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The Blues at 50: Half a century of highs, lows and legendary players

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St. Louis Blues in 1967
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If you were there, you can still feel it, the building trembling, Norm Kramer’s organ thumping, the sellout crowd vibrating. You can see men and women dressed to the nines, screaming like children, having the time of their lives.

You can still see Saturday nights at The Arena, when hockey in St. Louis was born, when a new religion took hold, when the Blues Came Marching In.

They were magical, those nights, the start of a love affair that is 50 years old. They grabbed hold of a segment of this Midwest town and never let go. Those nights are the basis for all the nights since, for the numbers that go marching in, for hearts that bleed blue.

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Because if you weren’t there, if you came to the sport later, or if you’re just getting started, those nights still reverberate. You can still feel them.

“There’s probably only a portion of the 20,000 or so around who came to those games every night, who really know what we’re talking about,” said Jimmy Roberts years later. Roberts was the first non-goalie taken by the Blues in the 1967 expansion draft. “It was just a small piece of time, but it was incredible.”

The Blues always have been more than a piece of the city’s landscape. From the outset, they connected directly with its blue-collar core. They have left an indelible imprint, an impression only something new and unexpected makes, an everlasting stamp.

When the Blues came along, the city already was entrenched in championship pedigree. The St. Louis Cardinals won a dramatic pennant and World Series in 1964. Three summers later, a year after moving into a new downtown stadium, the “El Birdos” were at it again, led by Hall of Famers like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Orlando Cepeda, and legends like Roger Maris.

They were on their way to back-to-back World Series appearances in 1967 and 1968, making October baseball an annual rite.

The basketball St. Louis Hawks had captured a championship in 1958 and played in the NBA finals four of five years during the late 1950s and early 1960s. With Hall of Famers Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Lenny Wilkens, they were an established piece of the sports environment.

1967 Scholar-Athlete dinner

Owners of four of St. Louis professional sports teams who attended the Post-Dispatch Scholar-Athlete dinner at the Sheraton-Jefferson Hotel on May 28, 1967, are (seated, from left) Sidney Salomon Jr., president of the hockey Blues, and August A. Busch Jr., president of the baseball Cardinals; (standing, from left) Ben Kerner, owner of the basketball Hawks, and Robert R. Hermann, president of the soccer Stars. Post-Dispatch photo

St. Louis had hockey pedigree, even on an NHL level, but it existed in the background, a blip on the radar. In 1934, the financially challenged Ottawa Senators moved to St. Louis, adopting the Eagle logo of the popular Anheuser-Busch brewery in town. The St. Louis Eagles were led by a 23-year-old Syd Howe, early in his Hall of Fame career.

The Eagles lasted only one season, torpedoed by low attendance and rising travel costs. They finished last in the league in scoring and last in the standings in 1934-35. At season’s end, they were gone, purchased by the NHL.

But professional hockey remained on a smaller scale. The St. Louis Flyers, an American Hockey Association team, began play in 1928 and continued until 1953. The Flyers initially played games at the Winter Garden, a facility on DeBaliviere Avenue south of Delmar. They moved into the newly constructed Arena in 1929.

With their star-studded uniforms in red, white and blue, the Flyers were a popular draw and featured unforgettable names like Alex “Shrimp” McPherson and Cliff “Fido” Purpur. The team captured six regular-season championships and five AHA titles over 14 seasons.

But in 1944, the Flyers joined the American Hockey League and began to experience less success. Over nine seasons, they never captured a Calder Cup, never found traction and faded to black.

‘Jesus saves, Espo scores on the rebound’

Hockey returned in 1962 when the Chicago Blackhawks moved their minor-league affiliate from Syracuse, N.Y., to Oakland Avenue. During their first full season in town, the 1963-64 St. Louis Braves featured Alain “Boom-Boom” Caron, who paced the Central Hockey League in scoring with 77 goals and 48 assists.

Caron occasionally was assisted by 21-year-old Phil Esposito, who had 26 goals and 80 points in 43 games with the Braves. His work in St. Louis catapulted Esposito toward a Hall of Fame career in the NHL, where he became the first player to score 100 points in a season and was the inspiration for a popular bumper sticker – “Jesus saves, Espo scores on the rebound.”

Meanwhile, the Braves were capably backstopped by Jack McCartan, the netminding star of the 1960 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team.

The game felt more primitive at the time. There was no Plexiglas atop the playing boards as the fans watched their favorites through chicken-wire fencing that protected them from offending pucks. The Braves played four-plus seasons in St. Louis but knew nothing of postseason heroics. They missed the playoffs altogether twice, lost in the first round twice.

But the Braves laid the groundwork for things to come, introducing St. Louis fans to NHL-caliber skills, showcasing players like Camille “The Eel” Henry, Dennis Hull, Lou Angotti, Fred Stanfield, Pat Stapleton, Art Stratton, Oscar Gaudet and goaltenders like Dennis DeJordy, Roy Edwards and Dave Dryden.

‘The name of the team has to be the Blues’

In 1965, the NHL voted to expand from its original six-team lineup and double its roster to 12 teams. The cost of a new franchise was set at $2 million and 24 groups, representing 12 cities, applied. Within a year’s time, five cities were accepted and awarded teams: Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia and Oakland.

Meanwhile, Vancouver, Buffalo and Baltimore were considered to be front-runners for the last award. But St. Louis, late to the party, had things going for it the others didn’t.

For one, it had the Arena, which had been poorly maintained since the 1940s but fulfilled the NHL’s requirement that a building be in place with a capacity of at least 12,500. What’s more, the dilapidated structure with the beanie-cap roof, built in 1929 to host the annual National Dairy Show, belonged to the families of Arthur Wirtz and James Norris Sr.

Wirtz was the principal owner of the Chicago Blackhawks and the CHL St. Louis Braves. When he saw an opportunity to unload the 47-year-old “barn,” he became an advocate of a St. Louis purchasing group headed by Sid Salomon Jr. and his son, Sid Salomon III. Wirtz lobbied the five other NHL establishments to look favorably on the St. Louis proposal, in return for the group purchasing the Arena for $4 million.

Blues prototype jerseys

Blues general manager Lynn Patrick (left) and team governor Sid Salomon III model home and away uniforms for the team on Aug. 30, 1966. (Post-Dispatch file photo)

Salomon Jr. had unique credentials. A former sportswriter at the St. Louis Times, he made a fortune in the insurance business and became a well-known player in political circles. He was credited with helping Harry Truman get on the Democratic ballot as the vice-presidential candidate in 1944, instead of Henry Wallace.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died a few months later, Truman became president. In 1960, Salomon became chairman of fund-raising for the successful campaign of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He had contacts galore and sports credentials to go with them.

He had been on the board of directors of the St. Louis Browns. He had purchased the Syracuse hockey team of the International League, moved it to Miami and made it financially viable. Salomon’s group also included Stan Musial among its minor investors, which carried even more credibility.

With the backing of the Blackhawks, with an enthusiastic push from his son, Salomon and his group made their bid. And on April 6, 1966, the NHL Board of Governors granted St. Louis its NHL franchise.

For Salomon, picking a name for the team was elementary. “Apollo” was considered, “Mercury” was in the mix. But ultimately, the name that best reflected St. Louis and its cultural roots struck just the right note.

“The name of the team has to be the Blues,” exclaimed Salomon, after being awarded the franchise. “It’s part of the city where W.C. Handy composed his famed song while thinking of his girl one morning.”

