A blues newbie in the 1976-77 season, Bernie Federko autographed some of his racquets for his brothers, who had come from Canada to watch him play.
“Mr. (Emile) Francis saw it happen and he actually didn’t allow me to give those sticks away,” Federko said. “I had to keep them, and I actually played a game with a signed racquet.”
That’s how financially the blues were in those days. Earlier this season, Federko was playing for the blues’ minor league offshoot in Kansas City and recalls “using leftover, used blues underwear. We didn’t get any new gear at all. The only thing new we got were ice skates; everything else was used.”
By 1977 the team was effectively bankrupt. Francis, who was team president, general manager, and head coach, stopped attending league meetings.
“All they did was ask me for money,” Francis said, according to a 1981 article in The New York Times. “And I didn’t have any, so there was no point in leaving.”
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As the story goes – and Francis used to tell – he met R. Hal Dean, the chairman of Ralston Purina, at an event in the restroom. They started chatting, Dean saying he admires the work Francis has done with the Blues this season in difficult circumstances. And if there’s anything he could do, just call.
“Mr. Francis spent the summer convincing Ralston to buy the team and keep it in St. Louis,” said former Blues goaltender and current player agent Mike Liut.
And that’s what happened. OK, maybe not as dramatically as Carl Gunnarsson told Craig Berube at the urinal before overtime in Game 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Finals that he needed one more scoring opportunity. But still a pretty good story.
Emile “The Cat” Francis passed away last week at the age of 95. Only 5-7 tall but a giant in the game, younger blues fans may not even know his name. But you can argue that there would have been no Stanley Cup, no Hull and Oates – there might not be a Blues franchise today if it hadn’t been for Francis in the summer of ’77.
“The times were tough,” said Federko. “We really didn’t know what was going to happen. Suddenly that summer Ralston came in and bought the blues and then Mr. Francis got to build what he did.”
What he built began with a 1976 design that included Federko, Brian Sutter, and Liut. If there’s a better design in blues history, name it.
“Right away he told Brian and I that we are the core and the future of the blues,” Federko said. “We were drafted for a reason. Get the job done and you’ll be well taken care of. He was at the forefront and practiced what he preached.”
First, Liut signed with rival WHA, who dropped out of college. Why?
“It’s very simple,” said Liut. “The Solomons (who owned the team at the time) handed the keys to the franchise back to the league. When I graduated from Bowling Green, the St. Louis Blues didn’t exist yet. I signed with the WHA team in Cincinnati because there wasn’t a St. Louis team.”
By 1977, the Blues’ front office had temporarily dwindled to three employees. Francis’ first three blues teams had lost records, including an 18-50-2 mark in 1978-79 – still the worst record in franchise history. But the following season, they went 34-34-12, the first of 25 consecutive Blues playoff teams.
And in 1980-81 they went up to 45-18-17 and almost won the Presidents Trophy. That was the best record in franchise history for years. By then, Liut had signed with the Blues and was a star.
For Larry Patey, who scored 22 goals for that team in 1980-81, the news of Francis’ death brought back memories of those days with Francis.
“I was lucky enough to be there,” Patey said. “And the core of the guys that were there – Bernie and Brian and Babs (Wayne Babych) and Perry (Turnbull) – we were kind of, I don’t want to say his guys, but he believed in us and allowed us to go forward and somehow make or break.
“He was one of those guys who looked after his players. Hardworking and simply always thinking along with you. Tireless guy. Everyone had total respect for this guy.”
Count former blues forward Chuck Lefley among them.
“I only had (Francis) for a couple of years,” Lefley said. “But he was one of those people that you remember in the game. He was a good man. What’s the right way to put it? He was very fair. His track record speaks for itself.
“Anyone who can be in the game in so many different areas and be inducted into the Hall of Fame as a master builder, that speaks for themselves.”
In public, as a player, Francis always had your back. But private?
“He had no trouble holding anyone accountable,” Liut said. “He was very direct and factual. There was no politics in his world. It’s easy or it’s not.
“And he had a knack. Because he knew the game. You have to know when you’re going to kick their pants. And you need to know when to put your arm around a player and get them to relax or calm down.
There was no happy ending for Francis in St. Louis. When Ralston Purina left the hockey business in 1983 and the team potentially relocated to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Francis had had enough.
“I think that happened,” Federko said. “Basically he had to let almost everyone in the front office go because we didn’t know where we were going. His contract expired, he got an offer to go to Hartford, and then he left.”
But Federko added, “I guarantee you he was instrumental in the NHL landing Harry (Ornest) too because he really cared about St. Louis.”
Ornest became team owner, the move to Saskatoon never happened, and the Blues marched on in St. Louis.
“A whole different story could have been written about this franchise if it weren’t for some of the things that he put together,” Lefley said.
“He rebuilt this franchise,” Liut said. “He saved it, then he rebuilt it.”