Did Mike Keenan save the St. Louis Blues from wearing the most garish jerseys in history?

Those who know me also know that I’m a huge hockey jersey collector.  The stories and the nuances that go into how something went from a design in someone’s head to actually going onto the ice fascinates me, and I do have a soft spot for jerseys that never reached that point.  The mustard yellow Dallas Stars alternate, the Minnesota North Stars with italicized green names, and my own Blue Jackets prototype with the chevrons on the sleeves…it’s all fun and interesting.

[NOTE: If a uniform top worn onto the ice is made of wool, acrylic, or something else along those lines, I can and will refer to it as a “sweater”.  For anything made of cotton, nylon, rayon, or polyester, I can and will refer to it as a “jersey”.  Since everything on the ice since the 1967 expansion has been made of materials in that latter group, 24 of 30 teams have only worn “jerseys” and not “sweaters”.  The idea that we all need to collectively refer to garments that are some type of porous mesh as “sweaters” because that’s what they were called back when they were simply actual sweaters with a felt logo or letter on the front isn’t something that I do.]

Perhaps the ultimate grail of “what never was” is the infamous St. Louis Blues’ alternates from the mid-1990s.  At a time when alternate jerseys were just reaching the NHL, we all saw everything from mascots on jerseys (Anaheim) to gradients (Vancouver) to what looked like cartoon characters (Boston).  Nothing was sacred on an alternate, not even traditional horizontal stripes and basic centered logos.

The NHL’s third/alternate jersey program began in 1995-96 with five teams: Anaheim, Boston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Vancouver.  Pittsburgh’s was popular, but the other four were widely panned.  Los Angeles and Anaheim would drop their alternates after that very season, while the other three would carry them into 1996-97.

Also joining them for 1996-97:

Five more NHL teams are tentatively set to unveil a third jersey this season. And of the five teams that wore the alternate third jerseys last season, three will wear them again this season: Boston, Pittsburgh and Vancouver.

The New York Islanders, required by league rules to wear the controversial fisherman logo again this season, will be allowed to wear their old circle crest logo on their current jersey, with the current colors, as their alternate. They will wear their alternate full time in 1997-98.

The Rangers will have a blue jersey with red and silver stripes. The logo will be their crest with the head of the Statue of Liberty featured within. St. Louis will incorporate their trumpet shoulder patch as their main logo in their alternate jersey.

The Chicago Blackhawks will unveil a black jersey with their popular Indian head, and Tampa Bay will use the same type of jersey as Vancouver: the top half will be blue, and the bottom half will be black.

Rappoport, Ken. “NHL NOTES – FIVE MORE TEAMS TO WEAR THIRD JERSEYS.” Daily News of Los Angeles (CA) 27 Oct. 1996, Sports: SB15

Tampa Bay’s actually did not have the same type as Vancouver, nor was there any real similarity.  Vancouver’s alternates had a salmon-to-black gradient around the middle of both the body and the sleeves, while Tampa Bay’s had solid black sleeves and black waves at the bottom of a royal blue jersey.  Vancouver’s had shoulders the same color as the rest of the salmon color; Tampa Bay’s had gray shoulders against the blue.

No matter.  We’re not here for Tampa Bay; we’re here for something else.

“St. Louis will incorporate their trumpet shoulder patch as their main logo in their alternate jersey.”

St. Louis did in fact have a jersey with a stylized version of the Blues’ trumpet shoulder patch as the main logo.  And at least one of these was in fact made up and still exists, since there have been pictures posted of both the front and the back of it from recent years.  That’s where the truth becomes a bit fuzzy.

Mike Keenan was the Blues’ (controversial) coach/GM at the time, and it’s been said that the only positive thing that he ever did was prevent the Blues from wearing said alternate jerseys.  This ignores the Christer Olsson-for-Pavol Demitra trade that was made shortly before Keenan was shown the door, but that’s not the point.

The Story

According to the most popular version of the story, Keenan (coaching the Blues) walked into the locker room before the first game that the alternates were to be worn and erupted, stating quite loudly that they looked like garbage and would never go on the ice.  A hasty switch was made, and the team wore their regular jerseys onto the ice while the alternates were sent elsewhere.  Presumably to either the bowels of the arena or to a dumpster.

This is a popular story; it’s less than 20 years old, takes a couple of simple facts, and builds from there.  Common sense would indicate that it must be true, since simply making up something like this couldn’t be done when pretty much every involved person is still alive and in good health.  A contradictory account would be pretty easy to find, and the fact that it hasn’t been done seems to bear out this story.

However, I’m not so sure.  Sure, the idea of a high-strung coach flipping his lid over something as trivial as the jerseys hanging in the lockers before a game is a fun one.  And considering what a mess the team was at the time, it would only be fitting.  But did it happen?  If so, how big of a story was it?  And if not, where did this particular yarn come from in the first place?

The Beginnings

The St. Louis Blues have one of the more interesting franchise histories in the NHL.  They were among the first six modern expansion teams (in the Class of ’67), and played in the Stanley Cup Final in their first three years.  Outside of that, their first 20 years were mostly spent summing up the term “middling”; they were never really Cup contenders outside of a year or two, and they weren’t really horrendous outside of a year or two.  One advantage that they did have was playing a good number of those years in a laughably weak Norris Division, and another advantage was that they tended to put together extremely tough teams on the ice.

The 1985-86 Blues summed up the idea of the scrappy overachievers.  Rick Wamsley and Greg Millen split goaltending duties, even throughout the playoffs.  They could outscore you with Bernie Federko and Joe Mullen, they could shut you down with Rick Meagher and Dave Barr, and they could beat you up with Mark Hunter, Rob Ramage, and Lee Norwood.  Despite finishing just three games over .500, the Blues fought through the first two rounds and then went seven games in the Campbell Conference Finals against Calgary before bowing out.  But the young team, with Meagher as the only player over age 30, didn’t continue to build toward contention as would be expected.

The 1990-91 team represented what the Blues would come to be known for: a supremely skilled team that came up short.  Despite finishing the regular season with 105 points (2nd in the NHL), despite seeing #1 overall Chicago and #4 overall Calgary bounced in the first round, despite seeing #3 overall Los Angeles bounced in the second round, despite having a clear path to the Stanley Cup with no remaining team having finished with 90 points during the season….St. Louis would lose to the Minnesota North Stars in the second round.  The North Stars had 68 points, a -10 goal differential, and inconsistent goaltending from Jon Casey.  But the Blues, led by Brett Hull and his 86 goals, Adam Oates and his 90 assists, and Scott Stevens’ rock-solid defense, came up short in a series that should have been a cakewalk.

In the ensuing three seasons, St. Louis would make the playoffs each time and fall short each time.  They had a monumental upset of Chicago in 1992-93, but failed to get out of the second round that year or the first round the other two years.  After an embarrassing first-round sweep at the hands of the Dallas Stars in 1993-94, it was apparent that change was needed.

Keenan Arrives

One could probably conjure up a dozen adjectives to describe Mike Keenan, who was the toast of New York in June 1994 after leading the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.  Keenan was described as everything from “bombastic” to “surly” to “belligerent” to “irascible” to “explosive” and several words in between.  Several other descriptors contain words too profane to use here, but are nonetheless quite amusing.

The Rangers’ triumph barely covered the acrimony taking place behind the scenes in New York, which involved Keenan openly feuding with GM Neil Smith all season and reportedly plotting an exit strategy during the playoffs – including reports that either Keenan or his agent had initiated contact, and contract talks, with other NHL teams during the playoffs.  The ultimate guide to what took place is Losing the Edge: The Rise and Fall of the Stanley Cup Champion New York Rangers by longtime New York Daily News reporter Barry Meisel.

To make a long story short, in June 1994, Keenan had just finished taking the chronically-underachieving, mentally soft Rangers to their greatest triumph since before Pearl Harbor.  Speculation about his future was rampant, and it became clear that one of Smith or Keenan was going to be shown the door.

And then, in truly stunning fashion, it happened:

He came. He saw. He conquered. And he got out of town. All within the span of 15 months.

In a stunning move that caught the New York Rangers by surprise, Mike Keenan on Friday announced that he no longer is the coach of the club, claiming management failed to live up to the terms of his five-year, $4.5-million contract.

At a Toronto news conference, Keenan managed to put an unexpected spin on his widely anticipated escape from New York, asserting the Rangers had forced him to leave by “breaching” his contract.

Keenan denied that he already has an agreement in place to become the coach and/or general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, as reported throughout last month’s Stanley Cup Finals. But he declared himself a free agent who will actively pursue a coaching or general manager’s job in the NHL for next season.

“I want to make it explicitly clear that I have not resigned from the position,” Keenan said. “The New York Rangers did not fulfill their contractual obligations. And as a result of that breach, I notified them that I am accepting the breach in the contract.”

Wire Services. “Keenan Departure Stuns Rangers.” Sun-Sentinel 16 Jul. 1994, Sports: 1C

Breach of contract in pro sports, particularly in cases involving either a player or a coach, is extraordinarily uncommon.  So what is “breach of contract”?

In simple terms, a contract is a legally-binding agreement to do “something”.  It could be to provide a service, to purchase or provide a physical good, or any of a number of different things.  But it involves a something-for-something arrangement between different parties.

In the case of pro sports, contracts are pretty basic: a player or coach is employed, and he provides his services as a player or coach in exchange for a generous salary.  Since contracts of these types of dollar amounts tend to carry a lot of power, the language within the contracts are very clear.  Vague or ambiguous language in a contract, if it is challenged, will almost always be decided against the party that drew up the contract.  In sports, the team is the one that draws it up, so the provisions are pretty ironclad.  (NOTE: Player contracts follow a stock template that’s provided by the league, but are furnished by the team.)

A Peach of a Breach

A breach of contract is a situation where one party does not fulfill the promises made within said contract.  If a player leaves his team in the middle of a season in order to play video games, or if a team decides to withhold payment of a player’s salary despite him having not violated the terms of his contract, then these would be examples of a breach.  There are several types of breach from a legal viewpoint.  (SIDE NOTE: If you remember the NHL during most of the 1990s, you’ll remember the number of contract holdouts that took place.  A player would have a big year, then suddenly the contract that he was one or two years into wasn’t good enough any more.  So he’d hold out for more generous terms mid-contract.  Yes, this represented a breach since a contractually-bound player was clearly violating the terms.  But since the team’s only recourse against such a breach would be terminating the player’s contract, in essence making him an unrestricted free agent immediately, this was never used.)

