The St. Louis Blues entered the NHL in 1967 during the Great Expansion, the best of the six expansion teams added to the league at that time. This doubled the size of the league from six to twelve teams. The Blues were the sixth and final team to be accepted after Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Oakland. St. Louis had to beat out the likes of Vancouver, Buffalo, and Baltimore to be awarded a franchise. (As most know Vancouver and Buffalo did indeed get franchises later).
Sidney J. Salomon Jr. and his family bought the team for $2 million and the St. Louis Arena from Chicago Blackhawks owners Arthur and Bill Wirtz for $4 million. Salomon was a very different kind of owner as opposed to the owners of the Original Six teams. He treated them to cars and Florida vacations and treated his team members like family.
"It was unique compared to what was going on in the league," Glenn Hall said. "You were just like cattle, bought and sold and auctioned off. The only way we could return the favor to the Salomons was to go out and give a good effort every night."
One of Salomon's first orders of business was, obviously, to name the team. Thinking of St. Louis' rich tradition for blues singers and music, he quite simply said "The name of the team has to be the Blues." Logically, the team logo became the "Blue Note," a symbol taken from the music scale that, over the past several decades has been tinkered with but has remained virtually the same.
The great Scotty Bowman, the man most recently famous for coaching the Detroit Red Wings to the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, and 2002 before retiring, was the first person at the coaching helm for the Blues. He convinced retired star Hall of Fame forward Dickie Moore to play again for the Blues midway through their inaugural season. He provided much-needed leadership, wisdom, and veteran grittiness that any young team should have, an anchor to reign in the chaos, that the other players can learn from to help the team congeal.
Another veteran player was picked up: Doug Harvey. Together with Moore, they helped lead the team to playoffs where the Blues fought tooth and nail through two grueling seven game series against Philadelphia and Minnesota to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Waiting there were the well-rested Montreal Canadiens, who swept the fledgling Blues in four one-goal games. Despite being on the losing team, Blues goaltender Glenn Hall was awarded the Conn Smythe trophy (most valuable player of the post season).
The Blues, including 1968 of course, made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in each of their first three seasons, not a huge feat considering they had to beat out the other expansion teams to get there, but a feat that has not been repeated since. Unfortunately (as of 2005), since their Finals run in 1970, the Blues have not made it back to the final round of the playoffs. (Back then it was only three rounds, now the playoffs are four rounds; the Blues did make it to the third round - now known as the Conference Finals - in 1986 and 2001.)
Tough Times, Big Rescue
The good times of the late sixties and early seventies did not last, however. After Bowman was canned in 1971 things got ugly for a while and throughout most of the 70's the Blues were chaotic, weathering many upheavals that began with Bowman's ousting. Al Arbour, Sid Abel, Bill McCreary, Jean-Guy Talbot, Lou Angotti, Garry Young, Leo Boivin and Emile Francis all came and went as coaches of the then-struggling franchise during that tumultuous period. General Managers were equally as unstable, with Sid Abel, Charles Catto, Gerry Ehman and Dennis Ball holding the job all within just a four year period, from '72 to '76. Gary Unger's flashy scoring was one of the only things that could please the fans during that period until the final Soloman days. Also on that short list was the toughness of player Bob Gassoff who played from 1973 to until his tragic death in 1977 - a motorcycle wreck on Memorial Day weekend. The team was pushed to the brink of financial devastation until the great coming of Emile "The Cat" Francis. He took over as general manager and saved the Blues after a terrible 1976-1977 season where the staff was actually trimmed to just three people!
On July 27, 1977, Francis announced the St. Louis Blues were going to be saved after he orchestrated a deal which saw Ralston Purina investing in the team. But even though the chaos in the office was solved, there still was much to do on the ice. The 1978-1979 season was horrific under coach Barclay Plager; the Blues won only 18 games all year. "The Cat" came to the rescue again. An ingenious marketing move, if anything else, Purina repainted and renamed the Arena to the "Checkerdome." Players such as Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter and Mike Liut, who had all been selected in the 1976 draft, began to shine and yanked the Blues out of the muck. Those players, along with run-and-gun players like Wayne Babych (picked third overall in 1978) and Perry Turnbull, helped the Blues, along with new coach Red Berenson, to a return to the playoffs in 1979 - which started a 25-year period in which they did not miss the postseason (2004 was their 25th consecutive run). And they also made the Blues a 107-point juggernaut team in 1980-1981.
