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November 16, 2010 :: 12:06pm ET
Sweet Blues under the Arch

LOS ANGELES, CA -- Though they've never won a Stanley Cup, the St. Louis Blues franchise is steeped in tradition. They entered the league in 1967 with the Great Western Expansion at the behest of the Wirtz family (yes, that Wirtz family) for primarily real estate purposes.

As the story goes, league executives wanted Baltimore to be the sixth franchise, but the late William Wirtz had an aging St. Louis Arena sitting empty and wanted a tenant.

Though St. Louis never put in a formal expansion bid, guess who won?

In 1966, the Blues were birthed and the team's name was culled from the W.C Handy song, the first step in the 40-year attachment of tradition to this franchise. Team ownership through the years reflected the life and times of the country. The first majority owner was insurance tycoon Sid Solomon, Jr. and then changed hands over a decade later when the pet food giant Ralston Purina (Remember the Checkerdome!) took control.

Ownership incurred significant losses but soldiered on, primarily out of a sense of civic pride. When the corporate landscape changed at Ralston Purina, the decision to return to the core business of hockey was made.

Towards that end, a buyer was found, but when the end play was to move the franchise to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The league stepped in to kill the deal.

With the storied franchise on the verge of contraction, investor Harry Ornest came to save the Note.

These days, the Blues are the only professional franchise owned by a private equity firm, 21st century style for true. They've experienced up and downs, but have a loyal and intelligent fan base; when the on-ice product is bad, fans vote with their feet and stay away from the rink. When the good times hit, the crowds are as big and loud as there is in the NHL.

Organ music routinely fills the building, from the signature W.C Handy song at beginning of periods to ‘The Saints (Blues) Go Marching In,” after the home team pots one. From the broadcast booth, John Kelly continues the family legacy of play-by-play greatness that his father Dan started in the 1960s.

Fans are accustomed to hockey success, in the infancy of the Western Conference; the home side went to the Cup Finals 1968 through 1970, although they were overmatched each time. In 1980, they started an amazing string of 25 consecutive years of playoff qualification. Given the cyclical nature of the success of professional franchise, that 26th year proved to be rock bottom.

In 2005-06, the Note were the less-than-proud owners of the worst record in the NHL and the rebuilding program was on. The last place record yielded Erik Johnson as the first overall pick in the 2006 Entry Draft and taskmaster Andy Murray replaced the ineffective Mike Kitchen behind the bench.

While the Blues came close to .500 in Murray’s full season, they languished until the second half of the 2008-09. Buoyed by Chris Mason's amazing goaltending, the Blues made a rush like Zenyatta through the pack during the season’s second half and earned a playoff berth for the first time in five years. Though they were swept by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round, they were back in familiar playoff territory.

Not for long.

The Blues were guilty of a bad start and an even more damaging home record, the prime cause of Murray's replacement as head man. Unknown Davis Payne stepped in from the team’s AHL Peoria affiliate with little expectation of success. Though the Blues finished with only two points less than their previous total of their playoff season, they missed the post season for the fourth time in five post-lockout seasons.

Though they drafted well and traded smarty (the Blues have five former first round draft choices on defense), the team lacked a difference maker, a game changer that would make the team a serious player in the highly contentious West. As the days to the 2010 Entry Draft dwindled to a precious few, benevolence came to the Gateway City from 1000 miles to the north.

The Blues are the grateful benefactor to the never ending goaltending saga in Montreal, wresting away playoff hero Jaroslav Halak from the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge for prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz; a deal still discussed today and likely to be a hot button topic in the cradle of hockey well into 2011.

Some questioned if Halak could replicate his magic with a non-playoff team, but with the team at the top of the list of many NHL power rankings, those questions have been answered in the short term. While Halak is on a pace for a 40 win season and most point to his play as the main reason for the team's blistering start, there was a more subtle change in the organization that helped the team to its early success.

Blues GM Doug Armstrong decided that veteran presence in the locker room needed to be lessened over the summer. Paul Kariya's post concussion syndrome problems in combination with Keith Tkachuk failure to return signaled that a new generation of leadership in the Blues locker room commenced at the start of this season. While Tkachuk and Kariya are well established stars over the last two decades, their impact inside the room was counterproductive to their on ice efforts.

The new leaders were immediately challenged when a rash of injuries hit the defensive corps (Barrett Jackman, Roman Polak and Carlo Colaiacovo are on injured reserve), but the group has powered through, an accomplishment not lost on team president John Davidson, former Blues goaltender but more renowned as a television analyst. Though he's never coached, Davidson likes what he sees during the season's infancy.

"They've really grown thru this process as a group," he said. "When they get on the ice, there's no short cuts; not on the fore check, back check or penalty kill. The strength has been in keeping the puck out of the net; it starts with the goaltenders and includes blocking shots."

Blues backers and followers alike are evaluating this start, is it a function of a young team taking advantage of slow starts by the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks or is this team an 82 game (and beyond) threat?

Will Halak continue his mastery between the pipes or will other teams follow the book on him to shoot high like the Columbus Blue Jackets did when they drove him from the net after just 23 minutes the other night? Do they have enough scoring or will GM Armstrong have to make a move for veteran scoring talent at the deadline?

The good news is that the team is wealthy in cap space and prospects; if not cash should a player like Brad Richards or Jarome Iginla become available. How will they deal with the further adversity of the broken ankle suffered by emerging leader TJ Oshie?

While it's far too early to devise trade scenarios, Davidson is leaning heavily on the axiom that points in November are just as valuable as they are in March and April.

"I'm always one that likes to temper things; one thing I've learned in this position is that the season is a marathon," he said. "However, when you start the marathon in a good spot, it sure is a lot easier than playing catch up."

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com. You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.


 

 

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Nov. 01, 2010 A Fine Mess
Oct. 07, 2010 Two Bucks on Canucks
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