Blues to salute best to wear No. 7

2011-03-07T00:15:00Z 2011-09-17T20:46:38Z Blues to salute best to wear No. 7BY DAN O'NEILL
March 07, 2011 12:15 am  • 

The Blues organization has retired six numbers over the years. Yet a handful of the most dynamic players in franchise history have gone unrecognized. The reason?

They all wore No. 7.

The franchise addresses the situation with a ceremony tonight to honor No. 7 and its four most prolific occupants — Red Berenson, Garry Unger, Joe Mullen and Keith Tkachuk. The festivities start at 7 p.m. outside Scottrade Center, with the Blues' game against Columbus starting at 8.

The lingering question makes for rich hockey debate. If you retired No. 7, whose name would be on it?

Talk to four different fans and you might get four different answers. But remove emotional attachments, appreciate intangibles and a resolution is nearly impossible. Consider:

Gordon "Red" Berenson was the first player in Blues history to wear No. 7. A power-skating center, Berenson donned No. 9 at Michigan and wore Nos. 18, 23 and 24 while playing in Montreal and New York. But in November 1967 he was traded with Barclay Plager to the Blues, with Ron Stewart and Ron Atwell going to New York. Plager inherited No. 8, which now hangs from the Scottrade ceiling.

Berenson had two tours of duty with the Blues, playing in 519 games through parts of eight seasons. He ranks seventh in franchise history for goals (172) and eighth in assists (240) and points (412). But his numbers carry a split identity.

The "Red Baron" wore No. 7 in only 243 of those games, from 1967 to 1971, or until he was traded to Detroit in exchange for Unger. As No. 7, Berenson scored 106 goals and 247 points, or 1.016 points a game. When Berenson returned to St. Louis in December 1974, days before his 35th birthday, Unger was wearing No. 7. Berenson took No. 9 and wore it for 276 more games, 33 more games than he wore No. 7.

"There was never any discussion about it," Berenson said. "When I came back, Unger was still here and he had No. 7. I just took No. 9."

Berenson's contributions as No. 7 go beyond statistics. He helped put hockey on the map in St. Louis. He became the first genuine star of NHL expansion. His leadership and dynamic skills — underlined by a six-goal game in Philadelphia on Nov. 7, 1968 — propelled the team to the Stanley Cup finals in its first three seasons.

"Red was the face of the franchise," Unger said. "And I was just a young guy when I got traded, so it was a pretty big deal. And the guys were really buddies with Red, and he was their leader. It was a pretty big shake-up, a shake-up for me, too."

That said, the trade proved prudent. Unger assumed Berenson's No. 7 and became the team's headline talent. The number was always Unger's favorite, from the time he was a kid and his father bought him a Montreal jersey with Howie Morenz's No. 7 on the back.

During the next eight full seasons in St. Louis, "Ungie" averaged 34.6 goals, topped by 41 in 1972-73. He also never missed a day of work, playing in a franchise-record 662 consecutive games. Unger ranks fourth in Blues annals for goals (292) and points (575), third in hat tricks (7) and game-winning goals (40) and is tops in game-tying goals (19). He was an All-Star selection in seven of his eight full seasons with the Blues — in 1979 the All-Star Game was replaced by the Challenge Cup. And in five seasons, Unger was the team's only All-Star representative. In short, through much of the 1970s, he was about the only thing the franchise had going for it.

In December, 1979, Unger was traded to Atlanta. Among the players the Blues got in return was Don "Red" Laurence, who claimed No. 7. Laurence played in only 20 games and faded into obscurity.

But in 1981-82, the Blues promoted Joe Mullen from their Salt Lake City farm team, where he scored 59 goals in 80 games the previous season. A product of Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan, Mullen's career became historic: He was the first American-born player to score 500 goals (502) and 1,000 points (1,063).

He played less than five seasons of that career in St. Louis but left a mark. In 301 games wearing No. 7 on right wing, Mullen had 151 goals and 184 assists for the Blues. He is one of seven players in franchise history to average more than a point a game. He also is a piece of one of the worst trades in Blues history. In February 1986, the team sent Mullen, Terry Johnson and Rik Wilson to Calgary for Eddy Beers, Gino Cavallini and Charlie Bougeois.

Beers was the primary target for the Blues. He played 24 games for the Note and scored seven goals. Cavallini became a popular figure — along with his brother Paul — and a solid secondary contributor. Bourgeois played less than three seasons with the Blues. As for Mullen, he scored 351 more goals and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Upon Mullen's departure, No. 7 had a checkered life. It was worn with distinction by Cliff Ronning and Nelson Emerson, less remarkably by Dan Quinn, Alexei Kastonov, Greg Gilbert, Mike Van Ryn and Ricard Persson.

But in March 2001, the club acquired Keith Tkachuk in a deal with Phoenix and "Walt" restored the number to prominence. A middle linebacker dressed in left-wing clothing, Tkachuk finished 11th in club history in games (543), fifth in goals (208), seventh in points (427) and tied for fifth in game-winning goals (29).

No question, Tkachuk's most prolific seasons came earlier in his career, during which he had two 50-goal seasons. But he closed his career in St. Louis, playing parts of nine seasons with the Blues and scoring 20 or more goals seven times. He also was the most rambunctious No. 7, piling up 677 penalty minutes.

A Melrose, Mass., native, Tkachuk retired as one of the most prominent U.S.-born players in history. He ranks third in goals (538), fifth in points (1,065) and first in power play goals (212) and seems certain to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2013.

In the end, the franchise has never retired No. 7. But for Berenson, it has honored it in the best way possible. "Even if you retire it for one player — and maybe he deserves it — look what you've missed along the way when some of these other players come along and become great," Berenson said.

"This is kind of a unique acknowledgment. Because if you went to Montreal now, there's no numbers left. You've got to wear something in the 30s or 40s or whatever, because they retired them all. So there's something to be said for having numbers available and then recognizing the players that wear them. I think it's a nice fit."

One thing is certain, No. 7 was a nice fit for all four.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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