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Kramer played the Blues in St. Louis

by Evan Weiner
Scotty Bowman has been around the National Hockey League in various capacities for more than four decades, so when he talks, people listen. In the formative days of the St. Louis Blues back in 1967-68, Bowman believes the Blues' organist, Norm Kramer, was as vital to the team's success as the players on the ice.
Kramer, who wore a silver jacket while playing the organ, was the Blues' first superstar, and he whipped the crowd into a frenzy when the players hit the ice at the old St. Louis Arena. Bowman, who knows hockey talent, also knew Kramer was just as valuable as Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante, Red Berenson, Bob Plager, Bowman's "coach" on ice Al Arbour, and the man Bowman called the heart and soul of the Blues, Barclay Plager.
The St. Louis Arena had housed an NHL team during the 1934-35 season. The owners of the financially troubled original Ottawa Senators moved the team to the Missouri city and re-named it the St. Louis Eagles. St. Louis supported the team well, but the Eagles players were worn out by the travel as St. Louis played in a division with Boston, Montreal and Toronto and there were long train trips. The owners lost money because of the travel and tried to return the team to Ottawa, but no agreement ever was finalized and the franchise was purchased by the NHL and withered on the vine. St. Louis business interests wanted to bring the financially floundering Montreal Maroons to the city a few years after the Eagles folded, but NHL owners did not think the plan was viable for the same reason the Eagles failed -- travel costs. The Chicago Blackhawks played some games there in the 1950s but the old barn was in decay in the 1960s.
The NHL expanded for the 1967-68 season and granted St. Louis a team that originally was intended for Baltimore. The old building was fixed up, and in 1967 it came alive when Kramer started playing W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" as Bowman's Blues took to the ice.
It was the noted boxing columnist and personality Burt Sugar, who was related to the Salomon family ownership group that paid $2 million for the expansion franchise, who came up with the name Blues, as Burt said, "in St. Louis Blues, the song."
The Salomons also bought the St. Louis Arena, for $4 million from Blackhawks owner Arthur Wirtz. They hired hockey people like Lynn Patrick and Bowman to assemble a team, and then got someone to play the organ.
"Norm Kramer, the first year we had the team in St. Louis (in 1967), he is the first one that brought music to the NHL and when I was there I liked it," said Bowman. "Now when I go to games and there is a stoppage of play, and when you go to junior games, it is absolutely unbelievable -- you can hardly watch the game, you get taken aback by the music.
"Norm Kramer, someone wrote an article saying that he was worth half a goal a game for the team. The first year the team paid him $35 a night and he had instant fame."
The extra notoriety meant Kramer wanted more money, and why not, as Bowman pointed out he was worth a half goal a game for the Blues at the St. Louis Arena. Kramer also was being scouted by the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, who watched his performances and how the Blues' crowd reacted to his playing.
Kramer played "St. Louis Blues," and when there was a lull in the action he would bang out notes to get the crowd cheering.
"So the next year," said Bowman, "he went in to sign his contract for about 39 games and the owner of the team (Sidney Salomon, Jr.) liked him but he (Kramer) wanted $10,000 (a year) instead of what, $35 a game which is a little over a thousand. The owners said, 'No we cannot afford that kind of money, Norm, even though you got a lot of notoriety from playing for us.'
"So he hauled out the newspaper and he says you got some players who are being paid $20,000, he says I am worth a half a goal a game (which meant he was a 20-goal scorer in a half-season of work without the playoffs), they don't even score 10 goals in a season."
Bowman didn't know whether Kramer really added to the Blues' offense or helped out Hall and Jacques Plante in the St. Louis net during the three-year Stanley Cup Final run between 1968 and 1970.
"The newspapermen said somebody in our organization felt he was worth a half a goal a game to our team, and he probably was worth that at the time because he was the first guy who put music in and the got the crowd going," Bowman said.
Kramer did sign on for another season in 1968-69, but his demand of $10,000 per season eventually caused his separation from the team.
In 1968-69, St. Louis was an incredibly strong third period home team. The Blues came from behind to win or tie a home contest 13 times, and lost just eight home games the entire season.
Bowman thought the St. Louis crowd was a significant factor in the team's strong showing, and it was Kramer that kept the crowd in the game.
"He stayed on, but maybe it was the beginning of the end because he lasted a couple more years after that," said Bowman. "He became a real star and he was playing downtown and he could not get all the times off.
"But he was an instant success."
When Kramer left, St. Louis had no one to replace their half-goal home-game advantage, and Bowman pointed out his departure left a huge hole.
"We never did," Bowman said of replacing what Kramer brought.

Despite never wearing a Blues uniform, Norm Kramer was a fan favorite and a vital part of the team's early days.

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