The party ended abruptly, though. The Blues finished eight games under .500 the next season (and yes you could still make the playoffs with that record in 1982). The next season only saw the Blues amass 65 points, fourth-lowest in club history. Berenson was fired after that, R. Hal Dean - chairman of Ralston Purina - retired and with him went all interest the company had in hockey. Citing losses of over a million dollars per year, they put the club up for sale. Perhaps the darkest days in Blues history was when they almost became the Saskatoon Blues in 1983. Most people were sure it was going to happen. It was even erroneously announced by eager fans of the deal up in Saskatoon that it had actually taken place. But, thankfully, that move was blocked by the league. But that did not solve the problems. The "Checkerdome" was padlocked, the franchise was left on the NHL's doorstep like an orphaned baby, and the team did not participate in the 1983 Entry Draft. But entrepreneur Harry Ornest became another Blues savoir!
Ornest salvaged the derelict team and - along with new GM Ron Caron and coach Jacques Demers - he surprisingly quickly made the team financially viable again. Federko, Sutter and Doug Gilmour became huge stars for the team in the mid-80's. Caron went to work wheeling and dealing, trading stars like Luit and Joe Mullen and draft picks for affordable but good veterans. The work ethic of these players helped form a new character for the team, giving them back that blue collar type of feel that fans had rallied behind in the early years.
This wonderful period peaked in 1986. After two grueling series against Minnesota and Toronto, the Blues made it to the third round of the playoffs whereupon they faced the Calgary Flames. On a Monday night, in Game Six of that series, the Blues' backs were against the wall as they faced a 5-2 trail on home ice with less than 12 minutes in the game - and perhaps their season. But a goal by Brian Sutter and two by unlikely hero Greg "Paws" Paslawski, tied up the game. But Blues fan remember the next goal the most.
About twenty minutes later, the late Doug Wickenheiser slipped a rebound past Flames goalie Mike Vernon, capping the 6-5 overtime victory, sending Blues fans into a Monday night of ecstasy. The game was dubbed the "Monday Night Miracle," and Wickenheiser's goal the "Monday Night Miracle Goal." That forced a decisive seventh game in the series, where, anticlimactically, the Blues were dispatched and their Stanley Cup aspirations dashed.
After a long battle with lung cancer, Wickenheiser died on Tuesday, January 12, 1999.
Ownership switched to Michael Shanahan in 1986, but the General Manager post remained the same. Ron Caron went about the business of bringing in some excellent players in the following years. The first came in 1988 when he acquired son of former Chicago great Bobby Hull.
The Golden 90's
Caron coaxed none other than Brett Hull out of Calgary in 1988 for Phil Housely and a sack of pucks. Hull was an enigma to scouts and former coaches but he fit into the Blues' system perfectly. The spotlight shifted to him from Bernie Federko, who was dealt to Detroit in 1989 where he played his final season before retiring. Also in 1989 Caron acquired Curtis Joseph and Adam Oates. The Blues started doing really well with the great goaltending of Joseph (aka "Cujo") and the setup talent of Oates, who ended up being the perfect center for Hull. The "Golden Brett" became the NHL's top sniper in the early 90's. In three consecutive seasons he put 70 or more biscuits in the basket, including 1990-1991 when he scored a whopping 86 goals, the highest number put up ever by any player not named Gretzky. With Hull's scoring talents, and off-ice antics which often included a loud mouth that never knew when to shut up, much buzz was generated about the St. Louis Blues Hockey Club. Attendance rose and so did revenue as the team began climbing the ladder of greatness.
Oh and the Blues also had a breakout season in 90-91, collecting 105 points, near the highest in the league. Much was expected of them in the playoffs. However, after defeating Detroit in the first round 4-3, they were sent back home by Minnesota in the second round, losing 4-2 in the Norris Division Finals.
Later that year Brendan Shanahan came to town in a controversial deal. Very quickly he became a fan favorite for his 30-or-so goal scoring abilities and flashy smile and good-looks. Female fans worshipped him and a record number of baby boys in the area were named Brendan during the "Shanny" era.
Something very unique happened in the preseason on September 23, 1992. The St. Louis Blues faced the fledgling Tampa Bay Lightning in an exhibition game. In that game the Blues earned the distinction of the only team ever - so far - to play against a female player - a backup string goaltender named Manon Rheaume. She stopped seven of nine shots she faced in that one full period she played, scored upon by Jeff Brown and Shanahan.
Somewhere along the way Hull became captain of the Blues and continued to shine for the team, even though he stopped scoring 70 or so goals. With him, Oates, and Joseph, the Blues continued making the playoffs every year, but disappointingly always lost in the first or second round. In 1993 they swept the hapless Chicago Blackhawks in the first round in one of the greatest playoff series ever. Curtis Joseph had a three-game shutout going and 'Hawks goalie Eddie Belfour went psycho after his Game Four overtime loss and belted the crossbar with his stick and later destroyed lockers backstage. The next year, 1994, saw the most disappointing playoffs of the 90's where the Blues were swept 4-0 by Dallas.
