Craig Berube spent nearly two decades in the Flyers organization, but he will forever be remembered reverently in St Louis because, in his six-plus months behind the bench as an interim coach, he and the team he directed did the unthinkable.
Or as Gene Hart might have said if he were broadcasting the final seconds of a tense Game 7 Wednesday night in Boston: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Blues are going to win the Stanley Cup! The Blues win the Stanley Cup! The Blues win the Stanley Cup!”
Hart changed tenses in the frantic final seconds of the Flyers’ epic 1-0 win over Boston to give the Flyers their first Stanley Cup, in 1974. It was epic because the Flyers had been in the NHL only seven years and most observers didn’t give them much of a chance against Bobby Orr and Co.
Similarly, no one in his right mind gave Berube’s Blues any chance of winning the Cup back in early January.
Heck, no one thought they would even make the playoffs, let alone win their first Stanley Cup since St. Louis entered the league in 1967.
On Jan. 2, the Blues were dead last in the 31-team NHL.
Now, after Wednesday’s 4-1 win over Boston finished the most grueling tournament in all sports, they are Stanley Cup champions.
It may not have been the most amazing coaching job in NHL history, but it certainly ranks among the best.
Berube, who spent 18 seasons in the Flyers organization as a coach and player, will forever be adored in St. Louis. Like Fred Shero in Philadelphia.
A down-to-earth man known as “Chief,” Berube will become a part of St. Louis sports lore, like Stan “The Man” Musial, Red Berenson, Lou Brock, Marshall Faulk, Bob Gibson, and Rogers Hornsby. Like Brett Hull, Bob Pettit, Albert Pujols, Red Schoendienst, Ozzie Smith, Kurt Warner, Dick Vermeil, and countless others.
Like Vermeil, Berube once coached in Philadelphia but reached the pinnacle of his sport in St. Louis.
At 63, Vermeil, the former Eagles coach, led the St. Louis Rams to a 23-16 win over Tennessee in the 2000 Super Bowl at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. He became the oldest coach to ever win the Super Bowl.
Nineteen years later, Berube, who became the Blues’ interim coach on Nov. 19, led his team to a staggering 10-3 road record in these playoffs.
He showed that then-Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren wasn’t blowing smoke when he said Berube had a “brilliant hockey mind” after naming him to replace Peter Laviolette early in the 2013-14 season. The timing was stunning because the Flyers had played all of three games, losing all of them.
Berube coached the Flyers to the playoffs that season, and they lost in the opening round to the New York Rangers, who eventually reached the Cup Final, in seven hard-fought games.
After the next season, Berube was fired by new GM Ron Hextall, his former teammate, following the team’s maddeningly inconsistent 2014-15 campaign, when it went 33-31-18 and missed the playoffs.
“I believe Craig is an NHL coach and will go on to be an NHL coach,” Hextall said at the time. “But in the end, collectively as a group, it’s getting the most out of each individual and collectively pulling that effort together and squeezing the most out of your team.”
Which is just what he did with the Blues. After a slow start under the defensive-minded Berube, St. Louis won 11 straight from Jan. 23 to Feb. 19 and it finished 38-19-6 under him.
The Blues then upset Winnipeg in six first-round playoff games; outlasted Dallas in a 2-1 double-overtime Game 7 classic in the second round; and jolted San Jose in six games in the Western Conference Final before stunning the Bruins. In Boston.
“We just play a simple game. Get the puck in deep and work hard,” Berube, a onetime Flyers enforcer who still has a residence in Bucks County, said during a break in the finale Wednesday.
An old-school coach but someone who isn’t averse to using analytics, Berube is fair and brutally honest with his players.
Everyone knows his role. Everyone is made to feel important. That’s why Berube was so respected and well-liked in Philly, where the players gave the effort but didn’t have the talent level of the Blues.
In St. Louis, he got the most out of his players and struck gold with a superb defense and a rookie goalie, Jordan Binnington, who performed like the second coming of Bernie Parent.
“Everybody put the team first,” Berube said toward the end of the regular season. “That’s the biggest thing. Guys are playing for each other and working for each other.”