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The Blues are back in the Stanley Cup finals after nearly 50 years of weird

At long last, the Blues are back in the Stanley Cup finals. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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The St. Louis Blues secured a spot in the Stanley Cup finals Tuesday night, finishing off the San Jose Sharks with a 5-1 win in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. They have been there before but not since 1970.

Both before and after that previous high-water mark, the Blues have led one of the more curious existences in pro sports history. They have been an unwanted expansion team and then an immediate bright spot. They have been a highly successful franchise, if you’re counting playoff berths, but an almost guaranteed failure once they reach the postseason (until now, anyway). They have been bought and sold eight times, almost moved to Saskatchewan and were once abandoned by their owners to the point that they didn’t even show up for the NHL draft.

And now, after that extremely odd path, the Blues are four wins away from their first Stanley Cup. Here’s how the franchise (finally) got there.

Blues, Bruins meet in Stanley Cup finals 49 years in the making

They only exist because of a real estate deal

Worried that the league’s small geographic footprint would hinder its chances of obtaining a national U.S. television contract, the NHL decided in the mid-1960s to double its numbers from six to 12 teams. In February 1966, it awarded new franchises to five metropolitan areas — San Francisco/Oakland, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — and a “conditional” franchise to St. Louis, even though no one from the city actually had submitted a bid.

This must have seemed a little peculiar, especially to hockey fans in Baltimore, where an ownership group had submitted an application but was told it would get a team only if a group from the approved list dropped out. But things were happening behind the scenes: Bill Wirtz and James D. Norris, owners of the Chicago Blackhawks, also owned the St. Louis Arena, which was built in 1929 but had become decrepit after decades of out-of-town ownership. Wirtz and Norris wanted to sell the building and, as told in 2013 by Rick Ackerman at Lighting the Lamp, “granting St. Louis an expansion team was a brilliant way of unloading a near-worthless relic on a willing buyer.”

There was one problem for Wirtz and Norris: Even though out-of-town investors were interested, no one in St. Louis seemed willing to step up, and the league insisted on local ownership.

Finally, after failing to find anyone who was both interested and rich enough at St. Louis-area country clubs, and with an NHL-imposed deadline looming, a consortium headed by local insurance tycoon Sid Salomon Jr. and his son stepped up to purchase the arena — they paid the Blackhawks’ owners $4 million for the stadium and spent another $2 million to renovate it — and fund the expansion team, which began play in the 1967-68 season.

Stanley Cup prediction: Brace yourself for another Boston title

The Blues were immediately successful . . . kind of

St. Louis started its inaugural campaign 4-13-2 even though the majority of its games were against fellow expansion teams, which were similarly hamstrung by the fact that the NHL’s top talent remained in its Original Six. Lynn Patrick quickly resigned as coach but stayed on as general manager, handing the reins to assistant Scotty Bowman, who kicked off his legendary coaching career by promptly leading the Blues to three straight appearances in the Stanley Cup finals.

But here’s the thing: All six of the expansion teams were placed in the same division, meaning one was guaranteed to make the finals each year, presumably to be demolished by one of the Original Six. And that’s what happened. St. Louis was swept by Montreal in 1968 and 1969 and then by Boston in 1970, getting outscored 43-17 in those 12 games.

The Blues wouldn’t make it back to the finals for 49 years.

But it’s not for a lack of effort

St. Louis has played 51 NHL seasons and advanced to the playoffs in all but nine of them. The Blues made the postseason every year from 1980 to 2004, a 25-season run of at least moderate success that’s tied for the third longest in NHL history.

But the other three teams that either matched or surpassed St. Louis’s streak (the Boston Bruins from 1968-96, Chicago Blackhawks from 1970-97 and Detroit Red Wings from 1991-2016) all went to the Stanley Cup finals at least three times. The Blues didn’t get there once, making it past the second round only twice over that run and losing conference finals to the Flames in 1986 and Avalanche in 2001.

Whether because of choking or bad luck, no NHL team has underperformed as much as the Blues have since 1990. Earlier this month, FiveThirtyEight found that, based on the team’s underlying statistics, St. Louis should have won 1.4 Stanley Cups since the 1989-90 season. The next closest non-championship team over that span is the Ottawa Senators, who should have won 1.2.

So . . . many . . . owners

The Blues have been bought and sold more times than your average college textbook.

Things started promising enough with the Salomon family, what with all the Stanley Cup finals appearances and a reputation as one of the most player-friendly ownership groups in sports.

“They treated the players to all-expenses-paid Florida vacations when seasons ended and bought them gold wristwatches for scoring hat tricks, etc.,” Dan O’Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in 2012 (in an article that informs much of this section). “When Red Berenson scored six goals in a game on Nov. 7, 1968, ownership presented the outdoor enthusiast with a new station wagon, a canoe attached to the top and a Browning 20-gauge shotgun inside.

"Berenson, who had played previously in Montreal and New York, commented: ‘In New York or Montreal, all you’d get would be a handshake.’ "

But NHL ownership isn’t all vacations and gifted shotguns. The Blues’ initial success tailed off as their top players left and deferred contracts came due, and revenue got so bleak that the team had reduced its management staff to just three people by the end of the 1976-77 season. (Emile Francis, for instance, served as team president, general manager and head coach.) That offseason, the Salomons sold the team, arena and $8.8 million in debt to the Ralston Purina pet food company.

What followed in 1983 and beyond was one of the strangest ownership journeys in U.S. pro sports history. Sick of losing money, Ralston Purina announced its intention to sell the team in January of that year to Saskatoon-based Batoni-Hunter Enterprises Ltd., which almost immediately declared it would be moving the Blues to Saskatchewan in time for the 1983-84 season. But NHL officials felt Saskatoon could not support a franchise and blocked the sale, leading Ralston Purina to sue the league and all but abandon the team, locking the stadium doors and not even bothering to participate in the 1983 NHL draft (the team forfeited its picks). The league filed a countersuit and took control of the Blues but established a deadline of Aug. 6 for someone else to step up and purchase the franchise, else it would dissolve the team and disperse its players.

Eventually, a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur named Harry Ornest bought the team and the stadium and, even though he ran it on a skeletal budget, the Blues continued their playoff run. But after the 1986 conference finals loss to Calgary, Ornest sold the franchise and its stadium (making a tidy profit) to St. Louis businessman Michael Shanahan, who hung on for five years until selling his controlling interest to a consortium of local businesses called Kiel Center Partners. Later renamed Clark Enterprises, the consortium sold the franchise and the lease on the team’s new stadium in 1999 to Bill Laurie and his wife, Nancy, daughter of Walmart co-founder Sam Walton, for $100 million.

The Lauries also wouldn’t last long. Citing losses of more than $60 million over the previous two years, they put the Blues up for sale in June 2005, selling off the team’s high-priced talent in the process. Early the next year they sold the team to SCP Worldwide, a consulting and investment group led by Dave Checketts (a former president of Madison Square Garden), along with a private equity firm. Six years later, the team was sold to yet another local consortium, this one led by businessman Tom Stillman.

It owns the team to this day and might be on the verge of acquiring the most valuable trophy in sports. Finally.

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