Big changes were afoot, though. In 1994 the top St. Louis corporations got together and purchased the team and had the new Kiel Center (now Savvis Center) built. The Blues, after that sweeping loss in the 1994 playoffs, moved into their new building the next year and out of the old Arena, or "Old Barn" as it was sometimes called. (In 1999, after sitting vacant for over four years, amidst much protest it was demolished). Owner Shanahan, in one last move, brought "Iron" Mike Kennan to St. Louis as coach and General Manager, the man that had coached the New York Rangers to their 1994 Stanley Cup. In his first season with the Blues he started making lots of waves. It took a while for fans to see what the new rink was like and what Keenan could do because that season was shortened to 48 games and didn't start until January because of the player lockout, a lockout that ended with the drafting of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. After that short season, the Blues lost to Vancouver in the first round, but in that year it's what Kennan did off the ice that got him the most attention - most of it negative.
In 1995 Mike Kennan shipped off fan favorites Craig Janney and Curtis Joseph. And, in the deal that brought him the most fan and media ire, he traded Brendan Shanahan to the Hartford Whalers for a hot-headed, young, unproven defenseman named Chris Pronger. There were many rumors about why that deal went down, not the least of which is the one where Shanahan slept with Craig Janney's wife. That one might have been true, as Shanahan later married the woman.
It's important to note here that right before he came to town, the owners brought in Al Macinnis from Calgary, who ended up being one of the greatest all-time Blues defensemen and from then on into his final season, 2003-2004, was an integral part of the team.
Kennan, already being booed by fans for those aforementioned moves, dug a deeper hole for himself when his relationship with Hull became acrimonious at best. Early in the 1995-1996 season, after a bitter argument with Hull, he stripped the "C" off of his jersey and had it sewn onto Shayne Corson's shoulder. Fans became further frustrated with him as Keenan continued his wheeling and dealing, trading almost every player he had started with in 1994 but Hull and defenseman Murray Baron. His choice of goaltender after Joseph was gone also drew much speculation. He practically unretired old, fat Grant Fuhr and brought him in. Most fans were suspicious and thought him to not have anything left to give to the game of hockey and he was shaky early on, but got in shape somehow and ended up being a decent netminder. Fans still had some things to get excited about, like Hull's continued show of talent and the fighting antics of Tony Twist (a terrible hockey player - three goals a season is not a hat trick - but a great enforcer).
But fans were still pissed at Keenan. However, in the spring of 1996, he actually did something that made a lot of fans happy, and daresay excited: in his boldest move ever, he traded to acquire the Great One, Wayne Gretzky from the Los Angeles Kings. That spring he electrified the Kiel Center, selling out game after game. He became captain, obviously, and under his leadership the Blues were ready for the 1996 playoffs. But, in the first game of the postseason vs. Toronto (who used to be in the Western Conference), Grant Fuhr suffered a season-ending knee injury. Backup Jon Casey had to take over and fans thought it was all over. However, they beat the Leafs in six games and took the Red Wings to task, lasting until Game Seven of the Conference Semifinals, in double overtime, where Steve Yzerman picked Gretzky's pocket and beat Casey glove side from just inside the blue line to give the Wings a 1-0 victory.
The next season Gretzky - who only scored one goal in the '96 playoffs (as many as Tony Twist did!) was gone, headed to New York after a deal could not be reached with the Blues. Rumor had it Wayne would only sign a deal if Keenan promised he wouldn't trade Hull - a promise he wasn't willing to make. Keenan was in the doghouse again. He brought in Kelly Chase to be a great enforcing partner with good friend Tony Twist. The "Twister" and "Chaser" combo is one that Blues fans remember fondly, even if the two didn't exactly combine for a lot of offense. And Keenan did acquire the flashy, high-scoring, but oft-injured Pierre Turgeon, but it was one of his final moves. After a demoralizing 8-0 home loss at the hands of the Canucks, Keenan was terminated along with GM Jack Quinn. Caron was temporarily brought out of retirement to be an interim GM and helped team President Mark Sauer hire coach Joel Quenneville and general manager Larry Plea. Together, the pair got the Blues ready to continue their quest for the Cup. Brett Hull began pleasing the new management early, scoring his 500th goal on December 22, 1996 vs. LA. The funny thing about it was his first goal of the game, in which everybody thought was his 500th, Hull actually argued it, saying another player should've gotten credit. Hull later scored again, making that officially his 500th goal. The PA announcer had to tell the fans that that was actually his 500th.