In Keenan’s case, his claim was that a bonus check due to him from the Rangers had not been provided within the specified 30 days from the end of the team’s season.  By failing to provide it, he claimed that the Rangers had committed a fundamental breach; this allowed Keenan the right to declare the remainder of his five-year contract void, immediately making him a free agent who could sign with any team.  The Rangers argued that a mere clerical error, with the bonus check prepared and ready to be sent, did not reach the level of a fundamental breach and thus Keenan’s declaration of free agency was both illegal and a bunch of loudmouthed bluster from a blowhard.  (That last part is slightly editorialized by me.)

A wild race ensued, and barely two days later..

Mike Keenan made a big mess. Gary Bettman’s got to clean it up.

Friday, the Stanley Cup’s coach decided that his contract had been breached and he was on the open market. Sunday, he signed with the St. Louis Blues.

But the New York Rangers, the team Keenan took to the Cup, think they still have a deal. And it’s up to Bettman, the NHL commissioner, to figure out who’s right.

“I haven’t talked to Gary Bettman,” Keenan said when he was introduced as the Blues’ new general manager and coach Monday. “I have no need to talk to Gary Bettman. Our position was evaluated by a number of people. We took a position that I am a free agent. I wouldn’t do something of this nature without something solid with regard to our legal stand.”

The Rangers, of course, disagree. They and Madison Square Garden called in the cavalry, asking Bettman to investigate and arbitrate the situation.

It is clear now that Keenan, who could not work with Rangers general manager Neil Smith for four more years, did ask for permission to shop his services around the league.

It is also clear that the powers at Viacom, the conglomerate that bought Paramount but wants to sell its Garden subsidiaries, said no.

It is up to Bettman now. He followed protocol and waited to be asked in. Now he’s got to act.

The Rangers could take this to court, but the NHL will be better off if the commissioner handles it.

On the surface, Keenan’s claim seems to be at most an immaterial breach. But it will be up to Bettman whether Keenan was right and was free to sign with the Blues, or whether the Rangers still have a claim to him and will get compensation for losing him while the Blues and Detroit Red Wings, who also negotiated with Keenan over the weekend, get their greedy hands slapped.

“I have asked all interested parties to submit their written position to me by Thursday morning, July 21,” Bettman said, “after which, if I determine it to be necessary, I will schedule an appropriate hearing.”

Stanton, Barry. “Mike Keenan Made a Big Mess. Gary Bettman’s Got to Clean it Up.” USA TODAY 18 Jul. 1994. Sports.

Oh, St. Louis.  Since 1990, no one had been more active in aggressively going after free agents, cost be damned.  This was in the landscape of the NHL’s days of equalization for free agents, yet the Blues had done the following:

  • Signed Capitals defenseman Scott Stevens to an offer sheet; when the Capitals declined to match, the Blues’ 1st-round picks in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1995 all transferred to Washington. (1990)
  • Signed Blackhawks forward Michel Goulet to an offer sheet, which was matched by Chicago. (1991)
  • Signed Devils forward Brendan Shanahan to an offer sheet; when the Devils declined to match, equalization went to New Jersey in the form of Scott Stevens. (1991)
  • The same day as the Shanahan signing, a war of offer sheets between the Blues and Bruins was resolved in a three-player, two-pick trade. (1991)
  • Signed Kings defenseman Marty McSorley to an offer sheet, which Los Angeles matched. (1993)
  • Signed Canucks forward Petr Nedved to an offer sheet; when Vancouver declined to match, they were awarded Craig Janney and a 2nd-round pick as compensation.  Janney refused to report to Vancouver, and was traded back to St. Louis for defensemen Jeff Brown and Bret Hedican, plus forward Nathan Lafayette.  I should note that the Canucks had asked for Shanahan as compensation for losing Nedved.  (1994)
  • Signed Devils defenseman Scott Stevens to an offer sheet, which New Jersey matched.  (1994)

Now, St. Louis had signed Keenan as their head coach and GM despite the fact that they had both a head coach (Bob Berry) and a GM (Ron Caron) in place.  Berry would be sent down the bench as associate coach, Caron would be shuffled off into an undetermined role with the team, and the war between the Blues, the Rangers, and the NHL was just beginning.

The New York Rangers are suing coach Mike Keenan for breach of contract because he signed a five-year contract with the St. Louis Blues.

“Mike Keenan is a great hockey coach. He is also a faithless employee, one who has betrayed the New York Rangers hockey club, its management and millions of Rangers fans,” the lawsuit said.

The suit, entered into the record today in Manhattan’s federal court, seeks to force Keenan to fulfill his contract with the Rangers and to outlaw any deal with another club. It also seeks unspecified monetary damages along with the return of a promissory note Keenan executed on July 8.

In a news conference today, Madison Square Garden general counsel Kenneth Munoz admitted the Rangers violated Keenan’s contract by issuing his bonus check one day later, “but we don’t believe that constitutes a material breach of the contract.”

“Normal business procedure would be to get your employer to comply with the contract,” Munoz said. Munoz said his office received a letter on Friday from Keenan’s lawyer, Rob Campbell of Toronto, “and it did not ask us to meet the terms of our contract. It repudiated the contract.”

Bettman responded that he asked both sides to submit written positions by Thursday, when he will decide whether a hearing is necessary. He also said he would have no further comment until the matter is resolved.

Wire Reports. “Rangers Sue Keenan for Breach of Contract.” Daily Breeze (Torrance, CA) 19 Jul. 1994, Sports: D2

A week later, the NHL issued the ruling:

Mike Keenan returned from New York on Monday as the Blues general manager/coach-in-exile, suspended by National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman for 60 days without pay and out about $700,000 in fines and lost wages.

But to see Keenan’s upbeat mood, and that of Blues brass Mike Shanahan and Jack Quinn, you’d have thought they had won the lottery rather than lost close to a cool $1 million among them.

“We all achieved the objective we set out to achieve, and that’s for me to be the general manager and coach of the St. Louis Blues,” Keenan said in a news conference Monday.

“We got the finest coach in hockey,” said Quinn, the team president who along with chairman Shanahan had accompanied Keenan to New York for meetings Sunday with Bettman.

Bettman approved a trade between the Blues and the Rangers to compensate the Rangers for the loss of the coach who last season led them to their first Stanley Cup since 1940, then levied fines against Keenan, the Blues, the Rangers and the Detroit Red Wings for their roles in what Rangers general manager Neil Smith called a “distasteful experience.”

The settlement:

The Blues send center Petr Nedved, 22, to New York for veteran forward Esa Tikkanen, 29, and veteran defenseman Doug Lidster, 33, in a trade Rangers President Bob Gutkowski said couldn’t have been made under any other circumstances.

The Rangers agreed to pay Keenan $608,000 in performance bonuses they had not paid by the July 14 deadline, prompting Keenan’s declaration the next day that the Rangers had breached his contract and he was a free agent.

Keenan agreed to repay the Rangers $400,000 of the $500,000 signing bonus he received last summer when he signed a five-year contract to be their coach.

Keenan was suspended for 60 days without pay (approximately $200,000 in lost wages) and fined $100,000 by the NHL for “conduct detrimental to the league” for not seeking a clarification from the league before exploring the free-agent market.

The Blues were fined “a net of $250,000” for negotiating with and signing Keenan without seeking that clarification. The phrase “a net of” in the NHL’s release is a key factor in the ruling. The gross fine for doing what the Blues did is $500,000, half payable to the league and half to the injured team. The Blues’ net fine will go to the league in full. The Rangers get none of it.

The Red Wings were fined $25,000 for negotiating with Keenan the day before he signed with the Blues, again for not clarifying Keenan’s status.

The Rangers were fined $25,000 for suing Keenan for breach of contract, and as part of the settlement agreed to drop the lawsuit.

Luecking, Dave. “BLUES FEEL THEY HIT JACKPOT – BLUES’ BRASS EXULTS OVER GETTING ITS MAN.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 26 Jul. 1994, Sports: 1C

This sums up exactly how highly-regarded Keenan was in the summer of 1994.  St. Louis had both a GM and a coach, and they went after Keenan very aggressively.  Detroit was coached by Scotty Bowman, and even they went after Keenan.

It Begins…

In addition to having a new look behind the bench and in the front office, the Blues would look very different on the ice as well.  They did a complete uniform re-design for the 1994-95 season, which featured a logo on the shoulders for the first time.  The design itself was done by Sean Michael Edwards, a design firm based in Manhattan (now SME Branding), and the original press release mentioned that the Blues and SME had worked together for close to a year before the new design was ready to go.  This was announced in June 1994, with the Blues’ braintrust consisting of president Jack Quinn, chairman Mike Shanahan, general manager Ron Caron, coach Bob Berry, VP of marketing Susie Mathieu, and assistant PR director Jeff Trammel.  Bruce Affleck was with the team in some capacity; he had several jobs with the team during his two decades there, and may have been involved.

An actual article from the unveiling:

The traditional Blues uniforms are going the way of the $13 seat, the prowling Arena cats and free parking at Forest Park.

Team chairman Mike Shanahan unveiled the noisy new sweaters Thursday afternoon at a news conference across the street from the Kiel Center construction site.

“It’s a great traditional uniform we have with the Blues,” Shanahan said. “Mr. (Sidney) Salomon made a great choice when he chose the bluenote and the Blues name for the franchise.

But, he noted, “As music tastes change, so do the design of the uniforms. Of the 26 teams in the league now, excepting the expansion teams, 10 or 11 have had new uniforms developed in the last two years. The NHL has encouraged it.

“We are moving into a new building, we are moving into the 1990s . . . this is the time to redesign the uniform.”

The new sweaters came from a 12-month collaboration between Blues officials and Ed O’Hara of Sean Michael Edwards, a design firm in New York City. The firm has worked on a half-dozen NHL designs and redesigns, including the expansion Florida Panthers.

“Over the course of the year, there must have been easily 75 different combinations,” Blues president Jack Quinn said. “As you know, it has to be submitted to the league (for approval). They just thought it was great, absolutely dynamite.”

The home jerseys look much the same at a glance, white with the familiar bluenote logo and red and yellow trim. But the sleeve and waist stripes are slanted, as are the sweater numbers, and new trumpet logos adorn the shoulders.

The trumpet logos “reinforce the equity of the music note,” said Thomas Duane, co-owner of the firm and O’Hara’s partner. The slanted lines represent a musical staff. “Again, it reinforces the music note,” Duane said.

On the road next season, the Blues won’t sneak up on anybody. Their traditional blue road sweaters will be accentuated – no, dominated – by fire-engine red sleeves and waists.

Though Quinn asked the designers to keep the same sweater colors, he allowed the designers to shift the emphasis of the colors.

“Red is a very handsome color,” Duane said. “It’s doing very well for the Florida Panthers. The Blues already had the red equity in their mark. It’s not one we introduced.”

Gordon, Jeff. “BLUES TRUMPET NEW, NOISY LOOK.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 24 Jun. 1994, Sports: 1B

A month later, Keenan was in the fold, Caron and Berry were pushed aside, and a tumultuous era was about to begin.

