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Dog days no more in St. Louis

After three rocky years, the Blues are top dogs in the Norris race

They were his kind of people. Underdogs. And so last Thursday, as St. Louis Blues coach Jacques Demers addressed a Goodwill Industries fete honoring disadvantaged workers who had excelled at their jobs, he spoke from his heart: "A bad break is a challenge.... A challenge is an opportunity.... An opportunity becomes a success for those who are tryers, who never quit and who have the will to prove others wrong."

That's the attitude Demers has instilled in his overachieving Blues this season. Though many experts picked St. Louis to have its fourth straight losing record in the weak Norris Division, the Blues at week's end led the Norris with a 30-22-11 record.

The Blues are having an astonishing season considering that less than two years ago they had one skate in the grave and the other in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, destinations the NHL board of governors viewed as synonymous. The governors blocked a sale by Ralston Purina Company, owner of the club, to a Saskatoon group, but Ralston just tossed the franchise back at the league like a sack of unwanted dog food, going so far as to refuse participation in the 1983 entry draft. That cost the Blues 10 draft picks. In July 1983, Beverly Hills entrepreneur Harry Ornest, who grew up in Edmonton, and a group of St. Louis businessmen bought the team.

Ornest hired Ronald Caron, formerly head scout of the Montreal Canadiens, as general manager, and Caron in turn hired Demers, then with the American Hockey League's Fredericton (New Brunswick) Express, as coach. "I knew Jacques was a motivator," says Caron. Motivators are needed on teams without much talent.

Demers cultivated the spirit of the underdog. At a team meeting last fall, says defenseman Rob Ramage, "Jacques rented the movie Rocky for us to watch before consecutive games with the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders. It worked, because we beat the Oilers 8-6 and tied the Islanders 5-5. Played great."

"He's a player's coach," says the team's leading scorer, Bernie Federko. "And we have a bunch of players here who are castaways from other teams." Four of the Blues' eight defensemen were plucked off the waiver wire, both goalies were obtained in trades, three forwards were signed as free agents and five of the 11 other forwards were acquired in trades by Caron.

"So many guys here feel they have something to prove," says defenseman Terry Johnson, who arrived last season via the waiver route from Quebec.

That attitude seems to affect even Blues veterans like captain Brian Sutter, who says he's still resentful of "some Minnesota players who told us in last year's playoffs that we'd be getting out the golf clubs early." The North Stars did beat the Blues with a sudden-death goal in the seventh game of the divisional playoffs, but this year it's the Blues who are favored to win the division and likely face Stanley Cup champion Edmonton in the conference championship. That scenario could clinch Coach of the Year for Demers, 40, who justifiably views his life as a kind of Rocky story.

When he was a teenager, his parents died and his hockey-playing career ended when he broke his leg in a Junior B game, so Demers drove a Coca-Cola truck to help support his brother and two younger sisters. He was a volunteer coach in youth leagues, which led to the job of player personnel director for the Chicago Cougars of the World Hockey Association. Subsequent coaching jobs at Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Quebec (WHA and NHL) and Fredericton earned Demers his shot in St. Louis.

Demers' team plays a disciplined game that stresses defense. The Blues have allowed 27 fewer goals than at the same juncture last year, and they came up with defensive masterpieces in upsetting the Buffalo Sabres 4-1 in Buffalo Feb. 22 and 3-1 at home Feb. 27. Newly acquired goalie Greg Millen was brilliant in his first start in the second Sabres game, suggesting that the Blues may have gotten the better of the Feb. 22 deal that sent veteran goalie Mike Liut and unspecified future considerations (most likely a player currently on the Blues' roster) to Hartford for Millen and left wing Mark Johnson, who's been out with bruised ribs. Johnson is a proven scorer (35 goals last season, 19 in 49 games this season), and when he mends he should take some of the pressure off Federko, Sutter and Joe Mullen, the only consistent threats.

It doesn't sound like much of a compliment to say the Blues' defensemen don't try to exceed their modest capabilities, but, in fact, sticking to what they can do has been beneficial. While most NHL teams feature defensemen who fancy themselves as Bobby Orrs, the St. Louis blue-liners are mostly a stay-at-home crew, tough in their own zone but careful up ice.

There has been one major defensive innovation. Demers changes the lines during games while assistant coach Barclay Plager changes the defense. "As far as I know, we're the only two coaches in the league who work like this," says Demers. Plager was a cornerstone Blues defenseman from 1967 to 1976 and has become a symbol of the team. Demers may provide the underdog spirit, but Plager supplies the soul and inspiration. Last October he was diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumor. Radiation and chemotherapy treatments kept him off the Blues bench until Jan. 12. Since Plager's return St. Louis has gone 13-5-5, their hottest streak of the season.

"We don't talk about it much, but Barc's situation is another thing that pulls this team together," says Federko.

Plager will talk .about it. "I'm feeling good," he says. "Work is the best cure for anything."

In St. Louis, a lot of underdogs are working hard and feeling good.



Federko (24) and Sutter (11) powered the Blues past Sabre goalie Tom Barrasso 3-1.



During games Demers (right) changes the lines while Plager handles the defense.



There are no holes in Federko's game, as evidenced by his 85 points on 24 goals and 61 assists.