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The Blues' Project

St. Louis's new owners are gambling that the NHL's leading TV analyst can turn their team around


ohn davidson has a new book on his nightstand, 454 eye-glazing pages that are best negotiated with bifocals and a machete. Think of the NHL's collective bargaining agreement as War and (Labor) Peace, a dense but, alas, must read for the new president of the St. Louis Blues. "There are two things people have to understand," Davidson said last Friday. "The first is, I'm not a lawyer. The second is, this thing is long. I'm about halfway through." Less than two weeks into the job, Davidson wasn't sure what he needed first: a good goal scorer or Evelyn Wood.

After spending more than two decades explaining the ABCs of hockey as an astute broadcaster, Davidson has matriculated to CBAs. Team president, of course, is rarely an entry-level management position. (Imagine Tim McCarver bolting from mid-soliloquy to run your local nine.) There is nothing on Davidson's résumé--NHL goalie for a decade with the Blues and the Rangers, followed by more than 20 years as an analyst all over the North American dials--that qualifies this gregarious 53-year-old for the job, at least if you discount his attendance at thousands of morning skates and his remarkable appetite for work.

Davidson, though, knows everybody in hockey and has long been a trusted, behind-the-scenes clearinghouse for information and opinions. The new Blues ownership group, headed by former Madison Square Garden boss Dave Checketts, who got to know Davidson when he was working Rangers games on the MSG network, has given him five years to take the Blues from the slag heap--St. Louis had the NHL's worst record last season--to playoff contender. Checketts, who said he has long been impressed with Davidson's intellect, also said he wanted someone with ties to St. Louis and with firm footing in the NHL fraternity.

Unless Davidson's Blues win a Stanley Cup, he will not turn out to be as good a president as he was a broadcaster. He was a man you welcomed into your home, a conversational (and omnipresent) analyst who last year worked, by his count, 155 games, including the Olympics. If the game mattered, Davidson deconstructed it for you. If he had a flaw as an analyst, it was his generosity; Davidson was rarely pointed in his criticism of the play or the players. Now, his opinions will directly affect men's lives and livelihoods.

"That's a scary thought," says Davidson, who has two college-age daughters with his wife of 31 years, Diana, and says he took the job for the challenge of winning the Stanley Cup, which he never did as a player. "Before I would leave a game and just go home, and it didn't really matter who won or lost. Now it's my responsibility."

Davidson's hiring was announced on June 30 at 6 p.m. The next day he arrived at his new office in the Savvis Center at 8 a.m., three hours before the start of the NHL's frenzied free-agent period. He got his feet wet by jumping into the deep end, with 29 sharks.

He and general manager Larry Pleau, who had guided the Blues to seven straight playoffs (though only five series wins) before last year and was signed by Davidson to a multiyear contract extension, spent 16 hours a day over the next three days phoning agents and players. Davidson was surprised at how free agency was like shooting at a moving target. "You think you're making progress on a guy and ... bang, he's gone," said Davidson, declining to name any who escaped.

Through Sunday he had reacquired center Doug Weight, 35, whom St. Louis had traded to Carolina in January, and taken a one-year gamble on right wing Bill Guerin, a 35-year-old three-time All-Star coming off a terrible 13-goal season in Dallas. Both may have seen better days, but Davidson did score a coup by inking coveted shot blocking defenseman Jay McKee to a four-year, $16 million deal. He also signed Blues' coach Mike Kitchen to a two-year extension.

"Usually at this time of year, I'm walking on a golf course," Davidson said. "Now I'm walking over hot coals."

After talking the talk, Davidson is suddenly walking a different kind of walk. ■

Out of the Booth

John Davidson's move from media to management is not unprecedented in sports. Here are some others who made the switch.

BOB BRENLY Manager Arizona Diamondbacks

After seven seasons as a broadcaster, the former Giants catcher won a World Series in 2001, his first of 31/2 seasons with the D-Backs. He's now a color analyst for the Chicago Cubs.

JERRY COLEMAN Manager San Diego Padres

The former Yankees second baseman was the Padres' play-by-play man for eight seasons before taking over as manager in 1980. After a sixth-place finish he returned to the booth, where he remains today.

BUCK MARTINEZ Manager Toronto Blue Jays

Spent 14 years as an analyst in Canada, then was named the Jays' manager before the 2001 season. He went 100--115 before being fired early in 2002. Now a commentator for the Baltimore Orioles.

MARIO TREMBLAY Coach Montreal Canadiens

Former Canadiens right wing spent nine years on radio and TV for the team before being named coach in 1995. In two seasons he went 71-63-25 (.525) and made the playoffs both years. He's currently an assistant coach with the Minnesota Wild.