1994-95 saw the perennial underachievers go 28-15-5 in the lockout-shortened season.  In the first round, facing a Canucks team that looked like a shell of the one that had come to within a game of taking the Stanley Cup over Keenan’s Rangers just a year prior, the favored Blues were bounced in seven games.

Still, the Blues had shown unusual resolve in their first regular season under Keenan, and although there were some inconsistent performances in the playoffs, the future looked bright.  Sure, there was a feud between Keenan and star winger Brendan Shanahan, and Shanahan had suffered a broken ankle during that playoff loss against Vancouver that may well have been the deciding factor (Shanahan had 9 points in four-plus playoff games).  But this negativity looked temporary, and the time away during the offseason would allow things to cool down and look toward a promising future.

Change, and CHANGE

Instead of using this to build upon, Keenan jumped into free agency.

  • On July 14, goalie Grant Fuhr was signed as a free agent from the Kings
  • On July 24, forward Brian Noonan was signed as a free agent from the Rangers
  • On July 26, defenseman Bill Houlder left as a free agent
  • On August 8, forward Todd Elik left as a free agent
  • On September 8, Dale Hawerchuk was signed as a free agent from the Sabres

Elik appeared to have finally broken through as a top-six forward in the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons, and was one of a few players to have stepped up in a big way during the playoffs in 1994-95.  Replacing him was Hawerchuk, three years older and having missed more than half of the 1994-95 season.  Houlder had just turned 28 and was able to play well on the second pairing and on special teams, although his power play time was limited due to having the outstanding Al MacInnis and Steve Duchesne ahead of him.

But it was four trades that were made which sent massive shockwaves throughout the league and completely reshaped the franchise.

  • On July 27, one day after losing Houlder, St. Louis traded forward Brendan Shanahan to Hartford for defenseman Chris Pronger.
  • On July 28, defenseman Doug Lidster was sent to the Rangers for defenseman Jay Wells
  • The same day, St. Louis signed Oilers forward Shayne Corson to an offer sheet.  When Edmonton declined to match it, St. Louis sent two 1st-round picks as compensation.  But the two sides reached a trade: the picks would go back to St. Louis in exchange for forward prospect Mike Grier…and goalie Curtis Joseph.
  • The same day as that trade (August 4), St. Louis traded defenseman Steve Duchesne to Ottawa for a 2nd-round pick.

The Shanahan-for-Pronger trade was a stunner.  In the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons, Shanahan had scored 103 goals and 196 points while playing some physical hockey; he was regarded as one of the best, if not the best, power forwards in the NHL.  1994-95 saw him “slump” to 20 goals and 41 points in 45 games; he’d missed the first three games of the shortened season with mono, and struggled as his father fought a losing battle against Alzheimer’s.  The line of Shanahan, Craig Janney, and Brett Hull was one of the league’s best, but Keenan couldn’t stand Janney and traded him to San Jose after just 8 games.  This left a gaping hole up the middle, which forced Ian Laperriere or Adam Creighton into the middle of the top line.

Pronger, meanwhile, was 20 years old, had two NHL seasons, and had already generated significant questions about his passion, his work ethic, and his judgment both on and off the ice.  He was regarded as a franchise-caliber defenseman if he’d ever get his head on straight, but there were absolutely questions about whether that would ever happen.  In the meantime, Shanahan was 26 years old and just entering his prime years, which was frightening considering how well he’d played to that point in his career.

Lidster for Wells was something of a lateral move.

Duchesne for a draft pick was baffling; it saw one of the league’s best offensive defensemen and one of the best power play defensemen sent packing for no help on the roster.  In the preceding three seasons, Duchesne had scored 44 goals and 151 points in 165 games.  He had just turned 30 years old and looked to have a lot of high-level hockey left in him.

Possibly the worst of all was the Corson signing and the resulting trade of Joseph and Grier.  Joseph was 28 years old and one of the best goalies in the NHL, Grier was 20 and had just finished up a monster season in college with Boston University (29 goals and 55 points in 37 games, and a nod as a first-team All-American).  Corson could produce, but more often than not his penchant for undisciplined play made him a non-factor.  He’d been involved in several incidents both on and off the ice, and in the just-completed 1994-95 season he’d been stripped of the Oilers’ captaincy after an incident involving a teammate that allegedly began with a Corson eruption over him not being awarded a secondary assist in a game that the Oilers lost by five goals.  This also wasn’t his first major incident with the Oilers.

In the span of one offseason, the Blues had lost Curtis Joseph, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Duchesne, Mike Grier, Doug Lidster, Bill Houlder, and Todd Elik.  In their place were Grant Fuhr (who had played just 49 games in the previous two seasons, most of them poor outings), Chris Pronger, Brian Noonan, Jay Wells, Shayne Corson, and Dale Hawerchuk.  Add in the Janney for Jeff Norton trade in March 1995, and the Blues had very quickly gone from one of the best and most promising young teams into….something.

The backlash was swift.

OK, Blues fans. Listen up. Mike Keenan has spoken. You must accept change.

He set forth this edict Friday night in a news conference explaining the departure of former fan favorite Curtis Joseph and prospect Michael Grier to Edmonton, in essence, for Shayne Corson.

“There’s one thing I asked the fans to try to do and that was to accept change,” he said in his dispassionate, trademark monotone. “One of the first times I spoke to the media, I said the fans would have to accept change.”

Translation: Accept change because there’s not a heck of a lot you can do about it. Whining and crying won’t do you a bit of good. Get over it.

Keenan’s in charge. Four more years.

So, you must make a decision to follow the leader. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated. Accept change.

Dutifully follow the Blues. Dutifully spend your hard-earned cash for your season-ticket renewals that the Blues so kindly decided not to mark up this year. Dutifully attend the games and spend more money on concessions and parking. Dutifully support the team by buying souvenirs at its sports shops.

Be Like Mike: At the national sports collectors convention here July 28, Keenan used Michael Grier to justify, in part, the trade of Shanahan to Hartford for Chris Pronger.

“If we bring Michael into the picture, we do have another power forward on the horizon – a 240-pound youngster who’s making an impact,” Keenan said.

Eight days later, Keenan threw Grier in with Joseph in a deal to get back the No. 1 draft choices the Blues gave up as compensation for signing Corson as a free agent.

Luecking, Dave. “BLUES FANS! ACCEPT CHANGE, KEEP TOSSING DOLLARS.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 6 Aug. 1995, Sports: 14F

And two days later:

After trading Brendan Shanahan and Curtis Joseph, Mike Keenan seems as bewildered by fan reaction as fans are at losing two pet players.

As the head coach, general manager and czar of Blues Country put it, “You don’t do these things to get everybody mad at you.”

The public wonders about that, although season ticket renewals remain at the usual 94 percent rate.

From casual hockey watchers to hardened talk-show commandos, fan chatter suggests a confidence crisis.

Is Keenan acting in his personal, not their professional, interests?

Is he purging fan favorites?

Is his ego such that he wants the team’s pedestal for himself?

Is captain Brett Hull next?

Keenan, looking tanned and relaxed, lost his Iron Mike poker face when presented with this litany.

“That’s ridiculous,” he snapped. “Give me some credit for having some brains. First of all, I wouldn’t set myself up like that. Second of all, that’s not remotely close to my motivation. The motivation is to make the team better. We got rid of a couple of very popular players. But it’s not like we brought in four or five kids off the minor-league club.”

The Blues got budding star defenseman Chris Pronger for Shanahan. Joseph and prospect Mike Grier were dealt, in effect, for gritty free-agent forward Shayne Corson.

As for rumors of Hull’s neck being next on the trading block, Keenan’s answer was a crisp “no.” “Why would we trade 60 goals?”

Well, you just traded 50.

“But we can replace Brendan’s,” Keenan said. “Look what we got.”

He figured Corson for 25 goals, plus free-agent arrivals Geoff Courtnall for 30, Dale Hawerchuk for 25 and Brian Noonan for 20. That’s 100.

Keenan figures he lost 65 up front: Shanahan’s 50 and 15 from departed free-agent Todd Elik.

Those estimates, all reasonable, are a net gain of 35 goals.

Wheatley, Tom. “REACTION TO BLUES’ DEALS STUNS KEENAN: – `GIVE ME CREDIT FOR HAVING SOME BRAINS’.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 8 Aug. 1995, Sports: 1C

There’s an old saying that winning cures all.  Giving up chunks of the future for the present makes sense if the end result is actually success; if not, the past becomes brighter than the present.  Making a bunch of deals that appear one-sided against your team makes sense if they end up working out, otherwise valuable assets (which cannot be recovered) are lost for little.

I used to be friends with a girl who I’ll call Alice, who at the time in question had been dating a guy for around four or five months.  I met him once, and he was as nice and decent as she’d described on several occasions.  But over time, things changed and they started fighting more and more frequently whereas they hadn’t really so much as argued at all previously.

As it turned out, Alice had friends who kept pointing out that there are difficulties inherent to a serious relationship.  The nature of serious long-term relationships is that there will be adversity: family issues, pregnancy, death, and the ever-present basic idea of two different people in a relationship becoming one unified couple.  For Alice, this was her first serious relationship, and since there wasn’t much in the way of relationship difficulties to that point, she concluded that maybe it wasn’t that serious of a relationship if there wasn’t any of these struggles that everyone else talked about.  So to get a better idea of whether it was serious or not, she created a lot of arguments, which led to a lot of fights, and soon enough the relationship vanished.

Now, I’m a married man, which may be shocking to anyone who’s read the rest of this site and undoubtedly thought, “There is absolutely no way that this guy has ever so much as kissed a girl”.  My wife is a remarkable woman in her own right, but even more so when you consider that she chose to be married to and live with someone who may stand up randomly on a Tuesday night and say, “I’m going to go research some arcane topic that no one cares about and analyze it into 25 single-spaced pages, then post it online.”  We’re a pretty low-key couple, mostly because from the very beginning of our relationship we recognized that, although there are in fact struggles that go with the territory, it serves no positive purpose to create one simply for the sake of doing it.

Mike Keenan clearly believed the opposite when it came to constructing a roster.  He came in and declared that the fans were going to have to get used to change.  Change is part of the very nature of pro sports.  The highly-touted prospect flames out in spectacular fashion, the longtime star starts to wear down and retires, the first-line forward is traded for someone who’s only going to stick around until he can become a free agent, the front office decides not to offer a contract to the popular fourth-line veteran who’s obviously still productive, a personal issue leads to a player requesting a trade to a place closer to his family.  This is all part of being a fan, the knowledge that everything is fleeting.

