Commentator Is Still Outraged After Blues-Bruins 1970 NHL Finals
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues are tied at two wins apiece in the Stanley Cup Finals. It's the second time these teams have met in the final. The previous time was in 1970. This is a sort of long-range rematch. Now, back in 1970, the Bruins swept the Blues in four straight games. And if you know how pro hockey was organized then, well, you could have predicted that result. In fact, commentator Mike Pesca is still astonished the 1970 finals even existed. And even though he's only 47, he wants to share his 49-year-old outrage with you.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: I want to take you back to a simpler and perhaps more infuriating time in the world of sports. The years were 1967 through 1970; not so far back that the pictures weren't in color, but the NHL was stuck. The league since 1926 fielded only six teams. It was clear their little coterie needed new members. And so they did expand, but how they did it was a little nuts. The league doubled in size from six to 12 teams. But the curious - I'd say foolish - decision was made to place all the new teams in the same division. And as might have been anticipated, every team in the new division had a losing record in their first season of play.
But by design, four teams in that conference would still make the playoffs, and the winner would make the Stanley Cup Final, which brings us to the St. Louis Blues, a franchise that hadn't even applied to be part of the NHL. NHL President Clarence Campbell explained, quote, "We want a team in St. Louis because of the city's geographical location and the fact that it has an adequate building." It turned out that the adequately housed Blues made the Stanley Cup Final in that first year of play.
Of course, some representative of the all-losers division would have to make the final, but maybe, just maybe, with enough pluck and moxie, these upstarts who no one believed - no, the Blues were swept by the Montreal Canadiens. The next year, in 1969, the same Blues, once more the superior team in the inferior division, made the finals again against Montreal. Now, maybe with a year of experience, plus that can-do spirit, that - no.
Let me quote from a Sports Illustrated article at the time - "The Montreal Canadiens enjoyed a highly profitable and relaxing four days in St. Louis last week. They got in some golf, watched the Cardinals lose another baseball game and wagered a few bucks at the track. Then on Sunday afternoon, sunburned and well-rested, they beat the St. Louis Blues for the fourth straight time to win their 14th Stanley Cup."
Things would change in 1970; yes, they would. The Canadiens were not the Blues' opponent in the final - the Boston Bruins were. But like the Canadiens before them, the Bruins swept the Blues. Twelve games, 12 losses - as foreseeable as a puck to the face. Can you imagine if this playoff structure existed today? Sports radio and highly attitudinal cable shows flip their lids whenever a major-leaguer flips a bat. But for three years in a row, a clearly asinine playoff structure led to a totally predictable letdown, and one of the country's major sports leagues just kept letting it happen.
It took three straight face-plants for the league to finally respond. The playoffs were rejiggered, the established Blackhawks were moved to the kids-table division and made the final, which lasted an entertaining seven games. As for St. Louis, they hadn't made another final until this year. And they won a game - two, in fact. It turns out when the teams that qualify for the postseason are actually qualified, it makes for a much more exciting spectacle.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRONTIDE'S "SANS SOUCI")
INSKEEP: Ah, it's never too late for outrage when it comes from commentator Mike Pesca, host of the Slate podcast "The Gist" and the author of "Upon Further Review: The Greatest What Ifs In Sports History." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.