‘The Arena became some place to be’

The first logo was created and millions more were invested in revitalizing the building, increasing the seating capacity from 12,000 to 14,500. The only thing left to establish was a love affair. It took time.

The Blues hired Lynn Patrick to serve as their guidance counselor and first head coach. Patrick was a name synonymous with hockey royalty. Patrick’s father, Lester, and uncle, Frank, were in the Hockey Hall of Fame. His brother Muzz was an NHL player, as were his sons Craig and Glenn. Patrick had played, coached and managed in the NHL.

At the same time, 34-year-old Scotty Bowman, coaching a Montreal Canadiens junior farm team, was hired by Patrick to serve as his talent scout and assistant coach. The expansion draft was held, and the Blues made Blackhawks goaltender Glenn Hall their first choice, talking “Mr. Goalie” out of retirement.

They also took veterans like Jimmy Roberts, Al Arbour, Ron Stewart and Don McKenney, and sprinkled in promising youngsters like Tim Ecclestone, Gary Sabourin and Frank St. Marseille.

With a grandiose “Home of the Blues” on the marquee above the front entrance, the Arena opened its doors to the new era on Oct. 11, 1967. More than 11,000 came to see what all the fuss was about, including celebrities like Arthur Godfrey and Anna Maria Alberghetti. The Birth of the Blues was consummated in a 2-2 tie with the Minnesota North Stars. Larry Keenan had the honor of scoring the first goal in franchise history.

“The Arena became some place to be,” Bowman recalled. “I think St. Louis was the first team in the league to have a guy playing the organ music all the time, with Norm Kramer. He’d play that catchy Budweiser song, or the ‘Blues Go Marching In.’ And the Salomons had a lot of ceremonial people come to the game.

“So, we had Bob Hope, Arthur Godfrey and Senator (Stuart) Symington coming to games. It was an event.”

But it didn’t start that way, not immediately. Things got off on the wrong foot as the 55-year-old Patrick began experiencing health problems. With the team in the midst of a seven-game losing skid, languishing at 4-10-2, Patrick stepped aside and handed the job to his young apprentice.

The night Bowman made his coaching debut, a 3-1 loss to Montreal on Nov. 22, there were only 8,403 people in the stands. Bowman recognized the situation needed a jolt.

Berenson and Plager arrive on the scene

Barclay Plager, Red Berenson

On Nov. 26, the Blues lost 1-0 to the New York Rangers, their record slipping to 4-13-2. But while they were in New York, they made a move that would change the direction of the franchise. They sent their leading scorer, Ron Stewart, to the Rangers in return for under-utilized center Red Berenson and defenseman Barclay Plager.

The cerebral Berenson had been a disappointment in New York, misunderstood by coach Emile Francis and banished to the end of the bench. Plager was playing for Buffalo of the American Hockey League, unable to crack the Rangers roster.

In St. Louis, both blossomed. Berenson became the first bona fide star of the expansion Western Conference, a Sports Illustrated cover boy. With his end-to-end rushes and slick stick-handling, the “Red Baron” gave the new product in town a dynamic face. And with his determined play and fearless style, “Barc the Spark” gave Blues hockey heart and soul.

On Jan. 27 at the Arena, with almost 14,000 in the stands, the team fell behind the visiting Rangers 3-0 in the first period, then rallied to win 4-3 on Bill McCreary’s goal. The comeback had a domino effect.

A buzz went through town. Hockey became more than a curiosity and the Arena became the place to be. The Blues won or tied 19 of their final 29 games and the momentum carried into the postseason, embellished with overtime drama and one night more dramatic than the last.

The early years of the St. Louis Blues

St. Louis hockey Blues, who call The Arena home, got their first look at the plush Arena Club last week when they were guests of Goalkeepers Inc., an organization formed to boost hockey in the area. Members of the team in attendance are: (back row, left to right) Don McKenney, Al Arbour, Noel Picard, Bill McCreary, Gerry Melnyk, Frank St. Marseille, Ray Fortin, Glenn Hall, Tim Ecclestone, Ron Schock, Fred Hucul, Gordon Kannegiesser, and Larry Keenan. Front row, kneeling: Bob Plager, Terry Crisp, Jim Roberts, Claude Cardin, Wayne Rivers, Darryl Edestrand and Seth Martin. Missing are Barclay Plager and Gord Berenson. File photo by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Montreal sweeps Blues to take the title

First, the Blues beat the Philadelphia Flyers in a seven-game series, featuring Keenan’s double-overtime goal to win Game 3 and Berenson’s goal to ice a Game 7 win in Philadelphia.

Then came an unforgettable series with the Minnesota North Stars, back-to-back overtime wins in Games 4 and 5, Dickie Moore’s goal to tie Game 7 with less than three minutes remaining, and Ron Schock’s breakaway shot to win it 2-1 in double overtime.

In their first season, Bowman’s Blues headed to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they ran into the iconic Montreal Canadiens. “Les Habs” were in the midst of making 15 finals appearances in 19 seasons and winning 10 Stanley Cups during the stretch. They were in a league of their own, and they swept the expansion upstarts in four games.

But those four games did as much to solidify the bond between the Blues and their fans as all the games before them. Behind the miraculous goaltending of Hall and the defensive strategy of Bowman, the underdog Blues gave the illustrious Canadiens all they bargained for and then some.

Each of the four games was decided by a single goal, and two went to overtime. Hall was named the Conn Smythe Award winner as the most valuable player of the series. When it was over, hockey was entrenched in the heartland.

‘It was a great time to be a Blue’

The Blues would win the West Division the following two seasons, create more playoff magic, and make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals. Again, they would be over-matched in the championship series, getting swept once more by Montreal, then by Bobby Orr’s Boston Bruins. In 12 Stanley Cup Finals games, Bowman’s Blues were an inglorious 0-12.

But behind the wizardry of their young coach, the scoring heroics of Berenson, the goaltending of Hall and Jacques Plante, the resilience of defenders like Al Arbour and Barclay Plager and the color of characters like Bob Plager and Noel Picard, the infant Blues set a bar and laid a foundation on which a franchise could build.

“It was just magical,” Berenson said. “When I got to St. Louis in November, the rink had been redone. The Salomons had done everything to get people to come to the games. The team started to come together and it was kind of like the fans were willing the players into doing well.

“The players were humble and they were happy to be here. So it was just a love affair between the fans and the players. It was a great time to be a Blue.”

The end of a fabulous honeymoon

The early years of the St. Louis Blues

St. Louis Blues' Garry Unger (right) connects with a right to the jaw of the Buffalo Sabres' Kevin O'Shea in a fight that erupted in the second period of the Sabres-Blues game on Oct. 12, 1971, in St. Louis. Both players were given five minutes penalty. UPI photo

In retrospect, the Blues were a bit guilty of spoiling their faithful in those first few seasons. The next decade would bring lots of changes but precious little glory. As Sid Salomon III became more involved in running the organization, relationships became strained, stability suffered and Camelot eroded.

Berenson, who got sideways with Salomon as the team’s union rep, was dispatched to Detroit in February 1971 for promising young forward Garry Unger. Salomon undermined the promotion of Arbour as Bowman’s successor behind the bench, then later insisted trainer Tommy Woodcock be fired.