Quenneville's first playoffs with the Blues was less than stellar, losing to Detroit again - this time in the first round. But the 1997-1998 year was a very good one where the Blues scored more goals than any other team - 256 - and finished with 98 points. Brett Hull bought into Coach Q's defense-first philosophy and became a good penalty killer and checker if you can believe it. But he didn't exactly get along with Quenneville, either. There was a rumor that Hull once blasted a puck right at his head during a practice. In the '98 playoffs the Blues swept the Kings in the quarterfinals. In Game Three - this qualifies as one of the Blues' greatest moments - they were down 3-0 but Geoff Courtnall ran into Kings goalie Jamie Storr and one of the Kings skaters took exception to that and pounded on Courtnall. That earned him a five minute major for fighting and during that five minutes the Blues not only tied up the game but scored the game winner. That was a great series, but unfortunately they lost - again - to the Red Wings in six games in the second round. It was a blah round for Hull, who didn't score any goals and only managed one shot on goal in Game Four - his second-to-last home game as a Blue.
Into the 21st Century
The 1998-1999 season was a season of some changes. The uniform changed from what some rabid fans referred to as the "clown suits" to a more retro-style, non-red-striped royal blue, navy blue, and gold design (the home version of it had been displayed on a limited basis as a third jersey the previous season). Geoff Courtnall went down early in it with his third concussion and he never returned. It was the first in ten years for the Blues without Brett Hull. But they survived. The stars on the team became the defense, as Chris Pronger matured into one of the best defenseman in the league. Paired with veteran Al Macinnis, who seemed to never show signs of age in that era, they provided an air tight defense. This is not to say that the Blues were without offensive stars. Pavol Demitra (who had been acquired by Mike Keenan for Chrisster Olson - a steal!-, one of his final deals before being canned) became an offensive wunderkind, baffling opponents with his crafty moves. Pierre Turgeon, especially when paired with Scott Young upon Hull's departure, began lighting the lamp like nobody's business. But ultimately, everybody was surprised when the captaincy, which had been vacant since Gretzky's departure, was given to Pronger by Coach Q in the 97-98 season and he remained the Blues' captain for many years to come.
In the 1999 playoffs, the Blues eliminated the Coyotes in the first round after being down 3-1 in the series to face none other than Brett Hull and the Dallas Stars in the second round. They were eliminated in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champs (Brett Hull scored the controversial Cup-winning goal). After the end of that season Tony Twist was told he was no longer needed. Emotionally distraught after that meeting, he took off on his motorcycle and crashed it, suffering a career-ending leg injury.
After that season ownership changed again: In September, 1999, that consortium of 19 St. Louis companies which had owned the Blues and the Kiel Center announced that the team and the rink had been sold to Bill and Nancy Laurie - the daughter of Wal-Mart co-founder James "Bud" Walton. The first season with the Lauries was the best in Blues history, as they went 51-20-11-1 for 114 points and won the President's Trophy for best record in the league. With Pronger and Macinnis' defense, and the offense of the "Cycling Slovaks" line of Slovakians Demitra, Michal Handzus and Lubos Bartecko, and breakout goaltending by rookie Roman Turek (Grant Fuhr had been traded to Calgary in the '99 offseason) it seemed very difficult to lose that year for St. Louis. However, the 2000 playoffs was an affair that St. Louis fans are trying hard to forget. The #8-seeded San Jose Sharks beat the #1 Blues in seven games, including an embarrassing 3-1 loss in Game Seven in front of their home fans. The Sharks were less talented but more physically aggressive and their goals - what weren't lucky bounces - were mostly brain farts by Turek.
Kelly Chase, not having nearly as much fun without Twist, retired after that year and became a radio broadcaster for the Blues, sometimes partnered with longtime Blues television and radio play-by-play man Ken "Oh Baby!" Wilson. Bernie Federko ended up being Wilson's regular broadcast partner on television.
The 2000-2001 season wasn't nearly as disappointing, though. Even though they didn't end up with the best record and the #4 seed in the playoffs, they still enjoyed long stretches without losses, especially in the first half of the season. Helping out with that was tough newcomer Dallas Drake, coming over from Phoenix in the offseason. In that first half (November 29, 2000) the Blues had their greatest comeback game ever, beating the Toronto Maple Leafs (and former goalie Curtis Joseph) 6-5 in overtime after being down 5-0 with only 15 minutes left to play in the third. Chris Pronger led off the scoring, followed by goals by Al Macinnis (power play), Alexander Khavanov (2 goals), and Michel Handzus. Jochen Hecht has the game-winner 18 seconds into overtime. Demitra got two assists in that last 15 minutes. Roman Turek was yanked after the fifth Toronto goal and replaced by backup Brent Johnson, which is what had turned the tide in that game. Ironically, the last time a comeback like that had happened in the NHL Al Macinnis was also involved - he got a hat trick in January 1987 when the Flames came back from being down 5-0 in the third against - guess who? - the Maple Leafs. The Blues also overcame a 4-0 deficit against the Kings that season and ended up with a tie.
