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The Leafs in St. Louis tonight: Vintage Leaf remembers ex-Maple Leaf Al Arbour, who helped the St. Louis Blues become the most successful new entry in the early days of the post-’67 expansion era

I’d probably be on thin ice if I tried to claim that history proves that the most successful expansion team brought into the NHL in 1967 has been the Leafs’ opponent tonight, the St. Louis Blues.

But I’ll try to make the case that they were—at least in the very early years.

Six teams came on board in ’67. (Clearly the issue for the Leafs in recent years is that we’re at our best in a 6-team league. We haven’t won a thing since the league went beyond that. Which leads to a question: any votes for contraction?) Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Oakland, Minnesota and St. Louis were integrated all at once, creating a diluted talent pool but more jobs for players.

Importantly, each franchise had, in their market, some hockey history to build upon. That was the case even in Oakland and LA, where you would think hockey would have been quite foreign to the locals. But as I kid I remember the old LA franchise (the Blades, I think?) in the now-defunct but once high-level Western Hockey league, along with a team in San Francisco, just across from Oakland.

Pittsburgh was once a minor league franchise in the AHL for the Maple Leafs, the old Pittsburgh Hornets. Many a great future Leaf played there in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Minnesota had minor pro teams too, but maybe more importantly they have been rabid high school and college hockey enthusiasts for generations. For its part, St. Louis drew well as a minor league team, like Minnesota, in the then-strong Central Hockey League before they became an NHL franchise.

Right off the bat, in humbly making my “case”, I realize the Flyers won two Cups in the mid-‘70s. So it seems a bit odd to speak of St. Louis as being more successful but again, I’m focusing on the early days of expansion. The Flyers have absolutely been a successful franchise, on and off the ice. They have been a contender through most of their history, and built a championship team in a scant seven seasons. Too, they’ve had, with the Snyder family, consistent and strong ownership since day one. There’s never been any talk of them folding, or moving, unlike many of the other new franchises.

But St. Louis, despite some ownership issues off and on (great ownership with the Solomon brothers in the early days, less so, if I remember correctly, when Harry Ornest and Ralston-Purina were involved…) has been, to me, an almost model franchise.

What I remember vividly is that, in the early days, they quickly developed a rabid fan base. Other than maybe Chicago, they had some of the loudest fans in the league.

They had a smart management group, headed by one of the Patrick clan—Lynn Patrick. Wisely, Scotty Bowman was brought in from Montreal to coach, taking over the reins full-time part-way through that first season in 1967-’68. They built around great goaltending with former Black Hawk superstar Glenn Hall. A season later, Jacques Plante came out of retirement and played magnificently to provide the Blues with perhaps the best goaltending tandem in hockey for a time.

They also infused many of ex-Habs into their line-up in the early years—Red Berenson eventually became captain; Jimmy Roberts, Jean-Guy Talbot, Noel Picard and Ab McDonald all contributed at various times in the early years, each bringing a winning attitude from Montreal. Heck, even aging and out-of-condition Doug Harvey came out of retirement to help one playoff run in the spring of ’69. Dickie Moore, another Hall-of-Famer (link to my recent audio interview with Moore…) was also cajoled out of his second retirement to help for half a season.

But one of the cornerstones of the early Blues’ teams was none other than former Leaf defenseman Al Arbour.

Arbour had come up in the Red Wing system in the 1950s and was seen as a good prospect. He played parts of three seasons with the Wings. He was then claimed by Chicago and helped the Hawks win the Cup in 1961. In the summer of 1961 Toronto selected him in the intra-league draft and he contributed to their Cup win in 1962. From there, he was a ‘fifth wheel’ in a league that usually only needed four or five defensemen per team, so he was largely stuck in the minors in the old six-team loop, cooling his heels in Rochester for several seasons.

But when expansion came knocking, Arbour became an absolute mainstay as the captain and prototypical defensive-defenseman for Bowman and the Blues. He had a Bob Goldham-like knack for blocking shots with perfect timing. (Goldham was a good Leaf in the late ‘40s who played with Arbour in Detroit in the ‘50s.)

In his career, Arbour was perhaps primarily known for one hockey “oddity”—he was the only NHL player who wore glasses on the ice. But he was an excellent defenseman, who as we all know went on to become a Hall-of-Fame coach with the Blues and later the 4-time Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders.

Three times under Bowman the Blues won the (albeit much weaker) Western conference and played Montreal or Boston in the Cup finals. They always lost in four straight, but they played close, tight-checking hockey that at least made things interesting.

As the ‘70s unfolded St. Louis continued to have its share of stars and characters. The Plager brothers—Bob, Barclay and Billy all played for the Blues at one time or another, though only briefly together, I believe. They were all rugged but Barclay may have been the most impactful overall.

Garry Unger, the former-Leaf, came over when Red Berenson was dealt to the Red Wings and became the NHL’s “ironman” in St. Louis while scoring plenty of goals. Longtime TV analyst and now St. Louis team president John Davidson was a first-round draft choice in the early 1970s. Back then, it was thought to be a particular risk to draft a goalie that high, but the Blues put their faith in Davidson, who actually had more success later with the Rangers. He must have loved St. Louis, because he’s back there now.

In that same ‘70s era, other ex-Habs like Claude Larose, Phil Roberto and the speedy Chuck Lefley kept the Blues respectable, but they have never quite matched their early success- though , in context, the re-balancing of the divisions after those early years has made it much more difficult to fight your way through the playoffs.

Other Blues’ highlights that come to mind? Bernie Federko, voted into the Hall-of-Fame, was a strong player there in the ‘80s along with Brian Sutter. Doug Gilmour was drafted by the Blues in the mid-‘80s. Brett Hull was a superstar scorer in the ‘90s. Even Wayne Gretzky made a short stop in the mid-west heartland of America before he finished his remarkable career with the Rangers.

Like the Leafs, the current Blues team is in transition, with the hope that a strong defense crops and some talent up front (Oshie and others) will make them playoff contenders.

The interesting sidebar tonight is this is the first time Stempniak will face the Blues since last season’s trade. It wil be interesting to see how he, Steen and Colaiacovo (who may soon be traded), respond to the opportunity to show their wares against the teams that dealt them.

But to my original point—going back forty years, I remember how successful the Blues were. And I also recall how much the Leafs struggled back then playing in St. Louis. They seldom won in that raucous building, with Blues fans spurred on by a hard-working home team—and a very loud organ in an old arena, filled to the rafters.

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