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Blues' ownership: A colorful history

Blues' ownership: A colorful history

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St. Louis businessman Tom Stillman and his band of investment brothers will announce today they have closed a deal to purchase the Blues. The group becomes the eighth to hold the keys to the franchise since its inception.

Maybe eight will be worth the wait. None of the previous owners has brought a Stanley Cup championship to St. Louis.

The Blues joined the league in 1967, one of six expansion teams that doubled the size of the NHL from six to 12. The original owners were successful insurance executive Sid Salomon Jr., his son Sid Salomon III and Robert Wolfson. The elder Salomon was not enthralled with the idea of owning a hockey team initially, but his son persuaded him to take the plunge.

The group spent $2 million to buy the franchise, $4 million to purchase the 38-year-old Arena on Oakland Avenue from Chicago's Bill Wirtz and $2.5 million more to renovate the building. Audience capacity was increased from 12,000 to 15,000 at the Arena, which had been home to the Central Hockey League's St. Louis Braves.

The Blues got off to a slow start in their initial season. But from late December through January the Blues lost only twice in 16 games and grabbed a foothold. With silver-jacketed organist Norm Kramer pumping out "When the Blues Go Marching In," hockey became a happening in St. Louis. Attendance went from 8,897 in 1967-68 to 18,238 in 1970-71.

To this day, in terms of contention, the Salomon group remains the most successful of the Blues owners. In each of its first three seasons, the team advanced through the expansion side of the NHL playoff bracket to the Stanley Cup finals. In each instance, the Blues were swept in four games, twice by the Montreal Canadiens and lastly by the Boston Bruins. The Blues remain 0-12 in Stanley Cup finals play.

The Salomons might have been the most generous employers in sports history. They treated the players to all-expenses-paid Florida vacations when seasons ended and bought them gold wristwatches for scoring hat tricks, etc. When Red Berenson scored six goals in a game on Nov. 7, 1968, ownership presented the outdoor enthusiast with a new station wagon, a canoe attached to the top and a Browning 20-gauge shotgun inside.

Berenson, who had played previously in Montreal and New York, commented: "In New York or Montreal, all you'd get would be a handshake."

But the roller coaster started to descend in the mid-1970s. With his aging father stepping back, Sid Salomon III took a more prominent role in running the franchise and upheaval became the order of the day.

Goaltending anchors Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante retired, Berenson was traded and "Sid III" began changing coaches and general managers like it was a court order. Declining revenue reached a critical stage by the end of the 1976-77 season, and the Blues reduced their management staff to three.


Minority owner Wolfson and Blues president Emile Francis persuaded Ralston Purina executive R. Hal Dean to invest in the franchise. The Checkerboard Square chief even re-painted the fading Arena and re-dubbed it the Checkerdome.

The initial results were not good. In 1978-79, the Blues won 18 of 80 games, or just one more than the NFL's 1972 Miami Dophins. Attendance had gone from a peak of 18,601 a game in 1972-73 to 10,130. But things began to turn around as Francis drafted players like Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter, Wayne Babych and Perry Turnbull. Checks were back in the Checkerdome.

In 1980-81, with Berenson behind the bench, the Blues had a 107-point season and put hockey back on the St. Louis radar. But the renaissance was short-lived. The team slipped under .500 the following season and managed just 65 points in 1982-83. Dean retired and his successor, William Stiritz, had no interest in continuing the involvement in hockey. Looking at losses of more than $10 million over six seasons, the pet food giant put the Blues up for sale and in January 1983, announced it had a buyer in Saskatoon-based Batoni-Hunter Enterprises, Ltd.

Batoni's president, Bill Hunter, said his group was ready to break ground on a $43 million building, which could be ready for the Saskatoon Blues in time for the 1983-84 season. Reluctant to give up on the St. Louis market, the NHL blocked the sale. Incensed, Ralston Purina sued the NHL, padlocked the Checkerdome and abandoned the franchise, leaving a mess for the league to sort out. The team did not even participate in the 1983 NHL draft, forfeiting all of its picks.


Ten days before the deadline NHL President John Ziegler set for dissolving the franchise, Los Angeles-based entrepreneur Harry Ornest stepped up with the only formal bid. He purchased the team and its player contracts for $3 million in cash and $9 million in two notes. He also purchased the Checkerdome from Ralston Purina for $5 million, then raised $3 million in operating expenses.

Among the first things Ornest did during his three-year tenure was change the name of the building back to the "Arena." The cash-poor Ornest then ran the franchise on a skeletal budget. He asked many players to defer contracts to help meet operating costs and through much of Ornest's tenure, the team operated with a small office staff. The Blues kept 26 players under contract, 23 of them in St. Louis. The standard for other teams was 60 players.

But with Ron Caron as the general manager and Jacques Demers as the coach, with Federko and Sutter as the foundation, the Blues were competitive. In 1986, the team reached the Campbell Conference finals and produced one of its signature moments, a "Monday Night Miracle" comeback victory in Game 6. That was the highlight of the Ornest years; the bottom fell out soon after.

The emotional win two days earlier notwitstanding, the Blues lost Game 7 of the playoffs in Calgary, falling short of the Cup finals.


No sooner had the season ended than Demers departed for Detroit. Soon after, Ornest sold the Blues to a group led by Michael Shanahan, head of Engineered Support Systems Inc.

In the end, when the legal dodgeball and financial haggling between the league and Ralston Purina settled, when the budget squeezing and penny-pinching was complete, Ornest came out the big winner.

He returned to California with $3.4 million in profit on the sale of the Blues and $8.2 million in profit on the sale of the Arena.