At the 2001 trade deadline the Blues acquired power forward Keith Tkachuk, exciting Blues fans everywhere. His physical style and nose for the net was just what the Blues needed. And he got to reunite with his Phoenix/Winnepeg buddy Dallas Drake. Also acquired was veteran great Scott Mellanby who provided much-needed grittiness and leadership. At that trade deadline flashy scorer Cory Stillman was also acquired. Years of team-building and draft-pick hording was over at that trade deadline. It was time to go for the Cup right now. And they nearly got there. In the playoffs they got revenge on the Sharks, beating them in six games, then went on to sweep Brett Hull and the Stars in the second round to go to the third for the first time since 1986 and the "Monday Night Miracle." There were no miracles for the Blues this time in the third round as they were trounced 4-1 in the series against the eventual champs Colorado Avalanche. Brent Johnson was played in Game Five - the last game of the series - and did well (much better than Turek)- but still lost in overtime. The Blues scored plenty of goals but Roman Turek - who had been stellar in rounds 1 and 2 - collapsed into the soft-goal disappointment he was in the 2000 playoffs. After that he was traded to Calgary.
The 2001-2002 season was so-so, even though in the offseason they acquired offensive powerhouse, flashy center Doug Weight. Turgeon went to Dallas and Scott Young, who had 40 goals in the previous season, seemed lost without Turgeon centering him. Weight and Young didn't work together nearly as well as Young and Turgeon had. Al Macinnis missed a good portion of it with an eye injury. Again a rookie goaltender became #1 - Brent Johnson - after a season-long contest against short-stuff Freddie Brathwaite. They were #4-seeded again by the end of it and faced the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. Brent Johnson had a long shutout streak in that round, eerily similar to Cujo's streak the last time the Blues faced the 'Hawks in the playoffs. The Blues won the series 4-1 and faced the dreaded Detroit Red Wings in the second round. And...again they were eliminated by the Wings, the only bright spot in the round being a 6-1 home ice routing in Game Three in which Keith Tkachuk recorded his first playoff hat trick.
The 2002-2003 season was a difficult one for the Blues. Young went to Dallas and his buddy Turgeon. They were without Chris Pronger for most of that season, as he went down with an knee injury in the 2002 playoffs vs. the Wings. He got his knee operated on, and a nagging wrist injury operated on in the summer of '02 which is what kept him out. Young defensive phenom tough guy Barret Jackman finally saw his first full NHL season, helping the absence of Pronger some. Jackman would prove to be a big piece of the Blues puzzle for many years to come. Al Macinnis took over as captain and tried to keep the team together. Pronger came back near the end of the season in a game vs. the Red Wings and scored - but the Blues lost anyway. The strangest thing about that season was the goaltender situation. They kept getting injured! First Johnson went down with a high ankle sprain in the preseason which kept him out for most of the season. Brathwaite took over as #1, then he went down. #3 string goalie Reinhard Divis came up, then went down. #4 string Cody Rudkowsky had to take over and guess what? He suffered an ankle sprain! Reaching deep into their goalie pool, the Blues brought up Curtis Sanford, who actually played really good. The injuries all healed, but Brathwaite still underperformed, forcing the Blues to coax former Penguins goaltender Tom Barrasso out of retirement. That experiment failed miserably and after only a handful of games Barrasso went bye-bye. Johnson came back from his injury and tenuously took over the #1 spot again, but did no better than Brathwaite. At the trade deadline GM Larry Pleau decided enough was enough and went and got former Cup-winning Detroit goalie Chris Osgood from the Islanders. He also acquired Martin Rucinsky and he clicked well with Weight, unlike Young. In the 2003 playoffs Osgood did well, especially in his 6-0 shutout in Game One. And the Weight/Rucinsky combo put up great numbers. But, after going up in the series against the Vancouver Canucks the Blues did what they never had before in their history - lose a series after leading it 3 games to 1.
