It was 1983 in New York City and two former college hockey players were keeping their competitive careers alive by playing at the famed St. Nicholas Hockey Club.
Tom Stillman was a young lawyer with the firm Dewey & Ballantine. Chris Zimmerman was in advertising, working for the agency Saatchi & Saatchi.
They never had met before becoming teammates at St. Nick’s, a club established in 1896 and once home to Hobey Baker — whose name is on the trophy given annually to the best NCAA hockey player.
Stillman and Zimmerman eventually became opponents in what St. Nick’s players referred to as the “cocktail league.”
The lawyer suited up for the Essex Foxes, the advertiser for the Bedford Bears.
“We’d go into the corners against each other,” Zimmerman recalled. “The games were pretty aggressive.”
Realizing their future in hockey strictly was in pick-up games, however, they picked up and moved to pursue their professional careers. Stillman bolted to Washington, continuing to practice law before landing in St. Louis and running a beer distributorship. Zimmerman, meanwhile, bounced around in several high-profile positions.
Thirty years later, they find themselves back in a corner, corner offices at Scottrade Center. They again are teammates — Stillman as owner of the Blues and Zimmerman as his new president of business operations — and they’re hoping to use their experiences and passion for hockey to help the franchise prosper in St. Louis.
Zimmerman, 54, was hired in mid-June to replace Bruce Affleck, who remains with the organization as an executive vice president.
Stillman and Affleck had grown close after Stillman became minority owner of the Blues in 2007. When he assumed majority ownership in 2012, he promoted Affleck to president of business operations. But two years into that arrangement, Stillman needed someone with a background more suitable for the challenges that now face the club.
‘An amazing experience’
After spending 12 years at Saatchi & Saatchi, Zimmerman worked 11 years at Nike. He, along with a young amateur golfer named Tiger Woods, helped launch the company’s golf brand in the mid-1990s.
In 2003, Zimmerman was named president of Nike’s Bauer Hockey operation. In 2006, he received a surprise phone call from the Vancouver Canucks, who made him club president. In 2009, he left the NHL for family reasons and soon took over at Easton Sports.
“I’m incredibly lucky,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve had a series of, I call them ‘dream jobs.’ You get to do stuff you love every day.
“I worked with Tiger when he just signed (with Nike) after winning the U.S. Amateur in 1996. He goes pro that week and at the time I was director of advertising. Literally the day he signed, I was showing him his first Nike ad. The first seven years he was with Nike, I was involved with him — his first ad, apparel and shoes.
“I was part of the team that moved him out of Titleist into a Nike golf ball. The process of taking the world’s best golfer, making a seismic shift in his equipment and being involved in the marketing of that, was an amazing experience.”
In three years in Vancouver, Zimmerman was credited with connecting with corporate partners and creating new ways of generating revenue for the Canucks. He acknowledged that hockey perhaps sells itself in Canada, but added, “whether it’s Vancouver, Los Angeles or St. Louis, fundamentally it’s about relationships ... how we interact, how people feel about us.
“Every piece of that is about a relationship that we have with our fans, with the community. And so the fundamentals of what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years, they all apply. Creating, if you will, that belief around the business operations, that’s critical.”
Stillman and Zimmerman hadn’t kept in touch much in recent years — they met on opposite sides when the Blues faced the Canucks in the 2009 playoffs. But when the team’s owner was seeking the right person to fill the position, he knew who to call.
“Chris’s experience is just so well-suited to what we’re trying to do here,” Stillman said. “He has experience doing exactly this job for a very successful franchise in the Vancouver Canucks. And in that job, he did a lot of enhancing fan engagement, bringing more local companies on board, creating more innovative partnerships with those companies, all sorts of things we want to be doing here.”
Zimmerman arrived in town last month with five bags, including his hockey bag. A righthanded shot, he was given a few T.J. Oshie-patterned sticks that sit against a wall in his office.
“I want to score more in the shootout,” Zimmerman quipped.
Since their days at St. Nick’s, Zimmerman and Stillman have maintained competitive spirits, which begs the question as to who is the better player.
“I think I’m going to let Chris answer that,” Stillman said.
Of the 62-year-old Stillman, Zimmerman replied cautiously, “Tom, some might say is a little later in his career.”
Learning the market
Actually, neither are playing any hockey these days.
Stillman is out because of a “lower-body” injury, walking with crutches after tearing multiple muscles and suffering a stress fracture in his hip. And Zimmerman?
“Chris has not exactly had the time to skate since he got here,” said Stillman, indicating that his new partner is immersing himself in the city and the Blues. “I think he’s getting acclimated very quickly. But I don’t think he wants to be quizzed just yet on the details.”
Not yet, Zimmerman says, but in time.
“Hey, lots of people have been in St. Louis all their life and what do I know about St. Louis in a month? Not a lot,” Zimmerman said. “But I do know that this is a sports town, that it deeply cares. I come to a city that loves its team, that’s hungry for more success. I’ll take that, that’s an amazing starting point.
“Now we need to reward them and we need to bring more people under the tent. There is an opportunity to take a good organization with a lot of good things happening and hopefully be part of making it great over the long term.”