Bowman had enough. He departed to become coach of the Montreal Canadiens, eventually becoming leader in NHL coaching history and a mentor for nine Stanley Cup championships in three cities. For St. Louis, it was the end of a fabulous honeymoon and sent the franchise in a definitively different direction.

The Blues would still have bright moments in the 1970s. Kevin O’Shea’s overtime goal to beat the North Stars in Game 7 of the West Division quarterfinals is among the most dramatic in NHL history. Unger replaced Berenson as the face of the franchise and became one of its all-time leading marksmen.

“Ungie” scored 30 or more goals in eight consecutive seasons in St. Louis, including 41 in 1972-73. He played in seven All-Star Games wearing the Bluenote and was named MVP of the 1974 Classic, when his short-handed goal led his All-Star side to a 6-4 win.

“People came to the games then to see Unger,” said Gary Mueller, who covered the team for the Post-Dispatch from 1970-83. “He was the team.”’

Unger scored 292 goals and 575 points in nine seasons with the Blues. At the same time, he became known as hockey’s “Iron Man,” never missing a game until Dec. 22, 1979, as a member of the Atlanta Flames. Oddly enough, the streak ended in a 7-3 win for the Flames in St. Louis. Unger’s mark of 914 consecutive NHL games later was exceeded by Doug Jarvis, who played in 964 straight.

New owner, new players, new optimism

But the individual accomplishments of Unger were not translating into success for the Blues. They missed the playoffs for the first time in 1973-74 and the franchise began experiencing financial concerns as attendance dropped. In the spring of 1976, another established name in hockey circles, Emile “The Cat” Francis, left New York and came to St. Louis to run the hockey operations.

In his first draft at the controls, Francis landed three picks who would impact the franchise dramatically – Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter and Mike Liut.

With the team up for sale, Francis and Blues minority owner Robert Wolfson worked with Ralston Purina executive R. Hal Dean to purchase the franchise in July 1977. The deal included the deteriorating Arena and an existing debt of $8.8 million. Dean insisted the arrangement was temporary, a “civic responsibility” until a new buyer could be found.

The Checkerboard Square company repainted the old building and re-named it “The Checkerdome.” But the results on the ice were checkered, as well. In 1977-78, the team won only 20 games and followed that with an unsightly 18-50-12 record in 1978-79. Once rocking with socialites and diehards, the aged building on Oakland Avenue was rotting from the inside out and the outside in. Average attendance plummeted from a peak of 18,601 in 1972-73 to 10,130 in ‘78-79.

Sutter, Federko, Babych

The Blues hit the trifecta with Brian Sutter, Bernie Federko and Wayne Babych.

But young players were emerging and a new wave of optimism would come with them. In 1980-81, coached by former star Berenson, the Blues enjoyed one of the best seasons in franchise history. The team finished with 45 wins and 107 points. Wayne Babych, a 22-year-old right winger, became the first 50-goal scorer for the Blues, getting 54 goals in 78 games. Babych was part of a “Kid Line” that featured center Federko and left winger Sutter.

With 31 goals and 73 assists, Federko was the first member of the team to collect 100 or more points in a single season. Sutter had 35 goals and 232 minutes in penalties, becoming a gritty, inspirational force, following in the skate ruts of Barc Plager.

The ‘80-81 Blues had 10 players with at least 20 goals and finished second overall in the NHL with 352 goals.

At the same time, Liut became the premier netminder in the league, ringing up 33 wins and winning the Lester B. Pearson Trophy as the league’s most valuable player – an award voted on by the players. Liut finished second to Wayne Gretzky for the Hart Memorial Trophy, the MVP award presented by the league.

When the playoffs began, the Blues were considered one of the teams to beat. And when Mike Crombeen’s goal in double-overtime beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, rescuing the team from an uninspired first-round performance, the high expectations remained intact.

But the magical season came to a screeching halt in the quarterfinals, as the weary Blues fell to the New York Rangers in six games. The disappointment notwithstanding, a new wave of excitement had put down roots. The Blues were turning a corner.

Blues almost head off the Saskatoon

Entertainment values continued to run high throughout the 1980s, with Federko and Sutter leading the way. But off the ice, the franchise once again was pushed to the brink. Dean retired late in 1981 and Ralston’s new chairman, William Stiritz, made it clear he was not interested in the hockey business and sought to remove the Blues from the books. Over six years of Ralston ownership, he pointed out, the team had lost $10.2 million.

In January 1983, a group made an offer to purchase the team and move it to Saskatoon. The investors said they were prepared to break ground on a $43 million, 18,000 seat arena that would be ready for the 1983-84 season. In the midst of the unsettling talk and uncertain future, the Blues stumbled to a 25-40-15 record in 1982-83.

With no local bids materializing, Ralston eventually approved a sale to the Saskatoon group for $12 million. But the NHL board of governors stepped in and rejected the transaction by a vote of 15-3. A frustrated Ralston padlocked the doors, filed suit and dumped the entire business into the league’s lap.

The company announced it had “no intention of remaining in the hockey business and no intention of operating the team next year.” Accordingly, the statement added, Ralston was “tendering” the Blues to the NHL “to operate, sell or otherwise dispose of in whatever manner the league desires.”

A few days later, the NHL held the June 1983 amateur draft. Sticking to its guns, Ralston refused to authorize any Blues personnel to attend. It remains the only instance in league history in which an existing team did not participate in the draft.

Things got uglier. The NHL and its owners responded by filing countersuits against Ralston, which in turn announced it would liquidate the franchise and sell off the assets. The league returned fire by announcing it was terminating the franchise under its existing arrangement, stripping Ralston of its ownership rights and searching for new ownership to come forward under a new franchise arrangement.

In late July, just days before the NHL deadline to dissolve the team altogether, California-based businessman Harry Ornest reached an agreement to buy the team and the Checkerdome. The darkest days in franchise history were over and the Blues remained as a part of St. Louis.

Harry Ornest

Ruth and Harry Ornest, holding court during their reign with the St. Louis Blues, July 12, 1985. Photo by J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

‘Monday Night Miracle’ caps rejuvenation

Wickenheiser "Monday Night Miracle" goal in 1986

The Blues' Doug Wickenheiser (left) exults after scoring the "Monday Night Miracle" goal against Calgary in overtime of Game 6 of the Campbell Conference finals at the St. Louis Arena on May 12, 1986. Photo by Kevin Manning of the Post-Dispatch

Inserting colorful Ron Caron as the general manager and charismatic Jacques Demers as coach, the re-invented Blues reconnected with the community in the mid-1980s. In the spring of 1984, they produced one of their more dynamic playoff performances by beating the Detroit Red Wings in four games. Mark Reeds won Game 3 with a goal in double overtime, and in Game 4 Jorgen Pettersson finished off a hat trick by scoring the overtime winner for a 3-2 clincher.

The following season, 1984-85, the Blues won 37 games and finished first in the division, only to be erased in the first round of the playoffs by Minnesota. But postseason glory would come the following season.

In 1985-86, with winger Mark Hunter scoring 44 goals, Demers’ Blues finished third in the Norris Division before going on a playoff thrill ride. They paid Minnesota back for the indignity of the previous year by beating the North Stars at home 6-3 in the deciding game of the five-game series.

Next, they survived a roller-coaster series with the Toronto Maple Leafs, winning Game 5 on Reeds’ overtime goal, and capturing Game 7 on Kevin LaVallee’s third-period marker.