Keenan’s problem is that he swept into St. Louis, said that there would be plenty of change, and then proceeded to do it.  Was it needed?  The answer to this question never seemed to really enter his mind.  A team that finished 1994-95 with the second-best record in the conference and tied for third-best overall in the entire league was, by and large, a team that he had inherited.  There were a handful of moves that Keenan had made: the signings of Tony Twist, Glenn Anderson, and Kevin Sawyer; the waiver claims of Donald Dufresne and Greg Gilbert; and the trades of Jason Marshall for Bill Houlder, and of Tom Tilley for Adam Creighton.  These are all decent hockey moves.  There’s no compelling need to make a huge splash or make a move just for the sake of doing one; 1994-95 showed that the Blues weren’t a bad team, and with a bit of luck and maybe a move or two, they were absolutely contenders.

Instead, Keenan decided that change was needed.  And not just change, but CHANGEWhy exactly he felt like completely blowing up the core of the roster – to take a shot in the dark at a bunch of unknowns – would be the best solution something I can’t quite figure out.  Let’s take a look at Keenan’s math, where he has Shanahan as good for 50 goals and Elik for 15, but they could be replaced by Shayne Corson and his 25 projected goals, Geoff Courtnall at 30, Dale Hawerchuk at 25, and Brian Noonan at 20.  Therefore, by Keenan’s reasoning, the Blues were coming out ahead.

But there were some issues there.  Noonan, 30 years old when he was picked up, had never scored 20 goals in an NHL season and could hardly be counted on for that level of production.  Hawerchuk was 32, had scored 25 goals one time in the preceding four seasons, and missed more than half of 1994-95.  Courtnall was 33 and had scored 30 one time in the preceding four seasons.  Corson was 29 and had scored 25 goals one time in the preceding five seasons – and had been involved in two high-profile blowups in the locker room that had resulted in his team wanting to unload him.

The problem is that Keenan seemed to have absolutely no respect for a simple fact: players are not interchangeable lines of statistics.  Players can and do react differently to pressure, to mind games and manipulation, to criticism from the public, to adversity and to success.  To simply wave one’s hand and declare that a player will score a certain amount of goals – the hell with his recent track record, personality, reaction to being in a new city, and pressure over being asked to replace an enormously popular player – is the height of stupidity.

Keenan had Shanahan good for 50 goals in a full 1995-96 season, and acquisitions Geoff Courtnall and Brian Noonan combining for 50.  Of course, I should point out that Courtnall was signed on July 14 and Noonan on July 24, while Shanahan wasn’t traded until July 27.  You know what’s better than replacing Shanahan’s production?  Not needing to replace Shanahan’s production.  St. Louis could have stood pat after those two signings, having injected an offensive boost into the lineup, and solidified their position as legitimate Cup contenders going into 1995-96.  Grant Fuhr was signed the same day as Courtnall; he could have backed up Curtis Joseph and allowed Jon Casey to walk.

Instead, we know what happened.  Joseph and Shanahan were traded, Pronger and Corson came in.  Regardless of what Pronger would eventually become, the simple fact is that in 1995, neither one of Pronger or Corson carried anywhere close to the trade value of Joseph or Shanahan.  To trade Shanahan, the ultimate heart-and-soul player with incredible production on the ice, for a promising defenseman who had shown little in two seasons and didn’t particularly seem to care whether he got better or not, was a foolish deal right from the beginning.  And to trade (in a roundabout way) Joseph for Corson, one of the best goalies in the NHL for one of the league’s most frustrating players, was even worse.  Yes, there were contract concerns with Joseph; I fail to see how trading Shanahan (and retaining nearly a million dollars a year in his salary) helps that, or how overpaying for Hawerchuk and Noonan and Courtnall was supposed to help the bottom line.  Neither Pronger nor Corson were close to Joseph and Shanahan in trade value, and neither were close to Joseph and Shanahan in actual on-ice production.

There are times where I feel bad for Keenan.  There’s 30 years worth of writing that off the ice, he’s a soft-spoken individual who seems to just want to be loved, or at least respected.  I believe that the booing and anger toward him does in fact bother him a great deal, that the probing questions from the media and criticisms from people not named Keenan do in fact wound him deeply.  And I believe that a large part of his explosive temper and seemingly endless well of rage and sarcasm was simply a way to shield his inner being from this; by clothing himself in power, tearing down his subordinates, and being able to hide behind both the power and the unapproachable nature, it kept him protected.

And there are plenty of other times where I question whether Keenan realized that the vast majority of his problems were self-inflicted.  If he would think before he spoke and install the necessary filter, if he would recognize that the media was asking a question to get an answer and not to make veiled personal attacks, if he would realize that the fans might be more than a bit confused when a player is praised one day and traded the next or when a trade is made with financial concerns cited and the next day a high-dollar free agent is brought in, if he would drop the “no one is smart enough to question me or anything that I do” routine, he might be a bit more fondly remembered.

Plenty of coaches and GMs have made baffling trades, plenty have courted unnecessary controversy by not thinking before speaking, plenty have openly and publicly feuded with popular players.  But the determining factors in how this affects the coach or GM comes down to two very simple things: success and attitude.  Winning solves a lot of woes, and there’s a fine line between being plain-spoken and being a jerk.  Keenan’s problem going into 1995-96 was twofold.  First is that he blew up the core of a team that looked to be a contender in favor of going after a bunch of aging, expensive reclamation projects when it didn’t appear to be needed.  Second is that he acted like such a smug bastard about it, stopping just short of saying that only an illiterate rube could possibly regard trading Curtis Joseph and Mike Grier for Shayne Corson to be a bad move, or dumping Steve Duchesne with absolutely no plan to replace the massive hole that was left could cause problems.

The Circus Begins

The fanbase had a tough time buying in for the start of the 1995-96 season.  Fan favorites were gone, replaced by either unrealized potential (Pronger) or free agent ringers (everyone else).  Several of the newcomers arrived for training camp out of shape.  The new Kiel Center was not sold out for the season opener, and several writers pointed out that the electricity normally present for such a game was noticeably absent.  The most obvious reaction was when Keenan was introduced before the game to a hearty round of boos.

After the eighth game, a listless loss against Buffalo that dropped the Blues to 3-4-1, Keenan publicly questioned the work ethic and effort of Brett Hull, Dale Hawerchuk, and Jeff Norton.  Keenan had acquired the latter two, and both were scratched for the game in question.  Hull responded publicly as well, and Keenan stripped Hull of the captaincy.

Just last week, Blues GM/coach Mike Keenan praised Brett Hull, saying he was the “biggest convert” to the hard-working style of play Keenan demanded.

On Monday, Keenan abruptly stripped Hull of the Blues’ captaincy and appointed Shayne Corson as the Blues’ 11th captain.

Keenan insisted the move wasn’t personal. Hull disagreed.

Hull didn’t buy Keenan’s assertion that the decision wasn’t personal. In a room near the coaches office, Hull paced, venting his frustration. He wore denim jeans and an off-white sweater. His eyes were puffy. He was bewildered, angry and defiant.

“It’s not personal?” he asked when told of Keenan’s comments. “The heck it’s not personal. It is personal. . . . It’s a complete slap in the face. If I had done something to deserve it . . . ”

His thoughts trailed off.

“I’ve worked my tail off,” he said. “I changed my whole game for him, and that’s not good enough? I stand up for my teammates. Isn’t that what a captain’s supposed to do?

“I haven’t done anything wrong, and he has the (guts) to blame me. What is that? I don’t care where he’s coached or what he’s done, but no one has done what I’ve done for him.”

Luecking, Dave. “KEENAN PLAYS CAPTAIN HOOK WITH HULL’S `C’ – COACH: `IT’S NOT PERSONAL’ – PLAYER: `THE HECK IT’S NOT’.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 24 Oct. 1995, Sports: 1C.

And the next day:

A day after Mike Keenan stripped him of his “C,” Brett Hull stood tall and proud, and still somewhat defiant, as the Blues’ former captain.

He said he never did anything wrong and lost the captaincy for the right reason, publicly standing up for center Dale Hawerchuk and defenseman Jeff Norton and calling Keenan to task for scratching them Sunday night in Buffalo.

“I’ve had time to reflect on it, and the positive thing is, I had the ‘C’ taken away because I stood up for my teammates,” Hull said. “I could have gotten in trouble for something off the ice, something that would bring disrespect for the team and my family, but I didn’t do anything like that.

“I didn’t do anything bad. If that was the case, it’d be different. But this is kind of an honorable way to lose the ‘C.’ I stood up for my teammates, and I’m proud of that fact. I stood up for Hawer and Norts. The (coaches) didn’t like that, but there’s nothing wrong with questioning them, is there?”

Luecking, By Dave. “HULL SAYS HE’S `PROUD’ HE BACKED TEAMMATES.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 25 Oct. 1995, Sports: 7D

The same day, an editorial hit the news stands:

This is a milestone week for the Blues. They lost more than a captain. They lost what’s left of their soul.

On Monday, Mike Keenan demoted captain Brett Hull, by far the team’s top player and crowd-pleaser.

Today, Keenan’s faceless, listless Blues play in Hartford against what was once their heart and ventricles – Whalers captain Brendan Shanahan and tough guy Kelly Chase.

On Friday against Anaheim at Kiel Center, Blues fans can celebrate the three-month anniversary of Keenan’s swap of Shanahan and $900,000 to Hartford for always promising Chris Pronger.

Keenan believes he will have the last laugh. And maybe he will.

He has 74 games to whip this undisciplined, unproductive, unemotional blob into a playoff juggernaut. A last laugh might be hollow.

A Blues home game used to be fun. Now it’s dreary, even before a three-game winning streak veered into a four-game winless skid. Winning isn’t everything, and not just here.

The New Jersey Devils perfected monotonous, anonymous teamwork to win the 1995 Stanley Cup. But they draw 10,000 fans a game and are probably headed to Nashville.

And the Blues don’t look like champs. They look dead. The crowd sounds dead. Kiel feels dead.

With the Blues and Dallas tied 1-1 here last week, fans were leaving midway through the third period. The exodus continued until overtime started. That’s entertainment?

Keenan built this team in his own aloof image. Will fans cuddle up to it? Early returns, based on the eloquent silence of empty seats, are negative.

Wheatley, Tom. “WILL ANYONE STILL BE HAPPY IF BLUES WIN?.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 25 Oct. 1995, Sports: 1D

Again, this is eight games into the 1995-96 season.

The turmoil continued all the way through the holidays, then ramped up again around the New Year.

On the ice, the Blues ended 1995 with a whimper on Saturday at Kiel Center, collapsing on one play and losing 4-3 to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Mats Sundin’s goal 6 seconds into overtime.

Off the ice, the year ended with fireworks. Not surprisingly, the most outspoken members of the Blues family exploded – GM-coach Mike Keenan and star winger Brett Hull.

