When Sid Salomon III merrily fired Bill McCreary as coach of the St. Louis Blues on Christmas Day and replaced him with former Coach Al Arbour, the gag around town was that Arbour would have the job for 25 games or 60 days, whichever came first, and then it would be Scotty Bowman's turn again. Even Sid the Third, as the 34-year-old executive vice-president of the Blues prefers to be called, had to laugh. After all, McCreary was the fourth coach he had either fired or kicked upstairs within a span of 62 games—following, in rapid order, Arbour, Bowman and Sid Abel—and now he was starting all over with Arbour once more. In his wildest dreams Charlie Finley never imagined such a wipeout.
The real joke, though, may be on Sid the Third, for Arbour—the coach he pushed out a year ago, the coach who "lacked color and charisma," the coach who was a "loyal, dutiful sergeant but would never be a general"—has rescued the Blues from the depths of disaster and, at the same time, kept Salomon, a scratch golfer, away from the links.
Sid the Third usually bolts off to Miami Beach when things are not going well for the Blues. There is nothing like 36 holes at LaGorce to help him forget all those losses and all the grumbling about the player trades he made, and there is nothing like the surf outside the Salomon-owned Golden Strand Hotel for washing his hands of another coaching problem. But now Arbour has to come along and spoil it.
Thanks to Arbour, St. Louis has been the hottest expansion club in the NHL for the last month. A sixth-place team plummeting toward seventh when Arbour assumed control, the Blues moved into third place in the West Division last Saturday night by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0 on Defenseman Billy (Wuff 'n Weddy) Plager's first goal of the season. It was the Blues' sixth win in seven games. Poor Sid the Third. He may not get back to LaGorce until after the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Stated very simply, Arbour has converted total chaos into workable order. "He just got us organized," says Garry Unger, the long-haired blond center, who had 26 goals as the week ended—and someday may make Missourians forget Red Berenson. "We've got about a dozen new players on this team, and now you wouldn't even know it." Defense-man Bob Plager, Billy's brother, is more emphatic in his praise of Arbour. "Until Al returned as coach," he says, "we were always lost on the ice. We had no breakout plays, no passing plays, no spirit, no nothing. Our practices were awful. They were too short, for one thing, and we never worked on anything. All we did was scrimmage."
Long, hard, organized workouts helped in the technical areas, but the job of instilling spirit into his players was a very painful experience for Arbour. So painful, in fact, that he needed 10 stitches to close a wound in his head. The Blues were playing the Flyers at Philadelphia, and in the second period Referee John Ashley made a few calls that Arbour and his players thought were one-sided. At the end of the period, with his team trailing 2-0 (this coming after a 9-1 loss to New York the previous night), Arbour stepped onto the ice and began to follow Ashley toward the referee's exit. When Ashley noticed Arbour, he immediately gave him a two-minute penalty. "Keep following him," Bob Plager told his coach. "You've already got the two minutes, and he won't give you any more."
As Arbour pursued Ashley off the ice, a Philadelphia fan emptied a beer cup over the coach's head. Plager and several other Blues charged toward the exit to help defend their coach. Instant riot. Arbour had his head gashed open, there were charges of police brutality, and later Arbour and some of his players spent part of the night in jail. "I was in the doctor's room getting stitched up," Arbour says, "and I heard all these shouts coming from the next room. The Blues' room. My guys were snarling. I was afraid they were going to knock down the door."
As Bob Plager says, "When Al chased after Ashley, it was the first time all year someone had stood up for us. It brought us together. Now we were ready to stand up for ourselves and be counted. It really was what I'd call the making of a hockey team." The Blues charged out and scored three goals in the third period to beat the Flyers 3-2. Two nights later they defeated the Boston Bruins 5-3, and after that they spoiled Bowman's return to St. Louis by routing his Montreal Canadiens 7-3.
Ironically, the same Arbour who has coalesced the Blues was a major figure in the rift between Sid the Third and Scotty Bowman last year. Sid wanted Bowman to replace Arbour as the coach of the Blues. Bowman, as general manager, argued that under Arbour the Blues were in second place in the West, right behind Chicago, and had the best record of all the expansion teams. But the Salomons—Sid the Third and his father, Sidney Jr.—wanted a "general" behind the bench, not a "sergeant." Finally Bowman agreed to coach the team for the last two months of the season with the understanding that Arbour would return as coach for the 1971-72 season.
Right about then Sid the Third demanded a stronger voice in player movements—or else. Bowman, of course, steadfastly refused to relinquish any of the power he had used to make the Blues the best of all the expansion teams, and in the end he, too, was fired. By disposing of Bowman, Sid the Third automatically got the stronger voice he had demanded. He was now the only voice.