But the best – and the worst – was yet to come. Facing the Calgary Flames in the conference championship round, one step from returning to the Stanley Cup Finals, the Blues fell behind 3-2 as the series came back to St. Louis on Monday, May 12.

Things went from discouraging to desperate when Calgary scored four times in the second period and carried a seemingly insurmountable 5-2 advantage with 12 minutes remaining. That’s when the impossible happened.

Sutter scored with 11:52 to play, Greg Paslawski with 4:11 to go, and the Blues trailed by a goal. Then, with just 1:08 remaining in the Blues’ playoff lives, Paslawski stole the puck from Calgary defenseman Jamie Macoun and swept it past netminder Mike Vernon to tie the score 5-5. The Arena nearly came off its ancient foundation as 17,801 Blues-backers went berserk.

Eight minutes into the overtime, Doug Wickenheiser rifled the rebound of Hunter’s shot past Vernon, and the Blues were 6-5 winners, the Monday Night Miracle was complete. Unfortunately, it was followed by the Wednesday Night Letdown.

The series went back to Calgary for Game 7, and the Flames regrouped. The momentum of their incredible comeback notwithstanding, the Blues lost 2-1 and went home.

‘We're leaving the club in the first place’

The loss to the Flames essentially marked another fork in the road for the franchise. Just weeks later, Demers bolted the Blues and signed a five-year deal to coach the rival Detroit Red Wings. The popular coach insisted that, while he had received a verbal contract extension from Blues owner Ornest, he had never formally been offered a new contract.

“‘I have nothing but good feelings about the people I’ve worked with,” Demers said. “Ron Caron, he was the only one at the time who believed in me. I’m leaving one of the dearest friends in my life, (assistant coach) Barclay Plager. And I’ll never forget what my players have done for me the last three years.

“I really believed I gained the confidence of the fans – it takes a long time to get that. I’ll never forget what the fans did for me.”

In his three seasons as Blues coach, Demers was 106-106-28. In addition to Detroit, he would also coach in Quebec, Tampa Bay and Montreal, where he guided the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup in 1993. He later became an analyst for Canadiens games and in 2009, Demers became a member of the Canadian Senate.

Just a few months after Demers’ departure, and after many weeks of haggling, Blues ownership underwent another face-lift. On Dec. 12, 1986, Ornest agreed to sell the team to a group of 28 St. Louis investors, headed by Michael F. Shanahan, president of Engineered Support Systems Inc. in Olivette. The city purchased the Arena and land adjacent to Highway 40.

“There is some melancholy attached to all of this,” Ornest said. “‘But with Mike Shanahan, I think the team is in the best possible hands.”

Ornest owned the club for “40 months and 14 days” and he added, “When we arrived, the Blues were not in business, and we’re leaving the club in first place.”

Conference All-Star's

Clarence Campbell Conference All-Star's Wayne Gretzky sails through the air as he and Prince of Wales Conference All-Star's Ray Bourque pursue a loose puck during first period NHL All-Star action in St. Louis, Tuesday night, Feb. 9, 1988. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The 1986-87 Blues did go on to finish first in the Norris Division, albeit with a 32-33-15 mark and just 79 points. Doug Gilmour became the second Blues player to top 100 points, with 42 goals and 63 assists, but the team was quickly dispatched in the first round of the playoffs. The shallow first-place finish notwithstanding, average attendance dropped to 13,240.

As if things weren’t blue enough in Bluesville, it was revealed Blues assistant coach Barclay Plager had an operation to remove a brain tumor. He survived the procedure, but a new tumor was discovered later the same year. Plager, whose number “8” was retired by the franchise with a ceremony in 1981 entered a hospital late in January 1988 and died Feb. 6 of a brain hemorrhage.

When the 39th NHL All-Star Game was conducted in St. Louis on Feb. 9, 1988, just three days later, the Arena crowd held a moment of silence in honor of “Barc the Spark,” and his sons dropped the ceremonial puck. Former Blues captain Arbour was in attendance as an honorary All-Star, along with Bob Plager.

At the time, Arbour headed up player development for the New York Islanders, a team he coached to four Stanley Cup titles after leaving St. Louis. That night, he spoke about his time in St. Louis and his former teammate, the likes of whom he would never see again.

“He was the greatest competitor I’ve ever been associated with,” Arbour said that night. “He had a Bluenote tattooed on him. He was an inspiration in the dressing room and on the ice. He commanded a lot of respect, and he respected that sweater.

“One thing about it, when in the dressing room, he would not allow any player to throw the sweater down on the floor. He was just a different person altogether. He really typified the St. Louis Blues.”

‘Golden Brett' arrives in St. Louis

Hockey’s dobber was down in St. Louis. The city and the franchise needed a lift, and shortly after the All-Star Game, on March 7, 1988, “The Professor” Ron Caron provided it.

With his team in the throes of 10 losses in 14 games, Caron traded All-Star defenseman Rob Ramage and goalie Rick Wamsley to Calgary in return for forwards Brett Hull and Steve Bozek.

The key to the deal was Hull, the 23-year-old son of Hall of Famer Bobby “The Golden Jet” Hull. The “Golden Brett” had demonstrated a big shot and a scoring acumen with the Flames, collecting 26 goals in 52 games that season.

But Calgary was a Stanley Cup contender, well-stocked with proven, responsible veterans. The young Hull was having a hard time cracking the lineup and winning the trust of coach Terry Crisp.

Caron and the Blues gambled that Hull, armed with the name and the knack, could become a centerpiece in St. Louis. In fact, he became one of the most influential sports figures in the city’s history, taking hockey to places it had never gone before.

Hull began fulfilling the vision in his first full season with the Blues, getting 41 goals and leading the team in scoring in 1988-89. But it was just a down payment.

In June 1989, Caron cooked up another deal, sending long-time Blues linchpin – and future Hall of Famer – Bernie Federko and winger Tony McKegney to Detroit for play-making center Adam Oates and winger Paul MacLean.

The marriage of skills between Hull and Oates was a match made in hockey heaven, and the duet became one of the most prolific pairs in history. In 1989-90, Hull scored 72 goals and Oates had 79 assists. The following season, 1990-91, Hull became the fifth player in NHL history – and last – to score 50 goals in his team’s first 50 games.

By the time the season was over, he had 86 goals, the most ever by an NHL right winger and the third highest single-season total to Gretzky’s marks of 92 (1981-82) and 87 (1983-84). At the same time, the maestro Oates had 90 assists to go with his 25 goals.

To go with that one-two punch in ‘90-91, the Blues had a top quarterback in Scott Stevens. The team stunned the league and signed the defenseman as a free agent in July 1990, compensating the Washington Capitals with a slew of first-round picks, making Stevens the highest-paid defenseman in the game.

Adam Oates

11 Dec 1991: Center Adam Oates of the St. Louis Blues moves the puck during a game against the Buffalo Sabres at Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo, New York. Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart /Allsport

With their new captain stabilizing the blue line, with Hull and Oates piling up points, coach Brian Sutter’s team compiled 47 wins and 105 points. It was the second-best record in franchise history and just a point behind Chicago for the best record in the NHL.

After falling behind 3-1 in an opening-round playoff series, they won the next three to send the Detroit Red Wings packing. But in the Norris Division finals, they met up with an old adversary, the Minnesota North Stars. The series was lengthy and, despite a goal and assist by Hull, the Blues lost Game 6 at Minnesota 3-2 to go home disappointed.

