The Blues will have new leadership in place today at Scottrade Center when Tom Stillman emerges from the shadows and takes his first real step onto the big stage.
Stillman will be introduced as the team's signed, sealed and certified owner. His sincere and exuberant presence offers hope for a beloved but star-crossed franchise that seems stuck in a perpetual search for stability.
The hockey-crazy Stillman, who holds The Note close to his heart, will be the latest owner to try his luck where so many others have failed. Stillman, who makes a comfortable living as a beer distributor, may be reaching for the soothing, ice-cold product to calm his nerves after realizing what he's gotten into.
As a business investment the Blues have been a bottomless pit, a place where cash goes to curl up in a wadded ball to die. The costly undertaking caused billionaire owners Bill and Nancy Laurie to flee to their secluded life in Columbia, Mo.
If the Blues ever win the Stanley Cup, the appropriate and symbolic celebration would begin by placing stacks of $100 bills in the chalice and setting the cash on fire.
Stillman knows this; after all he was a minority partner in the fragile ownership consortium assembled by departed chairman Dave Checketts. Stillman — bless him — has chosen to take that leap onto thin ice, anyway. That's all you need to know about how much he loves this sport, this town, this team.
Though extremely limited financially, Checketts and his management team succeeded in reviving the franchise. The Blues slowly regained relevance by gradually restoring customer loyalty in the desperate aftermath of the NHL's canceled season (2004-2005) and the team's last-place finish in 2005-2006.
Checketts, Mike McCarthy, John Davidson and associates had a firm, two-part plan: (1) rebuild the talent base through scouting, drafting and developing players; (2) cleverly market the kids the way a record company would promote new rock stars.
Checketts and his gang also enhanced the arena experience on game nights. The Blues' prospects had the charisma to attract a following, the entertainment value rose, and the boys eventually grew into good players. After stalling for a while, the Checketts plan peaked this season with sellout crowds, escalating TV ratings and an impressive 109-point regular season.
Stillman will try mightily to strengthen this promising foundation to give the Blues a more stable and secure future. Stillman's purchase is backed by big names in the St. Louis corporate community. Men and women with legitimate financial muscle have rallied around favorite-son Stillman by investing in his dream. Moreover, these captains of industry are making an overdue statement: The Blues are important to St. Louis.
That said, it's vital to understand that Stillman's considerable enthusiasm can only go so far. He faces a lot of hard work and tough, harsh decisions. The Blues' wobbly economic structure can no longer be ignored.
To raise money to fund the purchase and to cover subsequent loans, Checketts made some poor deals. One glaring example is the concessions contract at Scottrade Center; in exchange for getting up-front cash, Checketts signed away the concessions rights for short money.
The Blues are near the bottom of the NHL in generating revenue. Fans already are clamoring for Stillman to increase the player payroll and go on a wild spending splurge in the summer free-agent market. That's unlikely, if not impossible.
It's wise to temper expectations. Stillman must find a way to reorganize by cutting costs and increasing revenue, and that won't be easy. There's no way for Stillman to avoid the pain that comes with slashing overhead and expenses. Fans will probably feel it, too. Stillman can't expand the revenue base by keeping ticket prices among the lowest in the NHL.
When a new owner takes over, it's common to see dramatic changes made in the executive wing, and at the department-head level. Aside from the players, that's where you'll find the largest salaries.
Stillman would be foolish to disrupt the hockey operation, led brilliantly by GM Doug Armstrong. The hockey people have the team on the right track, and they've spent their money wisely.
Every other area of the organization is in play for cutbacks. It isn't personal; it's business. The standard practice that's part of a regime change. When Checketts took control in 2006, the first person to go was longtime Blues president Mark Sauer.
As Stillman takes over it would be easy to put on the party hats, toss confetti and pretend that all is swell. I don't enjoy being Debbie Downer here, but honesty is preferable to deception.
The Blues' franchise has hemorrhaged money throughout its existence. That's the reason a procession of owners have come and gone, despite their best intentions.
If you think that Stillman is rolling in money and can engage in bidding wars for free agents with Detroit's Mike Ilitich or the Wirtz family in Chicago, think again. Yes, Stillman has some wealthy partners, and they've made it possible for him to succeed in buying the Blues. That's a plus. But these folks won't be putting an ATM in the corner of Stillman's office. He won't be picking up the phone and asking his investors to supply a never-ending flow of cash to cover constant financial losses.
No, it's up to Stillman to make this work by improving the Blues' financial model. It's the only way he'll make it, long term. And if Stillman does an effective job, eventually the hockey payroll can increase in a significant way.
We welcome Stillman as the Blues' new owner and wish him the very best. This happy occasion will raise the level of optimism at Scottrade Center. And there's nothing wrong with being optimistic. But we have to be realistic, too.