In his postgame remarks, Keenan took exception to a reporter referring to the sub-.500 Blues’ as “his team.” Hull took exception to Keenan’s response.

First, Keenan. After Keenan had described the team as “disappointing and troubling,” “extremely inconsistent,” and “a very difficult group to read,” he was asked how frustrating the team’s woes were on a personal level because it was his team and he’s ultimately responsible.

“It’s very frustrating . . . (but) two of the critical pieces of the puzzle I had nothing to do with – Brett Hull and Al MacInnis,” he said. “I had nothing to do with them in terms of them being here. Ultimately, it is my responsibility, but I’m pointing out (that) it’s not entirely my team.”

When told it was “mostly” his team, he responded, “I just reiterated two cornerstone pieces had nothing to do with me, so you can take it from there.”

When asked how responsible Hull and MacInnis were, Keenan said, “We’re a game below the .500 (mark),” then abruptly ended his news conference.

When Hull heard Keenan’s commentary, he bristled.

“He’s blaming everyone else again,” Hull said as he walked away from reporters. He added more from across the dressing room.

“That’s two guys,” he said. “There are 18 other ones. . . . That’s like saying you’re not responsible for your stepkids if you get remarried.”

Luecking, Dave. “KEENAN, HULL TRADE (ORAL) SLAP SHOTS TEMPERS FLAIR IN BLAME GAME.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 1 Jan. 1996, Sports: 5C

Two weeks later, after Hull played on a line with Wayne Gretzky at the NHL All-Star Game, rumors heated up that the Blues were pursuing The Great One.  Meanwhile, the team continued to plod along; they were 18-19-8 at the break.

A trade for Gretzky would in fact take place at the end of February; the Blues were two games over .500 at the time.  They would go 6-10-4 the rest of the way, but make it into the playoffs anyway.  The middling Western Conference had just three teams finish over .500: Chicago had 94 points, Colorado 104, and Detroit an unbelievable 131.

In the first round against Toronto, disaster struck.  Goalie Grant Fuhr, who had set an NHL record by playing in 79 of the team’s 82 games in the regular season, suffered an ACL tear in the second game.  Jon Casey, who had played just nine games, was now forced to carry the turbulent Blues.

Against all odds, Casey was up to the task, standing on his head to help dispatch Toronto in six games.

Awaiting them in the second round was Detroit, with their 62-13-7 regular season record and +144 goal differential (compared to the Blues’ 32-34-16 record and -29 differential).

Game 1 saw the two teams go toe-to-toe, until Red Wing Sergei Fedorov scored the winning goal with 2:06 left to give Detroit a 1-0 series lead.  Game 2 went as expected, with Detroit taking a 5-1 lead after one period en route to an 8-3 victory and a 2-0 series lead.

The Blues fought back when the series transitioned to St. Louis.  They led Game 3 by a 3-1 score after one period, but Detroit tied it up in the second, then took a 4-3 lead in the third.  Poised to take an insurmountable 3-0 series lead, Detroit was instead stunned when enforcer Tony Twist tied the game up.  In overtime, Blues defenseman Igor Kravchuk scored, and it was now a 2-1 series.  In Game 4, Detroit thoroughly outplayed their opponent, but Casey stood tall and a Gretzky goal was all that was needed in a 1-0 Blues victory that tied the series.

In Detroit for Game 5, Hull and Gretzky both scored, but it was unheralded Yuri Khmylev who scored the winning goal for the Blues to give them a 3-2 series lead.  The prohibitive Cup favorite Red Wings were on the ropes, but they would take Game 6 in St. Louis to force a decisive seventh game in the Motor City.

Detroit came out flying in Game 7, but couldn’t put one past Casey.  St. Louis countered in the second, but couldn’t beat Chris Osgood.  Detroit applied relentless pressure in the third, but Game 7 would be scoreless going to overtime.  And still scoreless going to the second overtime.  Then, barely a minute into the fifth period, Gretzky mishandled the puck in the neutral zone, which Detroit captain Steve Yzerman picked up, then crossed the blueline and rocketed a long shot past Casey.

One of the most tumultuous seasons for a team in NHL history came to an end, but despite the turmoil, the future looked bright.  Fuhr had rebounded from barely waiver-caliber to one of the NHL’s best goalies, some players unexpectedly stepped up, and Gretzky was in the fold despite his expiring contract.

Instead, contract negotiations were bungled badly by the Blues, resulting in Gretzky signing instead with the Rangers.  A ton of money was thrown out in free agency on aging players who were no longer productive, and this all coincided with a sizable hike in ticket prices.  Whatever optimism and goodwill may have been salvaged with the near-upset of the Red Wings in the playoffs had been completely blown apart.

It Has to Get Worse Before It Gets Better

In short, fans were tired of it: The bad uniforms, the sterile atmosphere at a new arena, the wildly inconsistent play on the ice and the drama off of it.  The team was being run by an explosive coach/GM in Keenan whose moods and plans shifted hourly, a team president in Jack Quinn with an increasingly unknown role, a board of directors who were constantly crying poor while dictating what the fans wanted instead of listening to what the fans actually wanted.  They demonstrated how tired they were of the whole circus by leaving over 3,000 seats vacant for the 1996-97 season opener, and the uniforms they wore (described as “clown suits” by more than one observer) was a fitting metaphor for what the franchise had become.

Scientists recently found evidence of life on Mars. Their next challenge: Finding a pulse at Kiel Center during Blues games.

Apathy is difficult to prove. There are too few conscious life forms in the the house for a true polling sample.

The ambience is so bleak that even Blues management, often blissfully oblivious, woke up and reacted.

The sales staff sent a note to the 1,800 fallen-away season ticket holders. It was dated Oct. 11 and read:

“Your St. Louis Blues opened their 30th Anniversary Season with a victory over the Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche. The only thing missing was YOU!

“We certainly appreciate your past support and would like you to be our guest at a game this season. You will receive the same number of tickets for the game as you had as a season ticket holder.

“Please select a game you would like to attend from those listed on the enclosed reply card and drop it in the mail.

“If there is anything the Blues can do for you, please do not hesitate to call . . .”

No amount of speed-dialing will bring Brendan Shanahan, Curtis Joseph, Kelly Chase, Ian Laperierre or Wayne Gretzky back from exile. Still, it seemed like a nice touch. Then came Page 2. The freebies apply to five games only. The opponents are Tampa Bay, Montreal, Dallas and Phoenix (twice). Four dates are Thursdays, the other a Tuesday.

So the Blues are wooing their best former customers with lousy seats on lousy dates for lousy draws. That brand of fan appreciation is exactly what turned Kiel into a mausoleum. The Blues have yet to sell out the 19,000-seat Kiel this season. Six of their seven home games drew fewer than 15,765 – the previous low since Kiel opened 85 games ago.

Wheatley, Tom. “BLUES FANS ONCE FAWNED, NOW YAWN.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 5 Nov. 1996, Sports: 2C

But on the other hand, there was exciting news on the jersey front to report.  It was announced in late October that St. Louis would be rolling out an alternate jersey with a stylized version of the trumpet patch on the shoulders.  In fact, if I remember correctly, that’s what this entire monster of an essay began with.

As was standard with alternates at the time, they’d hit the ice after the All-Star break in late January 1997.

This didn’t help the team’s fortunes on the ice, as they continued to flounder around .500.  The circus continued, and then an announcement came down in mid-December 1996 as the axe fell.

After 2 1/2 seasons, dozens of player moves – most of which fizzled – and a highly publicized spat with Brett Hull, Mike Keenan is no longer the coach and general manager of the St. Louis Blues.

“A new era for the St. Louis Blues begins today,” chairman Jerry Ritter said at a news conference Thursday to announce the management shake-up in which Keenan was dismissed along with team president Jack Quinn.

Mark Sauer, who previously was chief executive officer of baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, was hired as team president.

Associated Press. “Blues fire Keenan, President.” Houston Chronicle 20 Dec. 1996,  Sports: 5

(Quinn was offered the chance to remain with the team in what was described as a consultant role; he’d been there for over a decade and was a huge part of the Blues’ turnaround from mediocre into something much more.  Keenan, on the other hand, was simply dismissed.)

What Happened to the Alternate Jerseys?

Since this is, after all, an essay on jerseys, a press release came out as the All-Star break approached that year:

The Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning will all unveil alternate jerseys this season, bringing to seven the number of teams using the new looks for certain occasions.

The Rangers will unveil their new jerseys Monday at home against the New York Islanders, Chicago on Jan. 24 while hosting Toronto, and Tampa Bay at home Feb. 8 against Boston.

Boston, Pittsburgh and Vancouver are still wearing the special jerseys they introduced last season. The Islanders have already unveiled theirs this season in conjunction with their 25th anniversary.

Rick Dudley, president of NHL Enterprises, says each club will wear its third jersey six to nine times during the rest of the season.

Rappoport, Ken. “McNall Sentence Completes Fall From Grace.” Stuart News, The (FL) 11 Jan. 1997, Sports: B5

Notice that of the original five teams mentioned to be unveiling alternates in the October 1996 release, three of them are still on track to do so, while the Islanders had already done so by stacking theirs as a 25th anniversary special.

St. Louis is no longer on the list of teams to have an alternate in 1996-97.

Remember, the story that’s been shared as common knowledge for the last decade (or longer) is that Keenan walked into the Blues’ locker room before the first game that the vertical trumpet jerseys were to be worn, blew up that no team of his would ever wear something so hideous, and the entire set of jerseys was quickly changed over to the regular ones for that game.

One big issue that I’m having is that I cannot find a finite starting point for when the story of Keenan’s alleged eruption actually began.  Anecdotally speaking, I remember hearing it as far back as 2004, but anything before that gets hazy.  Besides, it’s a fun story; what difference does it make?

So let’s establish the simple facts:

  • Oct 26, 1996. St. Louis is announced to be one of five teams wearing an alternate jersey for the 1996-97 season.  In accordance with league rules, they will be on the ice after the All-Star break only.
  • Dec 19, 1996. Mike Keenan (coach/GM) and Jack Quinn (team president) are both fired.
  • Jan 10, 1997. An article goes out detailing the teams that will be unveiling their alternates on the ice once clear of the All-Star break.  St. Louis is not among them, and I can find no references between October and January of exactly what happened that prompted this.

This means a couple of things.  First is that Keenan could not have had a pre-game blowup in the locker room, at least not over the alternate jerseys; he was fired before this could have ever taken place.  NHL teams in 1996-97 wore their dark jerseys on the road and whites at home.  The Blues proposed alternate, which was primarily blue (albeit with a yellow back), would have meant that the visiting team would be wearing their white jerseys and that St. Louis would have hastily put on their normal dark road jerseys for a home game.  I can find no record of this happening at any point in the 1996-97 season.