Over the next few years, the franchise became one of the most colorful and controversial in the NHL. The team made headlines with free-agent signings and trades that landed stars like Brett Hull, Adam Oates, Brendan Shanahan, Scott Stevens, Grant Fuhr, Phil Housley and Al MacInnis. The moves kept sportswriters busy and fans captivated, and often infuriated opposing executives. In between seasons and during trade deadlines, the Blues became a must-see attraction.

The son of legendary Bobby Hull, the "Golden Brett" became the face of the franchise, with his magical name and sublime scoring touch. He had 70 or more goals in three consecutive seasons, including 1990-91 when he scored 86 and the team finished with 105 points.


The mainstream appeal moved a conglomerate of corporate leaders to buy out Shanahan and build the Kiel Center (now the Scottrade Center), opening the downtown doors in 1994.

Still desperate for a championship, the Blues made another controversial move in 1995, hiring Mike Keenan right off the staff directory of the Stanley Cup winning New York Rangers. The Keenan coup wound up being a catastrophe. As general manager and coach, Keenan traded away the popular Brendan Shanahan, tested patience with other curious transactions and cultivated a toxic relationship with Hull.

Things got worse after Keenan orchestrated a bold trade to acquire Wayne Gretzky late in the 1995-96 season. Gretzky, whose wife is a native St. Louisan, personally approved the trade and was prepared to finish his illustrious career with the Blues. He scored 16 points in 13 games after his arrival, but the season ended in frustration as the Blues lost Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals to Detroit.

Disillusioned by Keenan's contentious style, Gretzky became a free agent and departed for New York. A few months later, in December 1996, both Keenan and executive Jack Quinn were fired. And within two years, Hull also was gone, left unsigned to continue a Hall of Fame career with Stanley Cup championships in Dallas and Detroit.


During the late 1990s, the Blues nurtured a new identity. Guided by young coach Joel Quenneville, built on the backline presence of MacInnis and Chris Pronger — who came in the Shanahan deal — the Blues embarked on one of their most rewarding periods. In the midst of it, in 1999, the Clark Enterprises consortium of 19 St. Louis companies that owned the franchise sold it to Bill Laurie and his wife, Nancy, daughter of Wal-Mart co-founder Sam Walton. The sale price for the team and building lease was reported to be $100 million.

In the 1999-2000 season, Quenneville's club won 51 games and collected 114 points, capturing the first Presidents' Trophy in franchise history. The Blues also won the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals (165) in the NHL, as netminder Roman Turek finished with a 1.95 goals-against average. The team would dominate the postseason awards, as Pronger earned a Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player, Pavol Demitra got the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly play and Quenneville was named coach of the year.

All that hardware notwithstanding, hopes for a Stanley Cup run turned to stunning disappointment. The Blues became the first team in NHL history to finish first overall in the standings and lose in the first round of the playoffs.

The next few seasons became like a broken record. The Blues averaged more than 41 wins but could not get though the conference playoffs. A third-round loss to Colorado in 2000-01 was especially deflating. Quenneville was fired during the 2003-04 season and like so many prominent Blues alumni before him — Hull, Shanahan, Stevens, Pronger — he went on to win a Cup elsewhere.

An NHL lockout canceled the 2004-05 season and the Lauries put the team up for sale in June 2005, citing losses of more than $60 million over the previous two years. As the team lingered on the shelf, management further demoralized the fan base by streamlining the books and trading its high-salaried players. Pronger, Doug Weight and Mike Sillinger were all sent packing. Attendance plummeted, from 18,560 a game in 2003-04 to 12,520 in 2006-07.


In late September, 2005, the Lauries signed an agreement to sell the team to SCP Worldwide, a consulting and investment group led by Dave Checketts, former president of New York's Madison Square Garden. A few weeks later, SCP withdrew and a month later, the Blues announced they had signed an exclusive letter of intent to negotiate with General Sports and Entertainment, LLC.

When the period of exclusivity expired without a deal, SCP jumped back into the picture. Finally, in March 2006, the Lauries completed the sale of the team and the Savvis Center lease to SCP and a private equity firm, TowerBrook Capital Partners, L.P. The arrangement made the Blues the only major sports team in North America to be owned by a private equity firm.

Checketts and his group had some serious damage control to perform. But with former Blues goaltender and nationally renowned broadcaster John Davidson at the point, they turned the worm. Management vowed to build through the draft and implored fans to bank on the future of prospects like T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Patrik Berglund.

The Blues missed the playoffs during the first four full seasons of new ownership. Off the ice, the cash-poor Checketts operated with an Ornest-like budget; on the ice the team continued to stockpile picks and promise. In March 2011, Checketts announced he was putting the team and the Scottrade Center lease up for sale, projecting a deal would be struck before the 2011-12 season started. It wasn't.

After an early-season coaching change brought Ken Hitchcock aboard, the Blues broke through this season with 109 points, two points removed from the best record in the NHL. They captured the Jennings Trophy once more for allowing the fewest goals in the league (165). Center David Backes has been named a finalist for the Frank Selke Trophy as the league's top two-way player. Hitchcock is a finalist for the Jack Adams coaching award and Doug Armstrong is a contender for general manager of the year.

After losing Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, the team beat the San Jose Sharks in Game 2 at Scottrade Center, securing its first playoff game victory since 2004. Behind the solid goaltending of Brian Elliott and scoring heroics of Andy McDonald, the Blues defeated the Sharks in five games, advancing to the conference semifinals.

But the memorable season came to an abrupt end at the hands of the surging Los Angles Kings. Coming off their defeat of the Presidents' Trophy winning Canucks, the Kings ousted the Blues in four games.

While the disappointment of that series loss is still fresh, hope springs eternal with the announcement that a new ownership group is in place. The Blues are still looking for their first Stanley Cup.

Maybe eight will be worth the wait.

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