Goalie Mike Liut, after a flawless 25-save performance had earned him most valuable player honors and a new car in the recent NHL All-Star Game, plodded into a roomful of media types, stood behind the microphone and said: "I feel like the president."
As far as St. Louis hockey fans are concerned, Liut could be elected president tomorrow. He is the biggest factor in the Blues' rise from next-to-last place with 48 points in 1978-1979 to .500 status with 80 points last year, to the current No. 1 spot in the league, 87 points with 17 games to play.
When St. Louis was scraping the bottom, giving up more goals than any other NHL team, Liut was toiling with the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association, because the bankrupt Blues could not afford him when he came out of Bowling Green University in 1977 with a degree in business pre-law and impeccable goaltending credentials.
Dog food food prevented the Blues from becoming dog meat, as Ralston-Purina took over the club and settled all its debts in September 1977. Liut then was retrieved two years later as a result of the merger with the WHA.
In his first St. Louis season, Liut posted a 3.18 goals-against mark and won 32 games, more than any other goalie in the league and more than 10 other teams, including Washington. Although Liut was this writer's choice as MVP, he did not come close to winner Wayne Gretzky in the postseason balloting.
He should do better in this year's vote, because any questions that he was a one-year wonder have been dispelled. Although idle for three weeks after a shot ripped through a defective supporter, Liut owns a remarkable 26-9-10 record, with a 3.17 goals against.
Liut and friends have revived hockey interest in St. Louis, following a steady decline from the expansion glory days of the '60s and early '70s, when the Blues reached the Stanley Cup final three years in a row. Already this season, the Blues have attracted four crowds of more than 19,000, and a fifth is a good possibility tonight when the Washington Capitals visit (WDCA-TV 20 at 9 p.m.).
"Liut is the key," said Emile Francis, Blues' president-general manager who once toiled in Washington as a minor-league goaltender. "There are a lot of others -- Bernie Federko, Wayne Babych, Brian Sutter -- but Liut deserves the most credit; no doubt about it."