The reason that alternates were worn after the All-Star break was because that was when Fox began broadcasting NHL games on weekends.  This was an interesting era in broadcasting, from the old Bud Ice commercials with the penguin (doobie doobie-doo…) to the Nike commercials with the goalie who went crazy from Sergei Fedorov to Eric Lindros’ lucky white jersey being turned pink as the result of a laundry incident that also involved his lucky red socks.  Now, this doesn’t mean that the alternates were only worn on Fox broadcast dates, but the alternates didn’t hit the ice until after the All-Star break.  Period.  (Unless we’re talking about the Islanders’ wavy jersey with the traditional crest, for which the NHL bent every jersey-related guideline they could to help out a team that had made a stupid mistake.  But this was not the Islanders.)

In order to work the Keenan blowup story in, the Blues would have had to have had the game jerseys ready to go at least a week before Christmas 1996.  And considering how widely unpopular Keenan was, and how much of a well-publicized mess the Blues were, it absolutely would have been a story had Keenan ordered the jerseys to be shelved.

The Blues were a major story for over two years.  The bizarre manner in which Keenan came to the team, the dismantling of the roster of a contending team, the constant feuding with one of the biggest stars in the game in Brett Hull, the acquisition and then spurning of Wayne Gretzky…the list goes on and on.  There’s no way that Keenan shelving the alternates wouldn’t be a major story, especially in such a bizarre manner as a locker room blowup.

Don’t believe me?  The Blues had two major stories in the first eight days of December 1996 alone.

Minor Dilemma: As controversies go, this one lacks pizzazz, but it’s a big deal in Winnipeg, which the Manitoba Moose of the International Hockey League calls home.

Moose GM Jean Perron claims the Blues owe his team a player to replace defenseman Ken Sutton, who was on loan from the Blues before being traded to New Jersey in the Mike Peluso deal.

“St. Louis is going to have to do something about this,” Perron told the Winnipeg Sun. “We’re not going to say, `Hey you’re in the NHL, you can guys can do whatever you want.’ We had an agreement on paper, and we’re going to fight for our point.”

Perron said that the Blues had given Sutton’s minor-league rights to the Moose. After the trade, Perron approached New Jersey about compensation for Sutton, but that was the first New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello had heard of it.

That’s the second story from one article.  The top one?

Last spring, Blues coach Mike Keenan raised a ruckus about the length of the visiting team’s bench in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena.

He pointed out that the bench was 45 inches shorter than the Red Wings’ bench, putting the visiting team at a disadvantage in making quick line changes.

“The rule explicitly states they’re supposed to be uniform,” he said at the time. “That’s a huge difference. . . . I don’t know how Detroit got away with this.”

The same question could be asked of the Blues, who have been operating in violation of Rule 9a of the National Hockey League official rules for the last month.

The Blues have played seven games at Kiel Center with a third, illegal, door just inside the blue line of their bench. The door was installed in conjunction with the Blues’ new-fangled entry tunnel that they hype as the “largest bluenote in history.”

Luecking, Dave. “BEHIND DOOR THREE: BLUES’ BENCH IS OPEN TO SCRUTINY.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 8 Dec. 1996, Sports: 9F

Let’s add that into the timeline.  Between the time that St. Louis was announced to be participating with an alternate jersey (late October) and Keenan’s firing (December 19), there was a blowup in St. Louis over an IHL player on loan being traded and one over the bench configuration.  There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if the “Keenan blows gasket over alternate jerseys” had actually happened, it would have been a huge story.

Instead, there is nothing.  What we have is a jersey that simply mysteriously vanished, and a team that quietly withdrew from the alternate program for 1996-97 with nothing being said publicly.  The media is strangely silent on this matter as well.

Regardless, a complete housecleaning at the top was underway.  And the biggest change was right around the corner.

Saving the Bluenote

In either late January or early February 1997, Jim Woodcock was named senior VP of marketing and communications.  It’s listed on the transaction reports on January 25, 1997, but I can’t find anything referencing an actual hiring until about a week later.

Woodcock immediately leapt into action.  As a lifelong Blues fan, he was too familiar with the new Kiel Center and its magenta seats.  And with Keenan gone, and a chance to completely overhaul things for a team that had become alienated from its own fanbase so rapidly…

Jim Woodcock, the Blues’ new VP for marketing, will try to turn back the clock. Woodcock – a lifelong Blues fan who cherished the old Arena – plans to do something about Kiel’s antiseptic environment.

Woodcock spends hours walking around Kiel, studying the possibilities. He’s already made some subtle changes in music and presentation. He’s cut down on some of the commercials. He’s meeting with fans, taking their suggestions.

“Right now I’m just daydreaming,” Woodcock said. “I’m painting the place differently in my mind. I can’t say right now what Kiel will be like at the start of next season, but I want to deliver more of a hockey attitude in this building.

“I’m against anything that is forced or contrived. The Kiel has a cheery atmosphere, which is fine for `Disney on Ice.’ But this is hockey, a working-class sport. I know the trendy thing in sports is the ‘total entertainment’ package, but I maintain that hockey fans want to be entertained by the players on the ice. We come here for hockey. We’re going to do what we can to bring back that old feeling.”

Go, Jim, go. And if you want to start ripping out the raspberry seats, I’ll provide the crowbar.

Miklasz, Bernie. “FOR BLUES, KIEL STILL TOO HOME, SUITE HOME.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 23 Feb. 1997, Sports: 1F

It wasn’t long before everyone was singing the praises of the energetic 36-year-old Woodcock.

Some newspapers have a reader’s advocate. The Blues now have a fan’s advocate.

Jim Woodcock, a Blues’ season-ticket holder and reformed sportswriter, has infiltrated the front office.

Woodcock, 36, has been on the job eight weeks as senior vice-president for marketing and communications.

He identifies with the average diehard fan. In fact, he has been one since the team was hatched 30 years ago.

His first move, dictated even before he came over from Fleishman-Hillard, was to douse the pregame laser show. The World’s Largest (Backward) Bluenote, the $30,000 pride and joy of ex-marketing director Tom Maurer, is now garaged in the vacant Kiel Opera House.

“The Blues will take the ice like a professional hockey team,” Woodcock said. “We’re going back to old-time hockey.”

His fellow fans agree. He knows, because he has been conducting random fan councils over lunch with new chairman Jerry Ritter, new president Mark Sauer and veteran sales director Bruce Affleck.

The team is back to the basics pushed by ex-chairman Mike Shanahan and departed marketing and promotions whizzes Susie Mathieu and Tracy Lovasz.

The Blues moved to Kiel that season (1994-95). Woodcock understood the move from a business standpoint. As a fan, he didn’t have to like it.

“I loved The Arena,” Woodcock said. “That water on the restroom floors was part of the atmosphere.

“As a fan, I didn’t want a better building. I wanted a better team.”

He kept his season tickets at Kiel, but he bristled at Mike Keenan’s trades and anti-fan approach. Woodcock admitted being among the Kiel no-shows in Keenan’s final days as general manager and coach.

“Guilty as charged,” he said.

At Fleishman, Woodcock had worked with Ritter, an A-B executive who succeeded Shanahan as Blues chairman in 1995.

Ritter fired Keenan and Quinn on Dec. 19 and hired Sauer. About a month later, Sauer fired Maurer, who came to the Blues from Coca-Cola with no hockey experience.

Wheatley, Tom. “A WELCOME RETURN TO OLD-TIME HOCKEY – BLUES FAITHFUL HAVE A FAN-FRIENDLY FRONT-OFFICE ADVOCATE IN WOODCOCK.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 5 Apr. 1997, Sports: 12

(Tom Maurer, mentioned above, had joined the Blues in September 1995 as the replacement for VP of marketing Susie Mathieu.  This in itself was a huge controversy; Mathieu was loved by the team and was also the first woman to reach such a level with any major league sports team, while Maurer came in and reportedly made more than double the salary Mathieu had while putting out a worse product.  He was gone shortly after the Keenan/Quinn purge, having lasted barely 16 months on the job.  Mathieu, meanwhile, worked extensively with both the 1996 World Cup and the 1998 Olympics on the hockey side of things.)

And, in what really needs context to explain the praise contained here:

The Kiel committee has the right people in place to win back the fans. Sauer is sharp. And with apologies to winger Jim Campbell, marketing VP Jim Woodcock is the Blues’ rookie of the year. Woodcock will try to transform Kiel into an actual hockey arena.

Miklasz, Bernie. “REBUILDING JOB AT KIEL CENTER FAR FROM OVER.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 28 Apr. 1997, Sports: 1C

Campbell was a 23-year-old rookie in 1996-97, and St. Louis was already his third NHL organization.  Unlike Montreal and Anaheim before, he would be given a chance to stick with the Blues.  In his first 20 games in 1996-97, with all the turmoil taking place around him, Campbell would put up 9 goals and 16 points, with 5 of those goals being game-winners.  He’d finish the season with 23 goals and 43 points, and end up 3rd in voting for the Calder Trophy (behind Bryan Berard and Jarome Iginla).

For Campbell, one of the few bright spots in a largely-dismal season, to be supplanted in a postseason article as the team’s rookie of the year by the marketing director who’d been on the job less than three months speaks volumes of exactly what had taken place during Keenan’s reign and how much things were changing with Woodcock.

Even into the summer between 1996-97 and 1997-98, the work wasn’t done.  Remember those magenta seats?

In focus groups and luncheons with season-ticket holders past and present over the last six months, Blues President Mark Sauer heard the same message over and over.

Ticket prices were too high.

True Blues fans couldn’t afford to spend between $25 and $95 for a ticket to Kiel Center, where the empty pink seats revealed the fans’ discontent.

So, Sauer, with the backing of Blues Chairman Jerry Ritter and the input of marketing director and longtime Blues fan Jim Woodcock, decided to make some changes. Both in style and substance.

Sauer announced on Thursday that the Blues would slash ticket prices and give Kiel Center a $400,000 makeover that will replace the garish colors on lower-bowl seats.

The purpose of the moves are twofold: 1.) to bring back the fans with more affordable tickets that will range between $15 and $75; 2.) to make Kiel Center seem more like a hockey arena than Barbie’s Dream House. In doing so, the Blues and their owners acknowledged their past mistakes.

“I don’t ever want to be in an arena where (someone) calls my seats ‘pinkies’, ” Sauer said.

Luecking, Dave. “BLUES PLAY PRICE-CHOPPER; KIEL ALSO TO BE REDECORATED.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 13 Jun. 1997, Sports: 8E

I do want to take a moment to acknowledge that terrific line by Luecking: “to make Kiel Center seem more like a hockey arena than Barbie’s Dream House”.

But in one of the biggest signs that things were about to change in the most noticeable way possible:

The new Blues regime can’t promise that the team will play better next season. But it can guarantee that it will look better. NHL officials already have approved a redesigned uniform.

