues, Lynn Patrick, who had been doubling as coach and general manager, put the 34-year-old Bowman behind the bench. Bowman immediately made a trade for New York's Gordon (Red) Berenson and, lo, the team started winning. Since then St. Louis has been just about the hottest of the expansion teams, and the youngest coach in the NHL is already beginning to look like one of the best.
Some fanatical fans even claim the Blues' new-style attack reminds them of the Montreal Canadiens, the way they head-man the puck and storm the net. Obviously, this is partly because they have in Bowman a man who spent 12 years in the Montreal organization as a coach and a scout and knows what perfection is.
The Canadiens were ripe for talent-raiding two years ago when the Blues owners, Sidney Salomon Jr. and his son, Sid III, skimmed a little off the top of their insurance riches and began choosing the men to run the club. They wanted some of the Canadiens' sharp young minds, and within days of each other Bowman and Cliff Fletcher, another Montreal scout, came to work on the west bank of the Mississippi.
"In the original agreement I was just supposed to scout this year," says Bowman, a dark-haired bachelor. "I wasn't supposed to start coaching until next year. I really didn't want to take over the team. I wasn't in the mood to coach. I'd been scouting in Europe and didn't have a feel for the players. But Lynn insisted he couldn't handle both jobs, so I didn't have much choice."
Six days after Bowman was made coach, he and Patrick sent their leading scorer, Ron Stewart, to the Rangers in exchange for Berenson, a man with a lifetime record of 16 goals in 185 NHL games. At the time it seemed to be the ho-hum trade of the season.
"The fact that Stewart was leading our club in scoring didn't mean a thing," says Bowman. "We couldn't score anyway. Stewart is a checker—a defensive forward—and that's what Emile Francis of the Rangers wanted all along. But Berenson—now there's an offensive player. He once scored 23 goals in 30 games for me at Hull- Ottawa. Lynn and I were just hoping that all Berenson needed was a chance."
A big (6 feet, 185 pounds) center with long arms and legs to match, Berenson started off slowly in St. Louis, mainly because he had gotten out of shape sitting on the bench in New York. Then he caught fire, and now he has become the Stan Mikita of the new league, scoring the big goals and setting up his teammates. St. Louis fans are in love with No. 7, with reason: Berenson, along with Wayne Connelly of Minnesota's North Stars, is one of the West's first potential superstars.
"Just watch him," says Hall, the All-Star goaltender who played 10 years with Mikita and Bobby Hull in Chicago. "Red seems to combine the skills of both Stan and Bobby. There isn't anything he can't do. He's a great play-maker and his shot—well, the only trouble with his shot is that sometimes he shoots too hard."