AN OFFICIAL teamportrait hangs in the lobby of the St. Louis Blues offices, which would hardlymake the organization unique among NHL teams if there did not happen to be 122people in it. From goalies to gofers, from stay-at-home defensemen to moms withcareers, the franchise is standing up—except for those in the front row—for theidea of collective accountability.
Not that the Blues had an option. Early last season there weren't 122 fanssitting in the lower bowl of the Scottrade Center.
That, of course, is an exaggeration, but despite having the lowest ticketprices in the league, including 2,300 priced at only $7, St. Louis usually hadas many empty seats as it did occupied ones. "The disconnect between thisteam and this great sports city was huge," says team president JohnDavidson, the popular former goaltender and broadcaster, who is the most publicface of the franchise. "We needed to earn the trust back. It was up toeveryone in our organization."
After worthydisplays of marketing, groveling and, yes, even hockey, the Blues are back. Thenew ownership group, which took over in June 2006, stumbled early by raisingticket prices 8% for what had been the NHL's worst team in 2005--06. But theylearned. Last February principal owner Dave Checketts rolled back prices andapologized, earning major civic points. Now the club has taken advantage of anopening in the St. Louis fan base left by the tumbling Cardinals and fecklessRams to reposition itself in the market. In addition to the Blues' on-icemisery last season—as well as the continued disaffection of fans from thelockout—the team was overshadowed by the Cardinals' new stadium and their tripto the World Series. The Cards' playoff run and the team's new seat-licensingpolicy, says Checketts, "took a lot of money out of the market."
The new motto ofthe organization is Whatever It Takes, and the Blues have already done enoughthat on Oct. 30 there were 14,222 in attendance to see a team that had won sixof its first nine games. That was still 5,000 short of capacity but, saysDavidson, one of Checketts's first hires, "last year, on a Tuesday inOctober against Phoenix, we probably would have had six [thousand]."Revenue from tickets sold this season has already surpassed the ticket revenuefrom all of 2006--07, a solid start for a team that was 7--5 through lastSaturday.
The resurgencetruly began last winter when the Blues hired the person with the foresight toinclude every employee in the team picture: coach Andy Murray.
When Murraysucceeded Mike Kitchen last Dec. 11, the Blues were 7-17-4 and 30th in the NHLoverall standings. "Because you can't actually go to 31st," Murraysays, "I think people were willing to listen." Under Murray, who ledSt. Louis to a 27-18-9 record to wind up 10th in the Western Conference,quickly made an imprint by shifting Keith Tkachuk, among the NHL's mostprominent left wings for more than a decade, to center. Even though the6'2", 232-pound Tkachuk gave the Blues the requisite size to competeagainst the big centers in the West, the move seemed counterintuitive. Tkachukalways had been a finisher, a crease banger who lacked a playmaker's pedigree.Yet his unconventional job skills have not prevented Tkachuk, shipped toAtlanta at the trade deadline last February and traded back to the Blues inJune, from centering one of the NHL's most productive lines. Tkachuk, newcomerPaul Kariya and Brad Boyes (acquired from the Bruins last February) hadcombined for 41 points.
"I thought atfirst I'd do it to kind of take one for the team," says Tkachuk. "Now Iactually like it. It has helped my game, gotten me skating more, made me morephysically involved. But if I'm the one handling the puck through the neutralzone, we're in a little trouble."
Tkachuk worksdiligently to improve his stickhandling. Every day he and rookie winger DavidPerron practice slaloming a puck in close quarters. Perron is magic. Tkachuk isa veg-o-matic. On a team with a breezy camaraderie, the players rib Tkachuk sounmercifully that assistant coach Ray Bennett has asked them to back off beforeone of their stars gets discouraged.
The Tkachuktutorials come at the end of practice—perhaps one that Murray has designed tolast precisely 39 minutes. If wins don't always come like clockwork, it is notbecause of a lack of structure. Murray is in his office by an NFL-like 6 a.m.His assistants are usually there for meetings before seven, which has promptedgoalie coach Rick Wamsley to threaten to arrive in his pajamas. Even on theroad, Blues days start early, and sometime during the night Murray will havepersonally slipped one of his Andygrams under the hotel room doors. Thesingle-sheet Andygram, chocked with information pertinent to the upcoming game,might not be required reading—there are no written quizzes—but a player whomerely skims one does so at his peril.
"At [a morningmeeting] on the first road trip this season Andy asks [center] Jay McClementthe difference between the Kings' neutral-zone forecheck and ours," Kariyasays. "McClement answers that the Kings move up their right [defenseman] tolock up the middle. I'm sitting there thinking, I have no idea and it's luckyAndy didn't call on me. He usually asks the younger guys."
If signing therambunctious Tkachuk on the day before he could have opted for free agencyprovided a cornerstone—"My wife was so happy I signed back here that Icould have done anything I wanted for a week and gotten away with it,"Tkachuk says—the signing of free agent Kariya lent priceless buzz. Whatever ItTook was $18 million over three years for a 33-year-old left wing who had beenunable to carry the Predators into the second round of the playoffs in his twoseasons in Nashville. "When we signed him, we thought something good wouldhappen," Checketts says. "We didn't know how good it would be. That'swhen the tickets started moving ... [so far bringing in] about what we'repaying Paul [this year]."
Kariya was drawnto rebuilding St. Louis at least in part because of Murray, who led Canada tothe gold medal at the 2007 world championships and is a candidate to coach thehost country's Olympic team at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Kariya's hometown.(There is nothing wrong in having an advocate in high places for Kariya, atwo-time Olympian who was not selected to play last year in Turin.) He remains,in Davidson's words, "a professional's professional" who, in the secondhalf of his career, seems to be extracting more of the fun from hockey withoutsacrificing his trademark studiousness and preparation. Each day he asks MikeCaruso, the vice president of public relations, "What are you doing todayto help the St. Louis Blues to win the Stanley Cup?"
"I'm on theice, coaching my kid's team," Caruso said when Kariya called him lastmonth.
"I don't seehow that's helping the Blues win the Stanley Cup."
"Well, whatare you doing right now?"
"And howexactly is that helping the Blues win the Stanley Cup?" Carusodemanded.
"I'm trainingmy eyes. Looking left. Looking right."
The eyes of St.Louis, if not yet the NHL, are being refocused on this franchise. Last year theBlues got some notice, and drew 17,868, for its Jan. 13 free food game againstLos Angeles—the approximate cost of 47,000 hot dogs and 22,000 chicken wings,etc., was $250,000—but this season the attention is on something with fewercalories and more substance: workingman's hockey. There will be some bumpytimes until St. Louis gets better quarterbacking on the power play and itspromising defense matures, but the big picture, like the one on the officewall, looks fine.
"When we signed Kariya, we thought something goodwould happen," says Checketts. "WE DIDN'T KNOW HOW GOOD."
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JEFF ROBERSON/AP (MURRAY, CHECKETTS, DAVIDSON)
DIG IT Hard workers like Lee Stempniak (12) and (above, from left) Murray, Checketts and Davidson got the Blues off to a 7--5 start.
Photograph by David E. Klutho
[See caption above]
Photograph by David E. Klutho
FINE LINE Newly minted center Tkachuk (7) and wingers Kariya (center) and Boyes had 17 of St. Louis's first 33 goals.