The 2003-2004 season was mostly forgettable, one of the worst in recent history. Pleau got rid of Stillman and Martin Rucinsky in the offseason - taking about 40 goals from the roster - and replaced them with muckers and grinders, the likes of Mike Danton and Ryan Johnson. Al Macinnis's eye injury returned - worse than before - early in the season and he missed the rest of it. At 40 years old, it looked like the ol' "Chopper" was done. The Blues struggled to score goals all season and went through a terrible long winless streak in the second half. They barely kept their 25-year playoff streak alive, eeking out wins near the end to qualify for the #7 seed, mostly due to late season pickups like Mike Sillinger and Eric Weinrich and the firing of Joel Quenneville. Even though Coach Q was the winningest coach in Blues history - as well as the longest-running coach - it was time for him to go. Assistant coach Mike Kitchen took over. The #2-seeded Sharks made short work of the Blues, though, in the first round, winning 4 games to 1, the only bright spot a Sillinger hat trick in their 4-1 win in Game Three. After losing Game Five and the series, Mike Danton was arrested in San Jose for trying to hire somebody to kill his agent, David Frost. Go to Danton's writeup there fore more info on that whole complicated drama.
And, as every hockey fan is well-aware of, the 2004-2005 season didn't happen. It had been the worst-dreaded nightmare for NHL fans for many years, the expiration of the 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement had loomed darkly on the horizon. The worst came to pass: after another lockout, in February 2005 Gary Gettman announced that the entire season was cancelled. The players scattered. The Blues team that would return from the darkest days in hockey history was uncertain: Al Macinnis most likely wasn't returning, Pavol Demitra went away, and Chris Osgood was let go (Patrick Lalime was picked up in the summer of '04 - Reinhard Divis is now the official #2).
With the Blues being on the selling block and the team faced with difficult decisions in paring down the team's budget with the new $39 million team salary cap, on August 2, 2005 the Blues traded away Pronger and his many millions to the Edmonton Oilers for veteran defenseman Eric Brewer and two other younger stud defensemen, shocking Blues fans almost as much as the deal that had brought him to town about ten years earlier. Then came another mild shocker: Al MacInnis DID retire (as many had feared) in mid-September, 2005. He cited the reason that he hadn't played in almost two years, NOT his eye injury. But, days after that, Scott Young returned to the team, signing with them after playing two years in Dallas. Having also signed decent scorer Dean McAmmond earlier, the Blues looked to add to their dismal goal total for 03-04, good news to fans who were losing the team's two best defensemen. Dallas Drake, without former captains Pronger or MacInnis, was given the "C" in September, 2005, and it was well deserved, as he scored two assists in his first preseason game wearing the letter.
Little did Blues fans know how horrible the 2005-2006 season would be during that preseason game.
It ended up being the second-worst in franchise history.
The 2005-2006 season, the first season back after the lockout, with Dallas Drake wearing the "C" and Mike Kitchen coaching, saw the Blues muddle through loss after loss to finish dead last in the league and their playoff run came to a grinding halt. There were few bright spots in that season, one of them two games against the Oilers in Edmonton, one right before the Olympic break and then one right after it, both games won by the Blues and the great play of goalie Curtis Sanford. He'd easily usurped Patrick Lalime as the starting goaltender, one of the worst disasters in net the Blues had ever seen. Another bright spot was the play of youngster Lee Stempniak who had a knack for game-winning goals in overtime/shootouts. Dennis Wideman, yet another bright spot, was a promising young defenseman, who was put on the shootout and was actually good at it, rare for blueliners. Speaking of defense, Jackman continued his hard work, doing what he could with the team around him. Eventually an "A" was stitched on his jersey. Scott Young lead the team in points that season with 49 but after it was over he retired. Before the trade deadline Doug Weight was traded to Carolina - where he helped them win the Cup - and Mike Sillinger was traded to Nashville, one of the few offensive sparks the Blues still had, in the continued effort to entice buyers by dumping big contracts (which had started with Pronger's trade).
Finally new owners were enticed and the Blues were once again rescued. On March 24, 2006, the Lauries, after the sale almost happened but then didn't happen a few times, finally completed the sale of the Blues and the lease to the Savvis Center to SCP Worldwide (a consulting and investment group headed by former Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts) and TowerBrook Capital Partners, L.P. Former Blues goaltender John Davidson was installed as the new President and de facto manager, with longtime GM Larry Pleau moved to mostly an advisory role. In one of their very first moves to win the fans over, the new owners decided to retire the number of a former beloved Defenseman. On April 9, Al MacInnis' #2 was retired by the Blues in a pregame ceremony. Chris Pronger was there that night with the visiting Oilers but created controversy by not attending the ceremony, citing trying to focus on the game as the Oilers, unlike the Blues, had a shot of making the playoffs. The Blues won that game 2-1.
