The Verdict: The road to Blackhawks, NHL glory passed through St. Louis
|Before they were stars, Dennis Hull and Phil Esposito—among others—played for the St. Louis Braves (Photos from Getty Images).|
St. Louis, an ally of Chicago? In professional sports? Really?
Really. Given the fierce rivalry between the Blackhawks and Blues—not to mention the ancient struggles involving the Cubs and Cardinals—it is difficult to fathom that these two cities could forge a friendly relationship.
But turn the page back to the era of the Original Six in the National Hockey League, and there it is: the St. Louis Braves were a farm team for the Blackhawks. Moreover, the Braves sent such luminaries as Phil Esposito, Dennis Hull and Pat Stapleton to Chicago.
“Do I remember St. Louis?” Esposito was saying the other day. “Absolutely. But did you know that the first Braves team I was with in St. Louis started the season in Syracuse?”
"THE VERDICT" WITH BOB VERDI
Blackhawks Team Historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
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Indeed, Syracuse was a member of the Eastern Professional Hockey League when Esposito showed up in 1962. The American Hockey League and Western Hockey League were in existence, but operated independently. So the NHL, seeking more control over players, formed the EPHL in 1959.
“We couldn’t draw flies in Syracuse,” Esposito recalled. “Before one of our games, there was a kids’ game at our rink. There might have been 700 people in the stands. I want to say we were scheduled to play Hull-Ottawa. I ran out in my underwear and started yelling to the fans, ‘please don’t leave…we’ll be playing out here in a little while.’
“I don’t think that went over real well. We had some good players. Roger Crozier, a good goalie, went on to win rookie of the year in the NHL with Detroit in 1965. Anyway, right around the holidays in December, we snuck out of town. Not that anybody noticed. A bunch of us piled into a car and drove to Michigan, then on to our new home, St. Louis. It was a much better market. We drew 5,000 to 7,000 for some games. The building was another story. We played in the old Arena. And I mean old. We had to climb over the boards. There were no doors to the benches.”
In 1963, the Braves became part of the Central Professional Hockey League, with all teams located in the United States. Their broadcaster was a legend, Jack Buck. The Braves were coached by Gus Kyle, who played briefly in the NHL and later became a fixture as analyst for the Blues beside another legend, play-by-play broadcaster Dan Kelly.
“Gus was a character,” Esposito went on. “At the end of my first season, he brought me into his office and sat me down. ‘Phil,” he said, ‘I want you to go home this summer, work real hard, and get in good shape so you can come back here next season and CONTINUE TO DRINK BEER AND MISS CURFEW!’ What a beauty he was. When we had trouble on power plays, he might have been the first to ask a referee whether we could decline the penalty. And there was plenty of rough stuff, a lot of fights and shenanigans in the league.”
On Nov. 22, 1963, Esposito was in his apartment at the George Washington Hotel when he learned of President John Kennedy’s assassination.
“We had a game scheduled that night, and we played,” Esposito recalled. “We might have been the only game that took place that horrible night. I had just gotten married. I wound up scoring one of the greatest goals I ever scored. We were two men short, and I went through the entire opposing team. Omaha, I think. I was so slow, some of my teammates accused me of skating through the same guys twice.”
Esposito on occasion saw Jack Davison, the Blackhawks’ scout, at Braves games but never thought much of it. As Esposito said, in those days, prospects knew there were only a few jobs available in the six-team NHL so guys in the minors went day-to-day.
“It was hard, but fun,” Esposito said. “You made maybe $3,800 with five or seven bucks for meal money. Hamburgers and pancakes. You had to get lucky to get called up and I got lucky. In January of 1964, Gus told me to get packed up. I was going to the Blackhawks. We were in St. Paul, they were in Montreal. First time I’d ever been on an airplane. I had 80 points in 43 games for the Braves, and still wound up in the top five at the end of the Central League season. Montreal? Chico Maki took a ten-minute misconduct and I played one shift.”
Dennis Hull came through the Blackhawks’ talent pipeline in St. Catharines, Ont., played 55 NHL games in 1964-65, then got sent down to St. Louis the next season.
“I guess I wasn’t good enough, needed more polish,” Hull recalled. “There was sort of a gentlemen’s agreement in those days. But Punch Imlach, the coach in Toronto, hated our coach, Billy Reay, so he put in a claim for me. Wouldn’t that have been something? Me on the Maple Leafs? I played the playoffs for the Blackhawks in 1966, then stayed for good.
“I felt like there was a target on my back in the minors, being Bobby Hull’s brother. But Gus was a prince. After years of riding the bus, the Braves had this old DC-3. That was nice, except for Gus, who hated to fly. He sat in the front with his bottle of whiskey until we landed. Lots of fun, Gus. He would have these meetings that would end by him saying, ‘now, do any of you have anything to add?’ He didn’t expect us to say boo. But one time, Wayne Maki speaks up and says, ‘yeah, I think Camille Henry should be on our power play.’ Gus says, ‘good idea, Camille is on the power play and Wayne Maki, you’re off the power play.”
In 1967-68, the NHL expanded from six franchises to 12. The Blues came into existence after fixing up the Arena that needed quite a bit of fixing up. The Blackhawks established a CHL farm club in Dallas, and soon Esposito was on his way to the Hall of Fame, via the Boston Bruins.
“Who knew in St. Louis that I could make it big?” he mused. “Billy Reay didn’t care for me in Chicago. It was all about my weight. I would go into the sauna to shed a few pounds and Moose Vasko would have a case of beer in there. I was a kid. What was I gonna say, no? I’d leave the sauna heavier than when I went in. But it all turned out OK, didn’t it?”