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The call came from the Ralston Purina Company of St. Louis, which made an 11th-hour purchase of the Blues as a civic gesture. But by then it was too late to sign Liut; he had joined the Cincinnati Stingers of the WHA.
Liut played two seasons at Cincinnati in virtual secrecy, but Francis kept track of him. When Cincinnati was excluded from the NHL-WHA merger in 1979, Liut became St. Louis property and Francis quickly signed him. At the Blues' training camp that fall, though, nobody knew who Liut was, let alone how to pronouce his name (lee-oot). Incumbent Goaltender Phil Myre had been traded, but Ed Staniowski had inherited the starting job.
Staniowski played the first five games, but was lifted in the sixth when St. Louis fell behind Boston 5-1. Liut took over and the Blues pulled out a 5-5 tie. Since then he has almost been to Staniowski what Lou Gehrig was to Wally Pipp. Liut played in more games (64) and won more (32) than any other NHL goalie last season, and he has started—and finished—22 of the Blues' 27 games this season. He has a 14-5-3 record and a 3.18 goals-against average.
"I don't play that much anymore," says Staniowski, "but I can't really be bitter. Mike is there because of his superior work. It's not that he played well for one week. He stood them on their heads for five months last season."
"Something good started happening here last year," Liut says. "It's like we were all in a dark room, and we all knew there was a light switch somewhere. In the course of finding it, we marked up the wall a lot. We made some mistakes, but we also won some big games when we had to. That gave us a frame of reference, a foundation for this season."
Liut is that foundation. "It's a tremendous advantage for us to know whenever we go into a game that we're going to get the goalkeeping," says Defenseman Gerry Hart. "Right now, this team reminds me of when I was with the New York Islanders three years ago. We're young, and we're on the brink."
"You don't have to worry about coaching Liut," says Berenson. "He's extremely conscientious, a leader who sets high standards for himself and his teammates. A contemporary person, but also a throwback in a way. He wants to play all the time and even gets mad when they score a goal on him in practice. I hat kind of thing spreads He won't let the people playing in front of him fall asleep. He's a "holler guy.
"He's also a very intelligent goalie, who can sense the mood of his team on any night. A lot of people compare him to Ken Dryden because of his size. There are similarities. Mike stands up in goal, as Ken did, but he also moves very well. Nobody in the league uses his legs to block the puck better than Mike.
" Jacques Plante played the angles, and Glenn Hall was a reflex goalie. Mike is sort of a mixture of the two. He treats every shot for what it's worth. If it's a great shot requiring a great save, he'll make it. A lesser shot, he'll react accordingly. He slipped in through the back door here, and I hope he'll leave through the front door. I hate to put that type of pressure on anybody so young, but I think he's much too smart to get a big head."
Liut enjoys a relatively sane life for a bachelor athlete. He watches old movies, reads a lot—"If I'd read as much in college, I would've had better grades"—and paces himself. When he goes out on the town, the work ethic draws him home at an early hour. "If you're a goalie and you don't feel physically sharp for a game, you play," Liut says. "I have my fun in the summers. I think I'm as good as any goalie in the league right now, and I hope to get better. It would be pretty boring just to stay the same. Recognition is nice, but there's something to be said for tenure. Guys like Tony Esposito have been doing it for years and years.