Each week Bob Plager hits the road to scout upcoming opponents for the St. Louis Blues. He checks strengths, weaknesses, injuries, line combinations and biorhythms, draws diagrams, digests charts over easy and then catches a flight back home to deliver the goods to Coach Red Berenson.
"We sit down," Plager says, "and Red says to me, 'Well, Bob, what do we have to do to beat so-and-so when we go in there Thursday night?' I look up and say, 'Play Mike Liut in goal.' And we have a good laugh."
Not too long ago, the joke was the Blues. In the 1978-79 season, they lost 50 games and missed the playoffs, which isn't easy to do in the NHL. But after beating Quebec and Winnipeg last week, they had the fourth-best record in the league: 17-6-4 for 38 points, just two fewer than the No. 1-ranked Philadelphia Flyers. And those 17 victories in 27 games are just one shy of the Blues' 18 wins in 80 games two years ago.
Whether the Blues are that good is moot; obviously, that question can't be answered until the end of the season. A more salient point, as Left Wing Brian Sutter says, is that "we're respectable again, and it starts right there with the big guy in the nets."
Last Tuesday night in the Checker-dome, Liut, who's 6'2" and 180 pounds, provided a classic example—in a non-classic game—of how a goalkeeper can doublehandedly win for a team. The Nordiques, who can skate if nothing else, outshot St. Louis 11-1 in the opening 10 minutes, but the acrobatic Liut—seemingly the only Blue on the ice—kept them scoreless. Then Quebec took a 2-1 second-period lead, and here came the Nordiques' Michel Goulet on a breakaway. Liut had stopped Goulet on a two-on-one earlier, and now he calmly stoned him again.
"That," said Blues' President and G.M. Emile Francis, an old NHL goalie himself, "could turn this game around."
It did. St. Louis scored four unanswered goals, Liut held Quebec scoreless, stopping 37 shots in all, and the Blues had a 5-2 victory.
The dark and dashing Liut, 24, first dazzled Francis when he was a goalie for Bowling Green University. "He used to come in here and play great against the [ St. Louis University] Billikens," Francis says. "I remember one night his team got outshot something like 50-19, but they stayed in the game because of Liut. I said to myself, 'If I ever get a chance....' "
The Blues selected Liut in the fifth round of the 1976 amateur draft—he was the 56th pick overall—but when he graduated in 1977, the St. Louis franchise was dying of fiscal exhaustion. Team officials avoided NHL meetings because their IOUs were first on the agenda; St. Louis' credit was so bad, the team had to pay bus companies and hotels in advance. The administrative staff was stripped of 23 people. Scouts Lou Passador and Steve Brklacich, who had come with Francis from the Rangers, went months without paychecks. The Blues even had the shorts when it came to hockey sticks. Barclay Plager, Bob's brother, was the coach of their Kansas City farm club, and once he suggested to his players that at the conclusion of fights they should pick up their opponents' sticks and keep them.
"I guess the ultimate was when Bernie Federko's family visited St. Louis and he wanted to give them autographed sticks," says Francis. "I saw him take a couple of sticks and said, 'You know our situation. Put those back.' We had a game that night, I look down on the ice real close, and the poor kid is playing with one of those autographed sticks he wanted to give away. It was really grim, I tell you. In the summer of 1977, we were one phone call away from being out of the NHL."