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All-Star Game

NHL All-Star Game started on sour note on first trip to St. Louis in 1970

Spat over organist nearly overshadowed legendary lineups

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

How fitting that the 1970 NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis, the cradle of so much of 20th century America's popular music, would be scorched by a controversy about who would play the arena organ.

The 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend is in St. Louis, the third time the Gateway City has played host to the League's greats. The 2020 NHL All-Stars Skills presented by New Amsterdam Vodka on Friday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS) will precede the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

The NHL broke tradition in St. Louis 50 years ago this month, holding the 23rd All-Star Game in an arena other than that of the defending Stanley Cup champion, as it had done since 1948.

The game returned to the city in 1988 for the 39th edition, that one a 6-5 victory for the Wales Conference over the Campbell. Pittsburgh Penguins center Mario Lemieux completed his hat trick at 1:08 of overtime, his six-point game earning him most valuable player honors.

The 1970 game was won 4-1 by the East Division against the West. Gordie Howe, on the power play at 7:20 of the second period, scored what would be the game-winner in the 21st of Mr. Hockey's record 23 All-Star Games. Bobby Hull, with a goal and an assist, was voted MVP.

This game was a riot for many reasons, most of them off the ice.

League governors chose St. Louis as the game's site in appreciation for the Blues' strong showing since 1967 expansion, which doubled the NHL from six to 12 teams. What escaped them was that the NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia was also scheduled to be played on the evening of Jan. 20, so the face-off was pushed back to 9 p.m. local time (10 p.m. ET) to accommodate CBS television in the U.S.

East coach Claude Ruel arrived in St. Louis for what would be his only all-star coaching assignment, not even unpacked when he found himself the focal point of a controversy he knew nothing about. 

Coach of the defending champion Montreal Canadiens, Ruel was reported in local papers to be vehemently against the idea that Norm Kramer, the Blues' wildly popular organist, would be whipping St. Louis fans into a frenzy, giving the West an advantage. St. Louis media spun Ruel's alleged outrage into a huge story.

By game time, Chicago Black Hawks owner Bill Wirtz (his team in the East) had flown in Al Melgard, organist at Chicago Stadium, to split playing time with Kramer.

Ruel would be the only name booed during introductions, heckled for his part in a controversy that had no foundation in fact.

"I didn't know a thing about it until we got to St. Louis," he said of the organ uproar. "I hardly was in the hotel lobby before some writers started asking questions -- not about my all-star lineup, but about the organist. I couldn't figure what they were talking about. I asked them, 'What do I care about the organist? He can't skate.' "

On Wednesday, Scotty Bowman, the Blues coach who ran the West bench, had a good laugh about the story, saying it was the first he'd heard about it.

Twelve-man teams had been voted by the NHL Writers' Association, Ruel and Bowman adding seven men each. Two rookies saw action -- Philadelphia Flyers forward Bobby Clarke for the West, Chicago goalie Tony Esposito for the East. Esposito didn't allow a goal, replacing Eddie Giacomin with the score 4-1 at 9:37 of the second period.

Ruel had 14 future Hall of Famers on his team, his line of Phil Esposito between Frank Mahovlich and Gordie Howe one of the greatest ever assembled. With four future Hall of Famers on his West team, Blues coach Bowman could thank St. Louis goalie Jacques Plante for keeping the score respectable, the latter stopping all 26 shots he faced in his 30:23 of action in relief of Flyers' Bernie Parent.

One columnist suggested that Bowman, who would become the winningest coach in NHL history, hinted that Ruel had tried to run up the score by using his best players on the power play; the East went 1-for-3 with the man-advantage and outshot the West 44-17 overall.

The entire state was excited about the game, Governor Warren E. Hearns having declared "Hockey Week in Missouri." St. Louis Arena drew a sellout crowd of 16,587.

A gala dinner the night before at the Chase-Park Plaza Hotel, co-hosted by Blues broadcaster Dan Kelly, drew 900 fans paying $25 each for a meal, a meet-and-greet with the all-stars and a close-up look at the sport's glittering trophies. Proceeds were earmarked for the iconic St. Louis Zoo for upkeep of the aquatic display for children, the zoo sending a llama, snake and a chimpanzee to the dinner.

Former NHL referee-in-chief Carl Voss, who played for the St. Louis Eagles in 1934-35, their only season in the League, was thrilled by the buzz about the game.

"This was a great hockey town even then!" Voss said of the defunct Eagles, doormats in the Canadian Division with a record of 11-31-6 before disbanding.

The 1970 All-Star Game winners would leave St. Louis $500 richer per man, their purse double that of the losers.

The day before the game, Ruel met with Howe, who had a request.

"Gordie told me, 'Don't scratch me, Coach, I need the $500,' " he said with a laugh.

Indeed, Howe was in the lineup, the East roster giving their all for their intense fireplug leader no matter who was playing the arena organ.

"Ruel's a funny little guy but he must be a whale of a coach," forward Ron Ellis joked.

Added Hull, who played on a line with Ellis and Dave Keon: "Ruel wouldn't let us coast, the way he was fired up on the bench. It was 'skate, shoot, get three men back!' He had every guy on the team into the act."

Coaching the dream roster was something Ruel would remember forever.

"Gordie made me feel like his real coach and that big Frank [Mahovlich], he was really working," he said. "The team had a lot of spirit in the dressing room before practice and it was the same way during the game. They played like they'd been practicing for weeks."

Photos courtesy of HHoF Images / Classic Auctions

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