Though he never lived to discover the difference between a hockey puck and a lacrosse stick, Pierre Lacl�de Li-guest—the French fur trader who founded St. Louis 205 years ago—would be a Blues fan today. Everybody living within a long slap shot of the Arena at 5700 Oakland Avenue is a Blues fan today, from that Tulsa couple who just bought season tickets to that nice man, Stan, who owns the restaurant up the street. The Blues, who frolicked off with the National Hockey League's West Division championship, are St. Louis today, as much so as the
, W. C. Handy's namesake song, El Birdos and beer. Pierre Lacl�de Liguest would be a Blues fan all right; he'd have a pair of seats for sure, somewhere in the Parquets.
As the Stanley Cup playoffs got under way this week, tickets were as hard to find in St. Louis as Detroit Tiger fans. But that is only typical of the whole season. The Blues averaged 14,155 for 38 home games, 26 of which were sellouts. Already about 12,000 of the Arena's 14,500 seats belong to season ticket holders, and there just aren't enough of those penthouse boxes to go around. ( Anheuser-Busch, Dempsey-Tegeler, Falstaff and Southwestern Bell Telephone, to name just a few boxholders, are in at $2,500 a year.) The Arena is a fashion showcase for St. Louis women in sable and mink, Givenchy and Dior, their escorts in very fine threads. "We come to see the fights," says Mrs. A. J. Gala, a lady of taste. "Those boys are so strong, well, you just know they can take care of themselves."
Blues fans would jump off the Gateway Arch for their team and vice versa; there isn't another crowd in the NHL quite like this one. Pumped up by a silver-jacketed organist named Norm Kramer (whose technique has been scouted by Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), the crowd is in a froth even before the Blues take the ice. When the players appear at last, Kramer swings into the
St. Louis Blues
, and the crowd comes to its feet. If the pace of the game is slow, Kramer often pounds his left hand on the bass keys and his feet on the pedals in a plea for action. In this atmosphere the Blues have become a phenomenal third-period team, outscoring the opposition 72 goals to 40. Thirteen times this year they have come back either to tie or win in the final period, three times in the last five minutes. At home the Blues lost only eight of their 38 games.
"That crowd is worth a goal a game to us," says Scotty Bowman, the team's coach and general manager. "One night in Chicago we lost 3-1 but played a good third period. I have to believe that if we're home, in front of our fans, somehow we tie 2-2."
The Blues' scene is a love feast. Love flows down from the owners, Sidney Salomon Jr. and his son Sid III, and back up to them. Three years ago the Arena was aromatic of livestock shows. Today, after a $2.5 million refurbishing by the Salomons, it is second in splendor only to the Los Angeles Forum. There is an Arena Club, done in Old English, with burnished wood furnishings, low lights and thick red carpeting, while out in the seats there is a hockey "feel" to the building; the sight lines are excellent. The Blues' ice-making machine is one of the few that doesn't leave tracks—it is driven over a red carpet before it reaches the ice.
The Salomons' tender loving care notoriously extends to the Blues' players. Any man who does something to enhance the team's name—scores three goals in a game, makes the All-Star team, plays a major role in a key victory—gets a gold wristwatch. Not any gold wristwatch, mind you, but a $750 Patek Philippe, thin as a half dollar. Last Nov. 7, Gordon (Red) Berenson (see cover) went a little wild, scoring six goals in a game with the Philadelphia Flyers. For this extraordinary feat the Salomons presented Berenson with a 1969 Chevrolet station wagon with a canoe on top and a Browning 20-gauge shotgun inside. "In New York or Montreal," said Red, who has played for both cities, "all you'd get would be a handshake."
Last spring there was a highly publicized trip to Florida—players and wives, 10 days, all expenses paid. The Blues loved it, of course, but there was some out-of-town grouching. "I think the Salomons are on very thin ice with that kind of stuff," said George (Punch) Imlach, coach and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "I'm sure Scotty Bowman, as coach, thinks it's great because it makes his job easier when he has a happy, motivated team. But from a management point of view it's bad. It puts every other club in the league in an impossible competitive position—a position we shouldn't have to be in. After all, I'm not allowed to call my players together and say, 'You win tonight and I'll give you $5,000 to split among yourselves.' That just isn't permitted, and I'm afraid the Salomons are getting very close to just the type of thing the league wants to avoid."
"I can see it creating problems for the rest of us, all right," says Red Kelly, coach of the Los Angeles Kings. "Maybe a fellow will score six goals and want to know where his new car is. You tell him he doesn't get a new car, and he says, 'Trade me to St. Louis.' "
All this makes the Salomons simmer. "I think Mr. Imlach owes us an apology," says Sid Jr. "We're not trying to tell or show anyone else how to run their clubs. We paid $2 million for this franchise and we're entitled to run it the way we please—provided we stay within the league rules, as we have done. Hockey is business, and we're only following the same formula we've used for years in the insurance business—treating people the way we like to be treated. There are a lot of insurance agents working for us who could make 15% or 20% more with somebody else, but they stay with us. They're happy with us."
"Look," says Sid III. "Dad and I own a hotel in Florida. It's half empty in May. Dad and I are sports fans. We like athletes and we like to be around them. We enjoy golfing and fishing together, just taking it easy. We're going to Florida again this spring. We told the players back in November that we'd be going even if we finished last."