Rebuilding began after the regrettable season ended and in the 2006 draft the Blues got the #1 overall pick, defense phenom Erik Johnson. After years of moves to go for the Cup right now and trading away prospects and draft picks for veterans which had left them mediocre and then downright awful, it was time to build almost from the ground up and most fans thought Davidson was on the right track. He was The Man with the Plan: good draft picks, develop prospects, and make only few smart trades. Doug Weight was brought back to the Blues after his brief Cup-winning endeavor in South Carolina, a move many had expected, and they picked up shotblocking defenseman Jay McKee, former Weight linemate Bill Guerin, and goalie Manny Legace (who'd been cast off from Detroit) from free agency. Even though he was good, Curtis Sanford was not seen as part of these new plans and traded to Vancouver.
Davidson guaranteed the fans a win in the home opener, and, after being down 2-0 against Boston, they came back and tied it in the third and won the game in a shootout. But after that game, the 2006-2007 season pretty much looked as bad as it had been the year before. Davidson et al decided to retire the number of another former beloved member of the Blues, #16 Brett Hull on December 5; however, unlike with MacInnis' retirement night, that game against the visiting Red Wings was a bad loss. Kitchen was cooked days after that and was replaced by former Los Angeles Kings coach Andy Murray. Their record and play improved markedly after that, mostly due to Murray's coaching and great performances by Legace. Also a big help was trading Dennis Wideman to get Brad Boyes from the Bruins in February, 2007 (his 4 goals weren't a huge help then but he would score a lot more than that in subsequent seasons). But the Blues still fell short of the playoffs that year, but finishing 24 points better than the previous. The next year rebuilding continued, with Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuk being traded to build up more draft picks. Repeating the same move with Weight, after Tkachuk helped the Atlanta Thrashers to their first postseason appearance in franchise history (where they were quickly swept by the Rangers... well, ok, not exactly what had happened with Weight), "Walt" returned to the Blues in the offseason. Also signed, though, was free agent Paul Kariya, one of the few veterans added to the mix, which excited Blues fans to have a great player with such a storied career so far. Barret Jackman was resigned, another move much appreciated by fans, and captain Dallas Drake was allowed to move onto Detroit, and that move also got little argument. This left few players left from that 2001 third-round playoff run (pretty much only Tkachuk, defenseman Bryce Salvador, and forward Jamal Mayers - who had been in the Blues' system since being drafted by them in 1993). Boyes' 43 goals was a breakout season for him, making him a new star for the club, being paired on a line with Kariya making Boston regret getting rid of him. But, again, the Blues still fell short of the playoffs that season, with a home game against Ottawa near the end of the season where the Blues still had a shot of making it, but their two points were denied where not once, but twice, goals were disallowed because of terrible officiating.
But, rebuilding and improvement continued in the 2007-2008 season, where the Blues' future under the new management really began to take shape, with that team's roster including rookies David Perron, Steven Wagner, and Erik Johnson (that #1 draft pick was finally ready to play at the top level). Along with Kariya, Boyes and youngster David Backes in his first full season (he'd played a few games in prior seasons) the mostly-young with key veteran lineup made the future look positive. Also new that year was a new mascot, Louie, a big saxophone-playing, tuxedo-wearing rat. This got mixed responses, but overall fans saw it as a good sign that Checketts and Davidson were still serious about bringing the Blues' fans back.
As the youngsters struggled to find their way, showing flashes of their youthful talent while also, expectedly, exposing their inexperience, that season looked to go about as good or bad as the previous two. In one of the only big surprises, in December 38-year old Doug Weight was traded - this time for good - to the Anaheim Ducks for 30-year-old center Andy McDonald. Basically it ended up being a good move in the long run as Andy was pretty much a younger version of Weight, however the Blues took a hit in the leadership department and, maybe coincidentallly, maybe not, from that point on the season, which had been going quite well, went bad, and again the Blues could not amass enough points to make the playoffs. But as a sign that indeed the fans were back, they were filling the stands like they had in the pre-lockout era and TV ratings on FSN-Midwest were up a whopping 125% from the season where they'd been last place. In February, in addition to naming Eric Brewer the 19th captain of the Blues (which had been vancant since Drake's move) Salvador was traded at the 2008 deadline to New Jersey for Cam Janssen, an enforcer who was actually from the St. Louis area and a diehard fan of the Blues. That didn't add any offense (he'd only had one career goal at the time) but the hometown connection furthered the fans' excitement about the Blues again. That left only Tkachuk and Mayers left from that 2001 team; but Mayers was traded in the 2008 offseason, him finally saying goodbye to the only team he'd ever known, shipped off to play for his childhood-favorite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Also in the offseason, David Backes, who was a restricted free agent after scoring 31 points that year, was almost stolen away to Vancouver, the Canucks signing him to a 3-year, $7.5 million offer sheet. The Blues quickly matched that offer and, at the same time, maybe for revenge, tried to steal away a player from Vancouver in the same manner. When all was said and done both players remained in their respective teams and Backes had a new contract through 2011.
