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Original Issue

Singing the Blues

St. Louis's signing of Petr Nedved caused a week of tension on the team and lingering controversy around the league

Suddenly the town was not big enough for both of them. Craig Janney and Brendan Shanahan had been best friends and linemates for two years. Now one would be cleaning out his locker and putting his house on the market. The other would stay put with the St. Louis Blues. For several tense days last week, neither knew who was safe and who was history.

The uncertainty put the team on edge. On Thursday the usually voluble Shanahan postponed an interview. "Sorry," he said, "I've got a card game."

The Blues had just changed planes in Detroit on their way home from Montreal. On the first leg of the journey Shanahan, a 25-year-old All-Star left wing, had fleeced several teammates for $30 in a game called Seven Up, his success ruling out the possibility of an interview during the second leg. "The boys want to win their money back," said Shanahan. "They're afraid I'll be gone in a few days."

That at least one Blue would be sent packing was assured on March 3, when St. Louis signed 22-year-old restricted free-agent center Petr Nedved, whose rights were owned by the Vancouver Canucks but who had not played for them this season, to a three-year, $4.05 million contract. In accordance with the league's free-agency policy—which must have been penned before the Magna Carta—the Blues owed the Canucks compensation for signing Nedved. The teams had two days after the signing to agree on equitable compensation, and the names of numerous marquee players were bandied about. When no agreement was reached, both teams had to submit proposals to arbitrator George Nicolau, who after conducting a hearing was to select one of them. St. Louis's offer to Vancouver: Janney plus a No. 2 draft choice. Vancouver's demand: Shanahan. On Monday of this week Nicolau announced that he had sided with the Blues. The Canucks would get Janney plus the second-rounder.

But while Nicolau's ruling put an end to the suspense that gripped the Blues, it did little to still the furor around the NHL caused by the club's signing of Nedved. Among the points of controversy:

•Clearly the Blues had enjoyed an unfair competitive advantage for the 11 days between Nedved's signing and Nicolau's decision, during which they had the use of Nedved plus a would-be Canuck for three games. In the first game, on March 7, Nedved had two assists in a 3-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Afterward the Leafs rightfully raised hell. New York Islander coach Al Arbour was similarly peeved after Nedved had a goal and an assist for the Blues last Saturday in a 5-5 tie with the Isles. "St. Louis has some extra guys who should be in Vancouver," Arbour said. "The league will have to close that loophole, because it really is unfair."

The NHL brass agrees, but because the procedures providing for arbitration in free-agent compensation cases were established under the league's collective bargaining agreement with the players, there is no recourse until a new agreement is reached to replace the one that expired on Sept. 15, 1993. "I would like to see a more orderly set of rules," says Gary Bettman, who took over as NHL commissioner in February 1993. "Obviously these were rules we inherited. They certainly need to be improved."

•There has been talk of a players' strike in the NHL, one issue being the players' unhappiness over the league's free-agency restrictions. That the Blues had to compensate the Canucks for Nedved only fueled that unhappiness, never mind that the players' association approved the free-agency restrictions during the last labor negotiations two years ago.

If Nicolau had awarded the Canucks the 6'3", 215-pound Shanahan, who is a far better player than Nedved—Shanahan scored 51 goals last season and had 40 goals at week's end—the NHL's free-agency system would have been further exposed for the travesty it is. So it is a good thing that Janney, not Shanahan, is the one who lost out.

•Then again, maybe it's not a good thing. Because Janney recently bought a house in the St. Louis area and is intent on settling there, he has indicated that he might not report to the Canucks. Janney, who quails at the sight of a microphone, would seem an unlikely candidate to become the NHL's version of Curt Flood, but it wouldn't be surprising if he sued to block the transaction. Says Janney's agent, Bob Murray, "We question the league's right to conduct this [arbitration] process without a collective bargaining agreement in place."

