(Fourth in a series of "Where are they now?" stories on former St. Louis Blues players.)
The chant of “Har-old! Har-old!” followed defenseman Harold Snepsts throughout his hockey career.
It was started as a derisive gesture by a fan in Washington who wanted to get the Capitals’ fans going and chose Snepsts as a villain. It wasn’t a tough choice. Snepsts was routinely in triple digits in penalty minutes, and three times he cleared 200 minutes in a season. He had 82 fights in his NHL career. “I don’t know why,” Snepsts told the Post-Dispatch in 1990 about why so many fans hated him. “The name, maybe the mustache and no helmet.”
When Snepsts moved on to Detroit, the fans there picked up the chant, but without the derision, and it followed him when he went back to Vancouver where he had started his career. In those days, the Blues and Red Wings were Norris Division rivals and the Blues were often on the receiving end of Snepsts’ physical play during his three years in Detroit (and one more with the Minnesota North Stars), so when the Blues acquired Snepsts along with Rich Sutter at the trade deadline from the Canucks in 1990, he was surprised by what happened next.
There came the chant. “Har-old! Har-old!”
“Holy geez,” he recalled of the first time he heard it. “It was eye-opening in every place, but I couldn’t believe it continued in St. Louis.”
Snepsts went from despised to loved at the Arena, just like that.
Snepsts played only two seasons with the Blues, and one was just a smattering of games after the trade deadline, then coached their minor-league team in Peoria for a season and spent one season with the Blues as an assistant coach, but the man with just one vowel in a seven-letter name (it’s Latvian) and the big bushy mustache lives on in team memory, a cult hero here like he was in his other stops.
“Hate is the closest thing to love,” general manager Ron Caron said at the time about acquiring a player he said he admitted to hating. “I love him now.”
“I was there for a short time,” Snepsts said from his home in Vancouver, “but the fans treated me fantastic, I love the city. It was great to me. I wish I had a couple more years, but I knew I was at the end of my career.”
Snepsts is the classic NHLer who fans love when he’s on their team while everyone else can’t stand him. He played 17 seasons in the NHL and was a two-time All-Star whose forte was not offense. In 1,033 regular-season games, he scored just 38 goals. “I consider myself a journeyman defenseman,” he said. “I wanted to win at any cost. I knew I didn’t have the talent, but if I had to block shots to protect a player I’d do that.”
His one full season with the Blues was one of the team’s most memorable, 1990-91, when Brett Hull scored 86 goals. Amazingly, in 54 games for that high-scoring team, Snepsts had one goal and four assists.
“I played with Jeff Brown and he was a real good puck-moving defenseman,” Snepsts said. “I told him I’d do the dirty work, give you the puck and you can move it out. He didn’t want to do the dirty work. I said, ‘I’ll do that.’” It must have worked. Brown was second on the team in assists with 47.
The Blues finished that season with 105 points, one point behind Chicago for the most in the league, but lost to Minnesota, which finished with 68 points, in the second round.
“I thought we were going to win the Stanley Cup,” Snepsts said. “If you look at that lineup, it was star-studded. We had everything. We had no problem till we met Minnesota in the second round. Minnesota did the trap, nobody knew how to break it. We were a very open ice hockey club and they didn’t give us space. We didn’t have the team for that.”
Snepsts retired after the season and loved his year at Peoria, where he succeeded Bob Plager, and then joined Plager’s NHL staff when Plager replaced Brian Sutter as head coach. But Plager abruptly resigned after 11 games as coach and was replaced by Bob Berry. After that season, Snepsts was let go, even though he had a year left on his contract.
After leaving the Blues, Snepsts coached for one more season, with San Diego of the International Hockey League, and then got into scouting, first for the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, then with the Vancouver Canucks, for whom he had played 12 seasons. He retired from scouting after last season.
The life of an amateur hockey scout can be a tough one, having to show up in remote places in the dead of winter. Snepsts started off scouting North America for Central Scouting, then did the Western Hockey League, then Minnesota teams in the USHL, and finally, back to the Western League.
“I don’t miss it,” he said. “That’s why I retired. Some days, you’re traveling in snow, blizzards. I can’t remember the place, it was in northern Minnesota that I had to travel to in the snow and I got to the arena and outside were parked three cars and six snowmobiles.”
One thing that lives on for Snepsts is his mustache.
“I shaved it off for six, seven years,” he said. “I didn’t want to be recognized. Everywhere I went, people said ‘Where’s the mustache?’ So I said I’ll grow it back. At least they don’t bug me about ‘Where’s your mustache?’ anymore.”
Almost 30 years after leaving the Blues, Snepsts said he was proud to see the Blues finally win and was happy for one person in particular.
“Usually when they show the celebrations,” he said, “I turn off the TV because I don’t want to see celebrations I never was in on. For some reason, I watched, and the biggest thing I got out of it was seeing Bob Plager hoist the Cup. That means a lot to me.
“When I was in Peoria, he spent a lot of time with me. His stories, his passion for the game. He’s a character. I just think the world of him. He’s a special man.”