Then came the 2008-2009 season, one Blues fans would definitely remember for years to come.
Back to the Playoffs
The first half of the season, which featured a ceremonial puck-dropping by Vice Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin - and a subsequent dropping of that 4-0 loss against the Kings, was just not good. Erik Johnson was injured for the entire season before it even began. Kariya suffered a season-ending injury after only 11 games. Brewer went out later with a season-ending injury of his own. McDonald also missed significant time with an injury, coming back near the end. Boyes was not scoring as much without his partner Kariya. Stempniak was traded to Toronto for Alexander Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo in November right after scoring an overtime, game-winning goal. That ended up being a good move in the long run as both of those players factored big time later in the season. But, again, in the first half things looked bleak. Fans were frustrated by the apparent setback after their team had been making so much progress, and the problem the Blues had had for years was finally diagnosed - almost too late.
The Blues had picked up Nashville goaltending cast-off Chris Mason to serve as #2 in net, and when called upon to serve - like after Legace sustained an injury after tripping over Sarah Palin's carpet - he showed brilliance, but still lost almost every game he'd started due to coincidental anemic offense. Even though Legace was getting more wins than losses - and Mason - the situation in net became uncertain, becoming more uncertain with every soft goal let in by Legace and every amazing save by Mason. On Monday, February 2, 2009, after another lackluster performance by Legace he was yanked in favor of Mason while the Blues were losing to the Red Wings in the second period. The Blues came back to tie the game but lost in overtime 4-3, but that was the beginning of the end of Legace's run in St. Louis. Mason started the next game against the Blue Jackets which the Blues won and on February 6h Legace was put on waivers, cleared, and was sent to their minor league team the Peoria Rivermen. Mason completed the usurping and was now #1. The turning point in the season most fans consider was actually before that, when the Blues came back against the red hot Boston Bruins - in Boston - to get a 5-4 shootout win. But if that wasn't the turning point, Mason officially becoming the #1 goaltender certainly was. After that the Blues made an amazing run the rest of the season, going from dead last in the Western Conference and leapfrogging several teams with win after win after win it looked like the postseason was in their future. Along with Mason's saves - the saves the Blues hadn't been getting with Legace - rookie T.J. Oshie who had been called up because of the injuries, electrified the team with not only his timely goals but grit and determination, getting him fans changing "O-SHIE! O-SHIE!" McDonald coming back and putting pucks in the net again also helped. Boyes regained his scoring touch to finish for 33 on the year and Backes began earning all the bucks on his new contract by lighting the lamp with consistency, including a 4-goal game at Detroit to get the Blues a 5-4 win and 2 precious points (and the first win against the Red Wings all year). And then, the Blues finally clinched a playoff spot for the first time in years with a 3-1 win against the Blue Jackets on April 10, fireworks blasting in the Scottrade Center at the final horn. Mason's 1-0 shutout in the next game, the last game, in Colorado, got them enough points to qualify for the sixth seed in the playoffs.
But, and this may be debated for years, maybe winning that last game wasn't a good thing, as the Blues faced the fired-up Vancouver Canucks (with former Blue Pavol Demitra) in the first round, who had also come back after in danger of missing the playoffs midseason. Their goalie, Roberto Luongo, arguably the best netminder at the time, was on a mission to win the Cup, robbed the Blues again and again in that series, which the Canucks won 4-0, handing the Blues their first playoff sweep since Dallas in 1994. After the final buzzer on Game Four, and the season, the Blues losing 3-2 (after coming back from being down 2-0), the fans gave the Blues a standing ovation to congratulate them on their improbable run to the playoffs. Officially the playoffs were short for the Blues, but as Mason had put it, it was like they were playing playoff games for months, every frame a must-win (he'd even grown a playoff beard!).
With Paul Kariya coming back the next season (he had been slated to return for Game Five but of course that didn't happen) as well as Brewer and Johnson, fans were excited about the next season more than they had been in years. Kariya actually claimed that after surgeries on both hips, fixing an injury that had plagued him for many years, that he would play better than he had in a very long time. If the Blues could play as good as they had the second half of that season in the next one, and Kariya could play as well as he'd hoped, and Oshie, Backes, and Perron and the rest of the kids could learn from their first postseason appearance, and defeat, making the playoffs again might not be as hard.
Lord Brawl's Manon Rheaume write up.