•Executives of other NHL clubs are hopping mad at St. Louis president Jack Quinn and general manager Ron Caron for once again discombobulating the NHL's salary structure. In the summer of 1990 the Blues re-signed Brett Hull to a then-staggering four-year, $7.1 million deal. A month later Quinn and Caron signed restricted-free-agent defenseman Scott Stevens of the Washington Capitals to a four-year, $5.1 million contract that also sent shock waves around the league. (Ironically, in September '91, shortly after the Blues signed Shanahan, then a restricted free agent of the New Jersey Devils, an arbitrator awarded the Devils Stevens, who had quickly become the heart and soul of the Blues.) Those signings helped spark an escalation of NHL salaries that continues unabated. Further contributing to the escalation, last summer the Blues signed Los Angeles King restricted-free-agent Marty McSorley, who is best known for punching out opponents, to a five-year, $10 million deal. St. Louis lost out on McSorley when the Kings matched the offer.

St. Louis's signing of the 6'3", 190-pound Nedved, who in the estimation of one general manager is worth "approximately half" his new contract, particularly outraged NHL rivals because the Blues agreed to pay Nedved $900,000 retroactively for this season, in effect rewarding him for holding out. "We've sent that message the last couple of years—'Don't play, but don't worry about it, because you'll get paid in the end,' " said Bob Gainey, the Dallas Stars' coach and general manager. "It's like the animal in the cage that pushes the button and gets food. If it keeps getting food, it's going to keep pushing the button."

The Blues hope they pushed the right button by bringing in Nedved, a finesse player who last season, his third in the NHL, had 38 goals and 33 assists. His arrival was supposed to brace the Blues, who were 33-26-9 at week's end, for a playoff run. Instead, it created new unease on a team that had already seen its share of turmoil.

On Jan. 23 a trio of popular St. Louis muckers, defenseman Garth Butcher and forwards Bob Bassen and Ron Sutter, were shipped to the Quebec Nordiques for Steve Duchesne, a flashy, puck-rushing defenseman. Many St. Louis players were furious. Even coach Bob Berry disapproved of the trade, which stripped the team of much of its grit. While the Blues got softer, their Central Division foes were beefing up: Dallas, a possible first-round playoff opponent of the Blues, has added bullyboys Jim McKenzie and Gord Donnelly. The Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks are well stocked with brutes, too. The Blues are 10-8-3 since the trade, but how acutely they will miss that toughness during the playoffs remains a question.

And now, on top of that, the Blues have to try to put another unsettling episode behind them. Even if Nedved plays well for them, even if Janney doesn't try to upset the whole deal, it hasn't helped the atmosphere on the team that for 11 days St. Louis players were casting tense, sidelong glances at one another and wondering who might be moving to Vancouver.

Until Nicolau made his ruling, gallows humor prevailed. "The beauty of it," said Hull, is that if a teammate insults you, "you just say, 'Well, that's all right, because you're not going to be around much longer anyway.' "

Hull, the team's captain, was playing golf the day Nedved arrived in St. Louis, so Shanahan drew chauffeur duty. Rather than take Nedved directly from the airport to his hotel. Shanahan drove to his own house in the affluent suburb of Ladue and gave his new teammate a tour. "It just so happened the place was immaculate," recalls Shanahan. "The shades were up, and the toilet seats were down." If he was the one who ended up being awarded to Vancouver, Shanahan told his guest, Nedved needn't bother with a real estate agent.

Janney, meanwhile, was lying low, nursing his strained right knee, which forced him to miss eight games through Sunday and gave the Canucks their most potent ammunition at the arbitration hearing. The Canucks argued that the 26-year-old Janney was damaged goods. But Jerome Gilden, the Blues' team orthopedist, assured the arbitrator that Janney, who had 106 points for St. Louis in '92-93 and 71 this season, was on his way to a complete recovery.

Before the game against the Islanders, Janney brushed past a reporter and ducked into the St. Louis dressing room. Fifteen minutes later the team's equipment manager poked his head out of the door to announce that Janney wouldn't be talking to anyone. "He's not in a real good mood," said the equipment man.

Was the tension beginning to fray nerves in the dressing room? Kelly Chase, a fourth-line winger for the Blues, answered gruffly, "Does a one-legged duck swim in a circle?"

Shanahan said he had no problem handling the gnawing uncertainty about where he would be earning his living next week, but he did have one question. "I guess what we'd all like to know," said Shanahan, "is whether there's a master plan, in" are they [Blues management] just winging it?"

Most people in the NHL would say it's the latter.



Nedved (above) was sitting pretty, but Janney (opposite, in white) and Shanahan were in limbo.



In his first game with the Blues, Nedved was bloody but unbowed.