The conservative look is true to marketing director Jim Woodcock’s pledge for an “old-time hockey” atmosphere at Kiel Center. The road uniform is a royal blue sweater over navy pants. The sweater backs feature easy-to-read block letters and numerals.

What’s out? Slanted numerals, the trumpet patch, lines on the jersey bottom and blood-red splashes on blue sleeves. The dominant feature, as it should be, is the Bluenote in front – minus the current “St. Louis” tag.

NHL red tape keeps the team from unveiling the new look yet. It can’t be worn full time until the 1998-99 season because of licensing rules.

The Blues will skirt that issue by using their new sweaters as part of the NHL “third jersey” marketing plan. But third jerseys cannot be worn until after the All-Star break next January, Woodcock said, and only then on a limited basis.

Wheatley, Tom. “In The Floe: Front Office Swamped After Ice Melts Under Blues.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 6 May 1997, Sports: 3C.

This was written after the end of the 1996-97 season, the one that (supposedly) had Keenan’s alternate jersey meltdown.  The NHL’s rules on alternates were still being tuned up; a team today cannot roll one out in a given year and then a completely different one the next year.  That St. Louis was supposed to have one in 1996-97 (but did not actually use them) would not preclude them from wearing a different one in 1997-98.

Sharp-Dressed Men

This alternate referred to in this article would be worn in 1997-98, and the blue version that became the new road one was unveiled at the 1998 NHL draft when St. Louis picked Christian Backman.  How was the white one received at the time?

Jim Woodcock knew he had the winning design for the Blues’ new jersey by the number of players who stopped by his office at Kiel Center to check out the prototype after it arrived in late August.

Brett Hull was the most frequent visitor, dropping in several times to model the jersey that bore his name and No. 16. Captain Chris Pronger checked it out. So did Al MacInnis, Grant Fuhr, Tony Twist, Craig Conroy, Marc Bergevin and Jim Campbell, among others.

The players gave Woodcock a collective thumbs up, which is only fitting because they helped design it.

Woodcock, the Blues senior vice president of marketing, sought unprecedented input from the players and coaches during the design phase last spring. He also consulted some 300 fans in the form of focus groups. So, this jersey – debuting today in the Post-Dispatch – is a collaborative effort of all those fans who hold the Blues near and dear, as well as the guys who wear it.

“The bottom line is the players have got to not only be comfortable in the design, but they have to rally behind it,” said Woodcock, who began work on the redesign soon after he joined the Blues in January and praised the league for helping to expedite the process. “It all starts with the team. If the guys feel pride in the sweater and feel great about the way they look in it, it rubs off on everyone else, and they sense the same pride. . . . The great thing is that the players are so enthusiastic about it.”

The new jersey officially comes into being as the Blues’ third jersey, to be worn on seven Saturdays at Kiel Center beginning Jan. 31 and on the road at Detroit on April 7. But the Blues already have received National Hockey League approval for it to become their official home jersey next season.

The new jerseys, designed by Blues fan Buck Smith of Fleishman-Hillard, will replace the current uniforms that were unveiled in the summer of 1994. The current uniforms feature an angled bottom border, a musical staff, a horn patch, tilted numbers on the shoulders with one smaller number next to a large one on the back. Plus, that odd fascination with red on the Blues’ road uniforms.

No more. The red is gone, even as a border color. It has been replaced by navy blue to complement the team’s royal blue base. The musical staffs and patches have been trashed. The number design reverts to the pre-1994 uniforms. Horizontal stripes have replaced the funky angle at the bottom of the jersey. Large bars have been added onto the shoulders, a throwback to the original uniform.

Luecking, Dave. “THEY’RE THE BLUES AGAIN – TEAM WILL GET THE RED OUT IN NEW UNIFORM – NEW UNIFORMS RECALL TRADITIONAL LOOK.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 27 Nov. 1997, Sports: F1

This was around Thanksgiving 1997, and pre-orders would begin shortly with jerseys being made physically available to purchase around mid-January 1998.  The turnaround in such a short period of time was noted.

There’s no disputing that the Blues have done marvelous things this season, on and off the ice.

On the ice, they’ve performed above and beyond expectations, catapulting to the top of the National Hockey League standings and then battling through injuries to remain among the top teams.

They’ve also made a series of fine moves to reconnect with fans. Ticket prices are down and attendance is up, with an average of 17,389 per game, some 600 more per game than a year ago. The Blues have scored a marketing hat trick with their third jerseys, improvements at Kiel Center and their increased presence in the community.

Luecking, Dave. “CONTRACT QUANDARY MEANS TREACHEROUS SKATING FOR BLUES.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 11 Jan. 1998, Sports: F9

And then, the big debut…

The team introduces its retro-look jersey tonight.

Blues marketing executive Jim Woodcock has been looking forward to this day with such excitement that team president Mark Sauer joked, “It’s like Woodcock’s having a baby.”

Today is the official on-ice debut of Woodcock’s baby – the Blues’ stylish, retro-look, third jersey, which he helped design with input from Blues players, coaches and fans.

“He really led the charge on this,” Sauer said. “And he’s really excited about it.”

The Blues will wear the new jersey for the next seven Saturday home games, beginning with their game against the Dallas Stars today at Kiel Center. A crowd of 20,000 is expected to see the new-look Blues, not to mention the folks watching the national telecast on Fox.

The jersey, which will become the Blues’ regular home jersey next season, already has opened to critical acclaim. First, on these pages in its Thanksgiving Day unveiling. Then, in brisk advance sales over the Christmas holiday at the Blues’ retail outlet in Kiel Center.

The first batch of jerseys arrived a couple of weeks ago, giving kids of all ages a chance to wear them around town . . . and even in Chicago. Sauer said he saw some at the Blues-Blackhawks game last Saturday at United Center.

The new jersey – or sweater, in hockey parlance – features the retro bluenote that already adorns center ice, traditional-shaped numbers, royal blue bars on the shoulder and a navy stripe at the bottom to bleed into navy pants.

Gone is the foofaraw of the Blues’ current uniforms, unveiled just four summers ago and described variously as “garish,” “ugly,” “clown suits” and “undignified.”

“This day seemed so far away not so long ago,” said Woodcock, the lifelong Blues fan from Collinsville who joined the team Feb. 10 and quickly dived into redesigning the Blues’ uniforms. “There have been some anxious moments as far as getting the (players’) gloves and pants, and those anxious moments were as recent as early this week. But everyone has their stuff, and we’re ready.”

The players’ numbered and lettered jerseys arrived two weeks ago, giving the Blues a chance to try them on for size and have them altered to fit.

Luecking, Dave. “JAZZED-UP BLUES FACE FIRST-PLACE STARS AT KIEL.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 31 Jan. 1998, Sports: F6

Recaps of the game, a 6-3 thumping of the Dallas Stars, led not with the events of the game itself, but with what the team wore.  The next two excerpts were actually from the very beginning of each article:

It was only one word. But for understated Blues coach Joel Quenneville, it marked his most outspoken statement to date about the future of Brett Hull in the redesigned bluenote.

Asked if he wanted to see Hull in the Blues’ new uniform next season, Qu enneville emphatically said, “Sure,” walking away with a wide smile on his face.

The answer could best be described as simple, yet eloquent – an apt description, as well, for the Blues’ “third” jersey, which made its on-ice debut Saturday afternoon before a regional television audience and a sellout crowd of 20,472 at Kiel Center. It will be the Blues’ home uniform next season.

To use Quenneville’s word, Hull and the rest of the Blues sure looked good in the new uniforms, literally and figuratively.

“Now, we look like hockey players,” said Tony Twist, noting that the old uniforms would be better suited for a “circus.”

Luecking, Dave. “BLUES SHOOT DOWN THE SOARING STARS – HULL’S FOUR ASSISTS HELP THEM WIN IN NEW UNIFORMS – BLUES 6, STARS 3.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 1 Feb. 1998, Sports: F1

And also:

Clothes make the men.

The Blues proved that adage Saturday at Kiel Center in a 6-3 victory over the front-running Dallas Stars.

The Blues were tastefully appointed in their new home uniforms. They scored on their first two shifts, their first three scoring chances and never looked back.

Except at themselves in the mirror.

Assistant coach Jimmy Roberts, who skated in the team’s first game 30 years ago, polled the players afterward.

When marketing whiz Jim “Woody” Woodcock entered the postgame locker room, Roberts greeted him with, “Two thumbs up!”

“Everybody liked ’em,” echoed equipment manager Bert Godin.

When asked if a hockey team ever had agreed on anything, Godin said, “I don’t think so.”

From the start of warm-ups, general manager Larry Pleau couldn’t stop gushing about the natty attire. “I love it,” he said. “I think it’s going to be one of the nicest in the league. Great job by Woody.”

Woodcock, a regular in The Arena balcony as a youth, made new clothes a priority when the team hired him 11 months ago. His urgency went beyond aesthetics.

As coach Joel Quenneville told his beefy models before the game, “Let’s break the new jersey in good. Look good, feel good, play good.”

The Blues jumped all over the black-clad Stars. “It had nothing to do with the new uniform,” said Brett Hull, who tied his career high with four assists.

But as Blair Atcheynum put it, “I know you can say it’s just a sweater, but you feel like more of a hockey player now.”

Dallas star Mike Modano, a neutral fashion observer, agreed. “They’re a lot better than the old ones,” he said. “The old ones were terrible.”

The old ones were the brainchild of former Blues President Jack Quinn. To hear the Blues, the old duds could not have been worse – unless Quinn had replaced the Bluenote with a trumpet, as threatened.

“You mean we didn’t look like Ronald McDonald on skates?” asked winger Kelly Chase after removing his new sweater. “Outstanding. Poetic. This was the first of many wins left in those jerseys.”

“We look like a hockey team, ” said winger Tony Twist, “and tonight we finally played like one.”

Wheatley, Tom. “NEW UNIFORMS HIT HOME WITH BLUES.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch 2 Feb. 1998, Sports: C6

To sum up: the Blues used a new white alternate jersey in 1997-98 that met with rave reviews.  From an anecdotal standpoint, I can verify that these were really well-received at the time.  I didn’t mind the ones that the Blues had been wearing, but as someone who’s never been a Blues fan, I can certainly understand the consternation.