Hull scored 11 goals in the 13 playoff games, bringing his overall season total to 97. After the season, he was awarded the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.

“I didn’t set any (individual) goals, and I certainly wasn’t thinking about 86 that year,” Hull said years later. “I was thinking, ‘Boy, we’ve got a chance to do something special here.’ We had what I considered a real great hockey team.”

Attendance went from an average of 14,505 in 1987-88 to 17,158 in the 1990-91 season. “Hull & Oates” were rocking the Arena … but the show didn’t last long.

In January of the following season, after signing a new contract just months earlier, Oates demanded his deal be restructured and threatened to walk out. The squabbling went on for weeks before the Blues broke up the dynamic duo and traded Oates to Boston for Craig Janney.

Of the club-record 527 goals Hull collected with the Blues, he scored 212 while Oates was in St. Louis. Oates assisted on 94 of the goals and piled up 228 assists in 195 games wearing the Note. Brett’s father, Bobby Hull, had played with Hall of Fame center Stan Mikita on Chicago’s famous “Scooter Line.” Oates had been Brett Hull’s equivalent.

“That’s part of sports and part of the game, but it really (stunk),” Hull said of the quick split. “We could have been a foundation for a number of years. Adding pieces to the pie to strive for that Stanley Cup in St. Louis would have been really something special. It was unfortunate.”

Kiel Center opens at 14th and Clark

The 1990s continued to be eventful for the Blues, and included a change of address. In mid-December 1992, Hull fired a celebratory shot to begin the demolition of Kiel Auditorium and construction of Kiel Center, a $170 million home for hockey at 14th and Clark Streets.

Kiel Center president Jud Perkins projected “an entertainment center that’s going to be one of the finest entertainment centers in the Midwest, if not the entire United States.”

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Arena, which opened on Oct. 11, 1929, would host its final Blues game on April 24, 1994. Dallas forward Mike Modano scored a late goal to give the Stars a 2-1 win and a playoff series sweep. Phil Housley had the final Blues goal in the “Old Barn” at 5700 Oakland Ave.

After a lockout delayed the start of the 1994-95 season, the team officially opened the new Kiel Center on Jan. 26, 1995. Craig Johnson scored the first Blues goal in the new building. The first opposing goal was scored by Los Angeles star Gretzky, celebrating his 34th birthday. Those two players would be involved in another historic exchange one season later.

But the man of the evening was the man who started the transition with the inaugural shot more than two years earlier. Hull scored two times in the third period and the Blues christened the building with a 3-1 win.

No surprise there. The early ‘90s continued to belong to Hull. He would score 70 goals in 1991-92 and break the 50 mark again the following two seasons.

Meanwhile, a year after signing Stevens away from Washington, the Blues created more tremors by signing New Jersey forward Brendan Shanahan to an offer sheet in July 1991. When the teams couldn’t agree on compensation, an arbitrator sent Stevens to the Devils in the exchange.

Brendan Shanahan

St. Louis Blues’ Brendan Shanahan gets off a shot in front of Chicago Black Hawks’ Bryan Marchment  in a 1993 first-round playoff game. (AP Photo)

Still, Shanahan combined with Hull to form a devastating threat up front. In 1993-94, Hull had 57 goals while Shanahan scored 52 to go with 50 assists. The Blues made the playoffs for the 15th consecutive time and failed to win a Stanley Cup for the 28th consecutive season.

The following summer, management set the hockey world on its ear once more by signing coach Mike Keenan away from New York, where he had coached the Rangers to the Stanley Cup championship just weeks earlier.

A controversial figure everywhere he went, Keenan quickly ruffled feathers in St. Louis with statements about “changing the culture.” One lockout-shortened season after he arrived, after his Blues were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in 1994-95, he started the process, trading away the popular Shanahan for young defenseman Chris Pronger.

At the time, the move seemed ill-conceived. Shanahan was an established star while the 20-year-old Pronger, the second overall pick in the 1993 NHL draft, had been an early disappointment in Hartford.

In the end, both wound up in hockey’s Hall of Fame. Playing alongside future Hall of Famer Al MacInnis in St. Louis, Pronger developed into one of the more prominent defensemen in the game and made 13 All-Star Game appearances. In 1999-2000, he won both the Norris Trophy, as the game’s top defenseman, and the Hart Trophy as the MVP. He was the first defenseman to win the Hart since Bobby Orr in 1972.

Pronger would go on to play on a Stanley Cup winning team in Anaheim in 2007 and play in three Stanley Cup Finals with three teams. But none of them were the Blues.

A month after the Shanahan deal, Keenan sent fan-favorite goaltender Curtis “Cujo” Joseph to Edmonton. But not all of his deals would send big names elsewhere, and the biggest culture shock was still to come.

‘The Great One' brings hope of a Cup

On Feb. 27, 1996, believing his team was one piece of the puzzle away from contending, Keenan and the Blues packaged forwards Craig Johnson, Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat, a fifth-round choice in the ‘96 draft and a first-round pick in the 1997 draft to Los Angeles in exchange for Gretzky. That’s right, Wayne Gretzky.

“I think it was one of the biggest moments in the history for St. Louis, not only hockey, but in sports,” said Mike Keenan, the author of the deal.

Mike Caruso was the Blues’ head of public relations at the time. Caruso was in Vancouver with the team on Feb. 28 when Gretzky arrived. “He came up to Keenan’s room and it was just the three of us,” Caruso recalled. “Hearing about him all through the years and never meeting him, I was shocked at how quiet and down to earth he was.”

With “The Great One” paired with Hull, with MacInnis and Pronger on defense, with goaltender Grant Fuhr, a Stanley Cup winning teammate of Gretzky’s in Edmonton, and with Keenan behind the bench, the Blues appeared to have everything covered.

Visions of Stanley Cup parades were dancing in the heads of St. Louisans. The largest crowd in Blues history, 20,725, greeted the 35-year-old Gretzky when he skated onto the ice in his home debut on March 5. The ovation lasted nearly two minutes. “I was tingling,” Gretzky said.

The good vibes were short-lived. Gretzky had eight goals and 13 assists in 18 games for the Blues down the stretch of the 1995-96 regular season. But the fusion with Hull did not immediately produce fireworks, and the team finished 6-10-5 with Gretzky on its roster.

To make matters worse, the Blues lost Fuhr to injury during a 5-4 overtime loss to Toronto in the first round of the playoffs. To that point, the unflappable Fuhr had participated in a remarkable 81 of the 84 games the Blues had played in the season.

The team rallied behind backup Jon Casey and defeated the Maple Leafs in six games. Their reward was to face Scotty Bowman’s Red Wings, who ransacked the league for an outrageous 62 wins and 131 points.

When the Blues lost the first two games in “Hockey Town,” the second by a lopsided 8-3 count, a mismatch appeared obvious. But Gretzky and Co. staged a remarkable rebound, winning the next three games and taking a 3-2 series lead home to St. Louis. Anything seemed possible.

But the Red Wings captured Game 6 to send the series back to Detroit. Game 7 on May 16, 1996, is recognized as one of the classics in NHL playoff history. Just one minute 17 seconds into a second overtime, a 55-foot shot by Steve Yzerman zipped over Casey’s shoulder and provided Detroit with a 1-0 win.

“We had a really good hockey team, and I’m convinced today that if we could have beaten Detroit in double overtime, we could have beaten (Stanley Cup winner) Colorado,” Gretzky said years later. “We had a little bit more playoff experience than Colorado. And, I’m not taking anything away from them, but if we’d have had Fuhrsie in net, with our experience, maybe the outcome would have been different.”

A lot of things might have been different. Problems dissolve in winning locker rooms, they fester in the debris-field of losing. Exacerbated during the Detroit series, the relationship between Keenan and Gretzky turned sour. The Blues reportedly pulled a three-year, $23 million contract off the table and a disenchanted Gretzky chose free agency.

After starting with such excitement, the “Gretzky Era” ended in St. Louis 145 days later. He signed with the Rangers and finished his career in New York. The legendary No. 99 scored 249 more regular-season points over three seasons with the Rangers before calling it quits. But in retrospect, he believes he could have been more effective with the Blues.

“What made me good in St. Louis was Brett Hull, Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger,” said Gretzky, who had two goals and 14 assists in 13 playoff games with the Blues. “Had I stayed there, from an offensive point of view, I would have exceeded what I did (in New York) over the next three years.”

34 more reasons to love the Blues

Wayne Gretzky warms up before a game in 1996. "The Great One" never quite fit in with the Blues. (AP Photo)

Keenan sent packing

MIGHTY DUCKS BLUES

St. Louis Blues' Brett Hull stands in front of coach Mike Keenan during the Blues' game against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in St. Louis in 1995. Hull was replaced by Shayne Corson as captain of the team by Keenan. (AP Photo/James A. Finley)

The departure of Gretzky brought still another organizational bend in the road. Keenan had alienated many fans by trading Shanahan and Joseph. The falling out with Gretzky and subsequent departure poured nitroglycerin on the fire. The relationship between the faithful and the polarizing coach slid further south in 1996-97 as he butted heads with Hull, the franchise’s biggest star.

Things reached a head on Dec. 6, 1996, when Keenan made Hull a healthy scratch for a game in Colorado. Less than two weeks later, with attendance waning, with the Blues in the midst of losing 10 of 15 games, management did some scratching as well – Keenan was relieved of his duties.

In 1994-95, the season Keenan was hired, attendance for home games reached an average of 19,489. By the 1996-97 season, it had dropped to 16,806. Blues chairman Jerry Ritter emphasized the dip as a big factor in Keenan’s departure but acknowledged the public spat between Keenan and Hull played a part as well.

“Yes, the continuous feuding had become a distraction,” Ritter said. “We told Brett there was no winner in his quarrel with Mike Keenan. We also told Brett we expected more leadership.”

New coach arrives; ‘Brightest Star' leaves

In early January 1997, management sent the fortunes of the franchise in a less-volatile direction, hiring Joel Quenneville off the staff of Colorado’s reigning Stanley Cup champions. As Marc Crawford’s assistant, Quenneville handled the defensive end with the successful Avalanche, and he focused his attention in the same area with the Blues.

During his introductory news conference, Quenneville made it clear he had no problem with the culture.

“St. Louis looks like someplace we can establish roots,” he said. “Everyone tells me St. Louis is a great place and that I’m going to love it.”

The Blues finished out the season 18-15-7 under Quenneville and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the nemesis Red Wings. But Quenneville put a system of defensive diligence in place and convinced the offensive-minded Hull to buy in.

In 1997-98, the Blues allowed 35 fewer goals than the season before, won 45 games and finished third in the Central Division. The 98 points were the most for the team in seven seasons. The Blues swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs but fell to the Red Wings in six games of the conference semifinals.

Hull still led the team in goals, but his total of 27 was his lowest in 10 seasons and his future with the franchise he helped reinvigorate was all but over.

Playing the last segment of his contract, Hull and agent Mike Barnett made it clear they did not want to negotiate a new agreement during the ‘97-98 season. At the same time, the often-outspoken Hull did not survive the clashes with Keenan unscathed. Accurately or not, some began labeling him as a disruptive, undisciplined presence.

On May 14, 1998, when the Blues lost Game 4 of the conference semifinal playoffs with Detroit, No. 16 even heard boos from the Kiel Center crowd. Five days later, the season ended in an ugly 6-1 loss to the Wings. Hull went scoreless in what proved to be his final game wearing the Note.

In June, the club signed Hall of Fame defenseman MacInnis to a three-year deal and, shortly thereafter, informed the 33-year-old Hull it would no longer pursue his services. On July 1, Hull became an unrestricted free agent and two days later agreed to a three-year contract with the Dallas Stars.

The most prolific goal-scorer in Blues history, the man whose slap shot christened the new Kiel Center just a few years earlier, was gone. “He put St. Louis on the hockey map,” former Blues chairman Mike Shanahan said. “We went from being a doormat to being feared around the league. We started to make a little noise and people had to take notice.

“Hull played a role in people realizing there was hockey in the United States outside of Chicago. My theory of sports is that people want to see stars play. It’s the entertainment business and it’s built around stars, and Brett Hull was the brightest star.”

‘Glad I didn't have to play against him’

In 11 seasons and 744 games, Hull had 527 goals and 409 assists for 936 points with the Blues. He played in seven All-Star Games, collected 27 hat tricks, scored 67 playoff goals, led the team in scoring nine times and led the team in provocative remarks nearly every week. Most of those numbers sit atop the franchise record books.

“Brett had it all,” former teammate Joseph said. “He was always smiling and scoring and had the great personality. He was the whole package and it was great to play with him. I’m glad I didn’t have to play against him during those heydays. It was fun being a part of the circus.”

Hull achieved something in Dallas, and later Detroit, that he never was able to achieve in St. Louis – he was part of Stanley Cup championships in both cities. He put his name on the Stanley Cup. Eight years later, when he returned to town for a ceremony to lift his No. 16 to the rafters at Scottrade Center, Hull acknowledged he never wanted to leave St. Louis ... and he never really did.

“You are the greatest people, and I feel very privileged to be standing here in front of you,” Hull told the crowd that night in December 2006. “I would first like to thank Mr. (Dave) Checketts and John Davidson for bringing me back into a family that I have missed for many years.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to retire here, but I can tell you what, my heart never left.”

Hull comes back to haunt Blues

STANLEY CUP

Dallas Stars Brett Hull hoists the Stanley Cup after the Stars defeated the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in triple overtime in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals in 1999. Hull scored the game winning goal.(AP Photo/Ryan Remiorz)

With the departure of Hull, the Blues assumed a more modest personality, reflecting the sensible, hard-working style of their coach, Quenneville. Anchored by defensive stars MacInnis and Pronger, balanced with the scoring of Pavol Demitra, Pierre Turgeon and Scott Young, the Blues became one of the league’s upper-echelon teams.

The 1998-99 edition finished second in a tough Central Division, as MacInnis scored 20 goals and won the Norris Trophy as the league’s premier defenseman. The regular season was followed by a thrilling playoff win over the Phoenix Coyotes, a series in which the Blues rallied from a 3-1 deficit and captured Game 7 on Turgeon’s overtime goal.

The victory sent the Blues to the Western Conference semifinals where they met up with the Dallas Stars and their former marquee star, Hull. Four of the games went to overtime, with the Blues winning two, but the Stars prevailed in six.

Perhaps fate was involved. Coached by Ken Hitchcock, the Stars advanced all the way to the Cup finals where they beat the Buffalo Sabres in seven games. The irrepressible Hull scored the series-clinching goal in the third overtime of Game 6.