The “clown suits” were the St. Louis version of the Islanders’ Fish Sticks.  They’d worked around a couple of pretty basic colors for most of their history, red was added in only as a trim color in 1984 (their 18th season of existence), and then these extremely garish ones with diagonal stripes and huge splashes of red come along at the same time that Mike Keenan arrives.  The entire image of the Blues, that of the tough and talented team that could go up against anyone on the ice or in the alley in the old Norris Division, had been pushed aside, both with what the team wore and with how they played.  When the chance arrived, a clean break had to be made to purge all remnants of this era.  And this included doing it in the most visually striking manner.  The timeline:

  • May 6 1997. Designs for the new home and road jerseys to be worn as soon as possible are finalized.  The NHL fast-tracks the white ones by allowing St. Louis to use them as their alternate in 1997-98, with them becoming the new home jersey in 1998-99 opposite the blue mirror of the same.
  • August 1997 (undated). Prototype white jersey, made by Starter, arrives.  Woodcock shows it off to various players, who are ecstatic about the look.  (NOTE: I actually own one of these, and the quality is tremendous.  It also combines a retro look that’s actually a new design [commonly referred to as a “faux-back”] with cutting-edge material technology.  If I were a player, I’d be ecstatic too.)
  • Nov 27 1997. The white jersey design is officially released to the public, with pre-orders beginning.
  • Mid-Jan 1998. The white faux-back alternate hits store shelves.  And perhaps as important, the fully-lettered ones for the team to wear on the ice arrive in St. Louis as well.
  • Jan 31 1998. The white alternates hit the ice, barely one year after the vertical trumpet one would have made its on-ice debut if not for an unknown external factor.
  • June 1998. The blue version of the white alternate is unveiled at the NHL Draft when Swedish defenseman Christian Backman is taken in the first round.  This would be the Blues’ new road jersey for 1998-99 and into the indefinite future.

Reflecting back 20 years later, Woodcock told me that, “The jersey we debuted on January 31, 1998 wasn’t perfect and there were slight tweaks made as the season went on.  There were some elements I might have rethought had we had more time to fine-tune it, but we needed to get it going and am happy we didn’t wait.  Most rewarding was the response of the players, who loved it and asked the difficult question as to why they couldn’t just wear them all the time.  It was good to be able to report that they’d be able to wear them every game the following year when it became our full-time home uniform and we added the blue road set.”

So What Actually Happened to the Trumpet?

This has all covered a timeline of barely 15 months, and somehow has not reached the main point: what happened to the trumpet alternates?  All that’s been established is that they were not scrapped as a result of a Mike Keenan locker room meltdown, but we’re not any closer to the basic answer.

In an article way up at the top from when the white alternate hit the ice in 1997-98, there was a snippet that said:

The old ones were the brainchild of former Blues President Jack Quinn. To hear the Blues, the old duds could not have been worse – unless Quinn had replaced the Bluenote with a trumpet, as threatened.

This would seem to be a flippant reference to the vertical trumpet alternates of 1996-97, the ones that never hit the ice and the ones that we still know nothing about.

What we do know is that Keenan was hired in July 1994, after the “clown suits” were unveiled to a skeptical public.  So he had nothing to do with that particular decision.  Mathieu departed in 1995 to be replaced by Tom Maurer, who overhauled game presentation and other things (much to the loathing of Blues fans).  Considering the long lead time associated with designing a jersey, which involves input from multiple parties, it’s very likely that the process of actually designing the trumpet alternate began in late 1995.

This process could have involved heavy input from the team, or it could have been as simple as telling a designer or design group to just come up with something.  Times were changing rapidly in the NHL; the overnight success of the San Jose Sharks’ logo and jersey before they ever played a game convinced a lot of teams to go forward with overhauling their own marketing and merchandising.

The downfall of the major players involved in marketing and promoting the Blues was swift: Keenan and Quinn in December 1996, Maurer in January 1997.  Maurer, however, was fired after the January 11 article that referenced the upcoming alternate jerseys with St. Louis not on the list.

But there is a possible answer.  Custom Crafted, based in Massachusetts, did jersey customization for several NHL teams during the 1990s.  Long story short: team receives blank jerseys from the manufacturer, team sends them to another place along with copies of the roster to have names and numbers added, other place sends them back to team, team issues them to players to wear on the ice.  Custom Crafted did names and numbers for Boston, Hartford, New Jersey…and St. Louis.  Therefore, if anyone knows how far this whole process actually went, it’s Custom Crafted.

I reached out to figure out whether there was a set of Blues vertical trumpet alternates that are out there, lettered up and buried somewhere.  What I was told can be summed up briefly:

  • Me: Was there a set of blank jerseys that were sent in to be lettered?
  • CC: No, they were never produced.

In other words, the entire story about Keenan seeing the jerseys hanging up in the locker room did not happen.  The story is a complete myth.

  • Me: What would the name and number styles have looked like if the jerseys were produced?
  • CC: No spec sheet was ever made, so it never got that far.

A spec sheet is, in short, an official guide to a style.  It contains what the on-ice uniforms look like, how they are coordinated, and various specific notes and parameters.  The big thing is that it also contains the official fonts that are used in conjunction with a particular uniform, both the letters for the names and the numbers for both the sleeves and the back.  These all require official approval from all involved parties: the team, the designer, the manufacturer, and the league.  There was a case around this same time period where a team (Detroit, in fact) wore a patch that had not been officially approved for wear by the league; these all had to be removed from the on-ice jerseys.

For there to be no spec sheet is even bigger.  Although it’s possible for a team to wear jerseys that don’t have completely finalized designs, and which require some type of fine-tuning down the road, to have not come up with anything means that the vertical trumpet design was squashed way earlier.  No spec sheet means that there are no on-ice jerseys, therefore no letters and numbers added to them, therefore they never went into a locker room for use, therefore the story that Keenan saw them hanging up and blew his stack is 100% false.

Consider the following.  Jersey designs are generally a process years in the making, and I’ve handled enough various prototype jerseys to know.  I’ve seen ones that closely resemble what goes on the ice, with Sharpie arrows and writing on them that indicates things like “this stripe is too thick” or “crest is too small” or “reverse these colors”.  I’ve also seen final approved designs, which usually have things like, “Approved – (initials or signature of team owner or other powerful person)”.

Just a couple years earlier, Tampa Bay wore game jerseys in which there was the visible outline of previously-placed numbers because they wanted to change the placement after seeing how they looked on the ice.  The crest of the Islanders fisherman jerseys was smaller in 1996-97 than in 1995-96; the players didn’t like the size of the inflexible crest, so they were pulled off for the next year and replaced with a smaller one.  Ottawa used one-color numbers in the preseason of their first year, then two-color ones during the year, and the numbers on their black jerseys were changed between their first and second years.  Tampa Bay used paintbrush numbers as well as electrified ones on their blue storm alternates – the ones that apparently underwent a radical redesign sometime between October 1996 and January 1997, if the press releases are to be believed.  There are all sorts of goofy things like this.

But to have nothing?  Not a change or an adjustment, but nothing?  That’s a very different story.  No one will receive a set of blank solid jerseys, stare at them, and start coming up with some type of a design for how they might look.  There are too many moving pieces, too many people who need to get involved in the process before a final decision is made.

But that brings us to the biggest question of all….”Was Mike Keenan the one who squashed the design?”  I asked this question, and the answer was, “No, it was someone way above Keenan.”  When pressed further, it was mentioned that, “I’m not sure Keenan ever even saw it.”  Not many people were in such a position, which means that it’s a very short list of people who would have had the power and ability to derail the alternate design before the process really began.

In that brief snippet above, it was said that “The old ones were the brainchild of former Blues President Jack Quinn. To hear the Blues, the old duds could not have been worse – unless Quinn had replaced the Bluenote with a trumpet, as threatened.”

What Happened?

“The old ones” that were referred to were the diagonally-striped blue-and-red jerseys, which are referred to as the brainchild of Jack Quinn.  I have never met or spoken to Mr. Quinn – although I would very much like to – so the following is speculative.

Here is what I believe happened, mostly because it makes logical sense and mostly because it fits with the evidence.

  • St. Louis had “the clown suits” design commissioned for it sometime in 1993, most likely heavily in conjunction with Jack Quinn.  At the time, the Blues’ home and road jerseys were regarded as distinctive but drab, and at a time that new teams unconstrained by tradition were capturing huge marketing and sales dollars, it was a perfect time to do something bold.
  • Sometime in early 1996, St. Louis had an alternate jersey design commissioned for it.  Who exactly ordered this is a matter of debate and is unknown: it could be any of the NHL, the team itself, Starter, or the same design firm that handled the team’s redesign for the 1994-95 season.
  • One way or another, a design firm came up with several possible designs.  This would also be done in conjunction with Starter, who would be the manufacturer handling the Blues’ jerseys beginning in the 1996-97 season.  (A manufacturer is important in that nothing can be produced unless it can actually be produced.  A great design can fall apart if it turns out that it cannot be effectively turned into the same look physically.)
  • At least one prototype jersey was produced.  It’s possible that the vertical trumpet was the only one that went from a design sheet to a physical version, or there could have been different designs that made it to that point.  If it’s the latter, who knows what happened to those.
  • One of the major involved parties – whether Starter or the design firm – passed along the design to the NHL, who put it into a release with the assumption that it would simply be approved by St. Louis and begin production.  This was in October 1996.  (Tampa Bay’s actual alternate jersey did not even closely resemble how the press release described it.  This lends credence to the idea that final approval from the teams had not yet been given, but was expected to be rubber-stamped.)
  • When someone in a position of significant power was showed the jersey design and prototype, that person or those people flipped out and ordered it to be buried.  If it was someone above Keenan, there are only two real possibilities: chairman Mike Shanahan, and team president Jack Quinn.  (Unfortunately Mr. Shanahan has recently passed on, so I do not know if he had any involvement.)
  • With there being no salvaging the design in any way, it was shelved and did not see the light of day again.  It’s also worth noting that the physical prototype jersey does not contain any type of writing on the outside of it; there are no minor design suggestions or anything else.  This indicates that the design was totally and unequivocally rejected.
  • At some point, the story of Keenan blowing a gasket when he saw the jerseys hanging up in the locker room became an accepted fact.  There is no evidence that anything close to this ever happened, and plenty of evidence that directly contradicts any Keenan involvement.
  • Keenan was fired, as were a couple of other people thought to be responsible for the dismal state of the Blues, and a new regime took over.
  • With Keenan gone, the most visible reminder of his reign – the “clown suit” jerseys – were replaced at the earliest possible point by a more traditional design that was the brainchild of Jim Woodcock.

The 20 Years Since

It’s been over 20 years since Mike Keenan was fired, a near-total regime change took place, and the new one put an axe to everything that had come to symbolize the Keenan-era Blues.

On the ice, the team has never once worn uniforms with red on them.  And Buck Smith’s white jersey design, which went onto the ice in near-record time thanks to the passion and fervor of Jim Woodcock, has been the basis of the on-ice look for the last 20 seasons.

Reflecting back on the dizzying experience, Woodcock told me that, “Above all, the Blue Note was restored and it’s the same one the team wears and uses today; and if nothing else, I’m very proud of that.”

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