Club again turned away from Cup finals

In September 1999, the Blues underwent another ownership change. The Clark Enterprises consortium of St. Louis companies that owned the team sold their interests to Bill Laurie and his wife, Nancy, daughter of Walmart co-founder Sam Walton. The Lauries purchased the team and building lease for a reported $100 million, a far cry from the $12 million Harry Ornest had paid back in 1983.

On the ice, Quenneville had the Blues flying. Coach Q’s club skated to one of the greatest regular seasons in franchise history in 1999-2000. The team won 51 games and finished first overall in the NHL standings, capturing the President’s Trophy for the best regular-season record.

Chris Pronger

Blues defenseman Chris Pronger celebrates his game-winning goal in the third period in Game 5 between the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks ini 2000. 

The stockpile of 114 points remains the most compiled in a single season by the Blues. The 51 wins is the second best total in Blues history, exceeded only by the 52 wins of Ken Hitchcock’s 2013-14 team — a total augmented by shootout wins, which weren’t on the scene in 1999-2000.

The backbone of the 1999-2000 bell-ringer was Pronger, who turned the dismay over his acquisition for Shanahan into a delight. The 6-foot-6 defenseman won both the Hart and the Norris trophies. Pronger finished with 14 goals, 48 assists and a league-leading plus-52 rating.

But, in what would develop into a frustrating sidebar to Quenneville’s successful tenure in St. Louis, the Blues were unable to go deep into the playoffs. After compiling the best record in hockey, they were upset in seven games of a first-round series, ousted by a San Jose team that won 16 fewer games during the regular season.

The following spring, the team bucked the trend, at least a bit. Compiling 103 points and a second-place finish in the Central, the 2000-01 Blues got payback on the Sharks and ousted San Jose in Game 6 of the conference quarterfinals. The momentum carried into the next round, where they swept Hitchcock’s Stars in four, advancing to the conference finals. The city was smelling a long-awaited return to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Blues fell behind the Colorado Avalanche 2-0 in the third-round series before bouncing back in Game 3, winning on Scott Young’s goal in double overtime. That sensational high was followed by gut-wrenching overtime losses in games 4 and 5, and Colorado prevailed. The Avs went on to defeat the New Jersey Devils in a seven-game series and win the Stanley Cup.

Coach Q moves on; playoff streak ends

For Quenneville, the championship dream in St. Louis never came closer. His next two teams would average 42 wins and 98.5 points but never advance as far in the playoffs. When his injury-diminished roster hit a late-season skid in 2003-04, winning just nine times in a 32-game stretch, the most successful coach in franchise history was fired.

In eight seasons with the Blues, Quenneville was 307-191-77. He moved on to coach in Colorado and Chicago, where he has guided the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups championships (2009-10, 2012-13, and 2014-15).

General manager Larry Pleau replaced Quenneville with his longtime assistant, Mike Kitchen. But the departure of Quenneville was immediately followed by the end of the collective bargaining agreement and another fork in the road for the franchise.

Kitchen was able to get the Blues into the playoffs for the 25th consecutive season in 2003-04, but they were eliminated in the first round by the Sharks, and the dark clouds gathered.

The playoff-qualifying streak came to a technical end in 2004-05. The entire season was canceled by a labor lockout. Every team missed the playoffs, because there were no playoffs. For many hockey fans, the labor dispute and loss of a season was personal.

Up for sale, Lauries strip team of assets

When the lockout finally lifted and games resumed, the Blues’ fortunes did not improve. Unable to continue after an injury to his eye, MacInnis ended his Hall of Fame career after 23 seasons and retired in June 2005. The same month, the Lauries announced they were putting the team up for sale, citing losses of some $60 million over the past two years.

With the Blues lingering on the “For Sale” shelf, the lame-duck owner instructed management to shed salary and streamline the books. In August 2005, Pronger was traded to Edmonton. The Hall of Fame defenseman would go on to play in Stanley Cup Finals with the Oilers, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Anaheim Ducks, with whom he won a championship in 2006-07.

Later the same season, the team traded Mike Sillinger, its leading goal-scorer at the time, and Doug Weight, its leading points-producer at the time. The post-lockout Blues finished a dismal 21-46-15 and missed the playoffs, while the dismantling of the roster demoralized the fan base.

In March 2006, the Lauries completed the sale of the team and the Savvis Center lease to Dave Checketts’ Sports Capital Partners and TowerBrook Capital Partners, L.P. As the private-equity group assumed the reins, it had serious fence-mending to do. Attendance went from 18,560 a game in 2003-04 to 12,520 in 2006-07.

Blues ask fans to ‘Come grow with us’

Oshie, Perron and Berglund

Blues rookie forwards, from left, T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Patrik Berglund skate before the 2008 season. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

To recharge the franchise, Checketts brought in old friend and former Blues goaltender John Davidson. A well-established broadcaster, the media-savvy Davidson became the face of the Blues and vowed to rebuild through the draft. He implored fans to “come grow with us” and pinned the promise on young players like T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Patrik Berglund.

During a slow start in 2006-07, Davidson replaced Kitchen with veteran NHL mentor Andy Murray. Initially, the impact was impressive, as the Blues finished 27-18-9, missing the playoffs but giving fans hope.

The new regime made a splash during the offseason, signing Paul Kariya as a free agent and giving the St. Louis market a marquee name. With Kariya’s help, Brad Boyes scored 43 goals in 2007-08, but the team once again missed postseason play.

Still, it seemed as if the Blues couldn’t buy a break. In September 2008, 20-year-old defenseman Erik Johnson, the team’s No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft, tore ligaments in his right knee at a team golf event. He would miss the entire season.

Nonetheless, Murray was able to get the Blues back to the postseason in 2008-09, after a third-place finish in the Central Division. But the playoff appearance was all too brief, as the Vancouver Canucks swept aside Murray’s Men in the first round.

When the team languished near .500 halfway into the following season, Davidson made another coaching change, replacing Murray with Davis Payne. With no previous coaching experience at the NHL level, Payne guided the Blues to a winning mark, 61-48-15, over the the next season and a half.

In February 2011, the team made a blockbuster trade, sending No. 1 pick Johnson, forward Jay McClement and a first-round pick to Colorado for forward Chris Stewart, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and a second-round pick. The trade was big news, but there was bigger news to come.

A month after that headline-making deal with Colorado, Blues chairman Dave Checketts announced the team and the Scottrade Center lease were up for sale. Checketts had been unable to find investors to replace the roughly 70 percent of the franchise owned by TowerBrook Capital Partners.

And if that news wasn’t gloomy enough, the club once again missed the playoffs, despite a breakthrough 31-goal season for captain David Backes. It was the sixth time in seven years St. Louis would go without playoff hockey.

Hitchcock brings ‘200-foot game’ to St. Louis

When things started indifferently again in 2011-12, management made another coaching change. General manager Doug Armstrong called on an old friend from his days in Dallas – Ken Hitchcock.

“There’s postmarks that you look for in management,” Armstrong explained. “And I felt that where we are at right now that we needed an experienced coach, someone that could guide this young team.”

Hitchcock came to town with 534 career coaching wins and the 1999 Stanley Cup he won in Dallas. His arrival, and his introduction of concepts like “buy in” and “200-foot game” would take hold and spark one of the more successful periods in franchise history.

Game 1 between the Blues and Sharks at Scottrade

Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock yells at his team during a time out during the first period of Game 1 between the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks on Sunday, May, 15, 2016, at Scottrade Center. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

On Jan. 20, 2012, a group of investors led by minority owner Tom Stillman signed an agreement to purchase the team. The arrangement was approved by the NHL governors in early March. Meanwhile, on the ice, Hitchcock was turning the fortunes of the team around.

Over the final 69 games of the 2011-12 season, the white-haired sensei directed the Blues to a 43-15-11 record. Goaltenders Jaroslov Halak and Brian Elliott combined to allow a league-low 165 goals and capture the Jennings Trophy.

With 109 points, the Blues barged into the playoffs and beat the San Jose Sharks in five games during a first-round series. It was the first playoff series win for the Blues in 10 seasons. Disappointment came next, as the team was swept by eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles, but a cycle of inglorious springs had been snapped.

Blues become one of the best in the West

Under Armstrong’s construction, and Hitchcock’s direction, the Blues became one of the elite teams in the parity-compressed Western Conference, and one of the best in the entire league. Although another labor dispute shortened the 2012-13 season to 48 games, the Blues finished third in the West with 60 points, then started the playoffs with another bang.

Facing the reigning champion Kings, the Blues won Game 1 on Alexander Steen’s short-handed goal at 13:26 of overtime. In Game 2, nuts-and-bolts defenseman Barret Jackman scored with 51 seconds remaining to give the Blues a 2-1 win and a 2-0 series lead. The city was salivating.

But things turned quickly. The Kings regrouped to win the next four games, including Game 5 in overtime at Scottrade. The dramatic turnaround pulled the plug on playoff euphoria.

Over the next two seasons, the script was remarkably similar. Hitchcock continued to milk the best from his roster during the regular season. The team set a franchise record with 52 wins in 2013-14, as Steen led the charge with 33 goals. Exciting young forwards like Jaden Schwartz (25 goals) and Vladimir Tarasenko (21) emerged, while Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester anchored the defense.

With promising pieces fitting into place, Armstrong made a bold move at the trading deadline to go all in. The Blues sent goaltender Halak, forward Stewart and multiple draft picks to Buffalo for All-Star goaltender Ryan Miller and forward Steve Ott. The message was clear: Stanley Cup or bust.

Unfortunately, it was bust. Although outstanding at times, Miller was not the trump card management envisioned. Again, the Blues ran into the eventual Stanley Cup winners in the first round of the playoffs – this time the Chicago Blackhawks. Again, the early returns were exciting.

In Game 1, Schwartz tied the score 3-3 with 1:45 to play in regulation. Then Steen, the overtime hero from a year earlier, did it again. This time, the versatile forward scored 26 seconds into a third overtime period, giving the Blues a 4-3 win.

Steen converted in close, after setup passes by Backes and Ott, inspiring Hitchcock to observe: “Steener is not going to miss it from the ladies tee there. He’s not going to miss that.”

The game stands as the longest in franchise history, eclipsing the previous record set on April 7, 1984, when Mark Reeds beat the Detroit Red Wings with a goal at 17:07 of a second overtime period.

Blues host the L.A. Kings

St. Louis Blues players Roman Polak (left) Andy McDonald (center) and Chris Stewart surround Barrett Jackman after he scored a goal late in the third period to win Game 2 of the NHL Western Conference quarterfinal series on Thursday, May 2, 2013, at Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

The Blues provided more overtime thrills the next night. This time, Tarasenko scored a power-play goal with just seven seconds remaining to tie the score 3-3. And – would you believe it – Jackman scored the second playoff goal of his NHL career to decide things in overtime. It was Deja Blues all over again, first Steen, then Jackman and a 2-0 series lead.

But everything that was the same stayed the same. Like the Kings the years before, the Blackhawks turned the series around at home, won Game 5 on a Jonathan Toews’ OT goal at Scottrade Center, and finished off the Blues in six.

The good, the bad and the playoff disappointment continued in 2014-15. Miller parted as a free agent and signed with Vancouver before the season. The Blues handed the goaltending job to Elliott and 24-year-old Jake Allen. Both were outstanding, and while the Blues remained among the stingiest defensive teams in the league, Tarasenko led the offense with a 37-goal season.

The team collected 51 wins, 109 points and finished first in the Central Division. But playoff frustration continued when the club absorbed a demoralizing first-round knockout at the hands of the Minnesota Wild. The Blues tied the series 2-2 with a rousing 6-1 win in Minnesota, then lost the next two games to expire.

Blues once again near ultimate quest

In 2015-16, the 49th season in franchise history, the story finally shifted. The Blues didn’t win a Stanley Cup; that elusive championship still awaits. But the team overcame a number of key injuries and found the coagulant to one of the best postseason runs in franchise history.

Despite losing key players like Schwartz, Steen, Berglund and Allen to injuries for extensive periods, the Blues won 49 games and secured 107 points. It was the fourth consecutive full season in which Hitchcock’s teams had produced at least 107 points.

The 24-year-old Tarasenko scored 40 goals and had 34 assists, becoming the first Blues player since Brad Boyes in 2007-08 to reach the 40-goal plateau. The team also was propelled by the play of two newcomers: rookie forward Robby Fabbri finished with 18 goals and 37 points, while rookie defenseman Colton Parayko had nine goals and 24 assists and led the team in plus-minus rating with a plus-28.

At the same time, Allen and Elliott became the league’s premier one-two punch in goal. Allen had a .920 save percentage and a 2.35 goals-against average in 47 games. Elliott was even more prominent. Taking over after Allen was injured, Elliott finished the season with a .930 SP and remarkable 2.07 GAA. When the playoffs arrived, Elliott remained as the primary netminder.

Once again, the postseason brought a foreboding first-round opponent, the reigning champion Blackhawks.

“If that doesn’t get us up, then we have some issues,” defenseman Shattenkirk said. “I think guys are really looking forward to that challenge and we have to be ready because they are the Blackhawks. They have been the best team the last six years.”

The Blues were “up,” and they were ready. In one of the more dramatic series St. Louis has known, the Blues knocked off the champs in seven games. The fun started when Elliott made 35 saves and captain David Backes scored in overtime to beat the ‘Hawks 1-0 in Game 1.

It teetered when Chicago rallied from a 3-1 deficit to tie the series 3-3, winning Game 5 in St. Louis 4-3 in double overtime. And it exploded on April 25, when the Blues rode a third-period goal by Troy Brouwer to a 3-2 victory, capturing Game 7 and the series in front of 19,935 delirious fans at home.

An exasperating three-year string of first-round losses ended. The Game 7 victory was the first for the Blues since 1999, when current Blackhawks coach Quenneville was behind the St. Louis bench. It also was the first Game 7 triumph for the team at Scottrade and the first in St. Louis since 1991.

“I don’t know if it’s a milestone, but it’s a hump,” Blues coach Hitchcock said. “We have knowledge now of what it takes and now we’ve got to use it. We have an opportunity in front of us. I’m sure everybody in that room knows it’s going to get harder. But we have knowledge and it’s the emotional knowledge of how deep you have to dig. We found that in this series. I want us to use it now.”

Brouwer, who won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2009-10, added: “It means a lot to me, to the team and to the franchise. For a franchise that has had trouble getting out of that first round, it’s a confidence booster.”