St. Louisans Have Dutifully Supported Their Hockey Team
For more than 40 years, St. Louisans have dutifully supported their hockey team. The franchise, named for the W.C. Handy song "St. Louis Blues" was founded in 1967 as one of the NHL's original expansion teams. Once upon a time, the NHL boasted one enduring dynasty after another. The league's original expansion was from six to twelve teams. The Blues are the only surviving Expansion Six NHL team to have not won the Cup.
The 20-year history of the St. Louis Blues has a wonderful symmetry to it, a link from the beginning to now that is the stuff of screenplays. "It's scary, isn't it," says Michael Francis Shanahan, Sr., new board chairman of the Blues, as he talked about how, as a fifth grader at All Saint's School, he used to caddy for the father and son who started the St. Louis expansion franchise in 1966. Shanahan chuckled, his face creasing in a disarming smile, which has become something of a Shanahan trademark. He is in his second year as head of the National Hockey League team, and is also chairman of Engineered Support Systems, Inc., a St. Louis-based defense contractor. "Maybe it isn't so surprising," he says, of the Salomon-Shanahan connection. "St. Louis is not that big of a town."
Nevertheless, Shanahan's emergence more than a year ago as the chairman and managing general partner of the team is one of the most fascinating ownership twists in professional sports. As the eighth child of an Irish-Catholic immigrant family, Shanahan would hitch a ride from his suburban University City neighborhood to caddy at Westwood Country Club, often doing a "loop" for Sidney Salomon, Jr., and his son, Sidney III. Before his death, the elder Salomon was a well-known and wealthy St. Louis insurance man, a behind-the-scenes kingpin for the Democratic Party, and an avid sportsman. He once owned part of the old St. Louis Browns of the American League, before buying the NHL franchise 21 years ago. It was the last franchise awarded, at a cost of $2 million, when the League went from six teams to 12.
Those early Salomon years were the wonder of the League. The Blues led the NHL in attendance in the early 1970s, averaging 18,000 a game in the newly refurbished Arena. Often, the upscale crowds, in furs and leather, looked more like people going to a charity auction than a hockey game. And everyone from Sports Illustrated to rival owners and players expressed their amazement. Writing about St. Louis sports fans in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, Frank Deford noted that, "the good people of St. Louis have for two decades also followed major league hockey, making St. Louis a singular ice oasis in an area about the size of the Gobi Desert, bounded by Washington DC, to the east; Chicago to the north; LA and Vancouver to the west. Fans in St. Louis make up their own minds."
In the beginning, the Blues and the Salomons were the toasts of the town. "They marketed the team as well as any pro franchise I'd ever seen," says Dan Kelly, who has been the voice of the Blues for all but one of the team's 21 seasons. "The place was in disarray when they took over, and they made it spotless, the place to be. Sid Salomon, Jr. sent Christmas cards to season ticket holders that cost $5 apiece. And, of course, they took the players to Florida, treated them like family, as they're doing now under Shanahan. At the time, the players would do anything for the Salomons." In 1968, fan enthusiasm was so great that on a cold, wind-driven, misty day in mid-November, hundreds of people stood in line for up to 11 hours for the chance to buy Blues' tickets. One of them was a nun from Portland, OR, a graduate student at St. Louis University. "Would you wait this long for Notre Dame tickets, Sister?" someone asked her. "What's Notre Dame?" she replied, without a smile.
The first signs of trouble came to this hockey Camelot in 1975, when it was reported that one of the NHL's most successful teams at the box office was on the brink of financial disaster. There were rumors, denied by the Salomons, that the team would move to New Orleans. The problems centered on losses incurred by the Missouri Arena Corp., which owned the building and the hockey club. There were reported losses of $2 million in 1974. "We had such great early success, that I think the Salomons thought it would be easy," Kelly says. "I think he died of a broken heart," Kelly adds of the elder Salomon. "He really loved the Blues. When he moved to Florida, I think he was most sad to leave the hockey team that he gave so much to build."
The unsung hero in the Blues story may very well be R. Hall Dean, who was head of the St. Louis-based Ralston Purina Company in 1977. Dean had met Emile Francis, the Blues general manager, at a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game; when the team looked as if it might go out of business Dean stepped in and Ralston Purina purchased the franchise. Many observers believe Dean has not gotten enough credit for helping save the Blues. When Dean retired, the sentiment at Ralston Purina shifted, the hockey business was not for them. Ralston Purina decided to sell the team to a group from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. When the NHL would not approve of Ralston's request to have the team sold and moved, Ralston abandoned the team and sued the NHL. The League's position, as stated publicly, was that the fans in St. Louis had supported the Blues for 16 years and the League could not abandon them. To that end, the League sought an owner who would keep the Blues in St. Louis.
Enter Harry Ornest, a Beverly Hills businessman, who in the summer of 1983, made another big save to keep the team in town. He brought in Jack Quinn to be the Blues president and Ron Caron to be vice president and general manager, the management team that is responsible for their rebirth on the ice. In October of 1986, Ornest concluded negotiations with a group of St. Louis businessmen in a limited partnership headed by Shanahan.
The NHL Board of Governors approved the sale that December. The Blues Investors include many of the largest corporations and banks in St. Louis, among them, the company long associated with successful sports promotion, Anheuser-Busch Companies, Inc., owners of the St. Louis baseball Cardinals.
Shanahan goes about his business in the goal-oriented manner expected of a businessman. He would like to realize an annual season ticket growth rate of 25 percent. His efforts have begun to pay off-season ticket sales grew by 2,000 this season to a total of over 8,000. "In Jack Quinn and Ron Caron, we have people more than capable of running a sports franchise," says Shanahan. "How well you hang in there depends on those players. Susie Mathieu is now a vice president of marketing and public relations. She has done a terrific job of promotion. We're a much stronger unit internally; we're far more cohesive. We are creating a new professional atmosphere."
Hopes are high for the franchise and Shanahan is as much of the reason as the product on the ice. "He's out campaigning for this club every day," observes Kelly. "He goes to every barbeque, dinner and breakfast. He is very visible, and a native of St. Louis who is very highly regarded by his peers in the community." "Mike's probably gone to 90 events on behalf of the team this year," says Quinn. "And we usually have four players in every charity event. Now we have to continue to work on public awareness and education about the sport. There was a lot of panic in the operation of this team in the past," Quinn adds. "One gentleman called this year and said, 'Put me down for four season tickets,'" Quinn recalls. "'I'm not a hockey fan,' the man said, 'but I appreciate what Shanahan has done for the city and the franchise.'"
During his 8 1/2-year reign as chairman of the Blues, Michael F. Shanahan never gave up on his Stanley Cup dream. "We feel the community doesn't owe us anything-we've got to earn it," says Mike Shanahan, a man who once played college soccer. "If we were a flush franchise, there are a lot of things we could do immediately. But we've got to build one brick at a time. We're making progress," says Shanahan, with that signature smile, "as long as my wife holds out and can make it through all the banquets."
The Stanley Cup dream died when Shanahan said he has been forced out by the Kiel Center Partners and is negotiating his severence. His aggressive management created plenty of conflict over the years - with Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl, members of Civic Progress Inc. and other National Hockey League owners - but endeared him to the long-frustrated hockey fans of St. Louis.
On one hand, the Blues increased their attendance from 12,230 a game at the end of Harry Ornest's regime to 19,470 a game this season at the new Kiel Center. The franchise developed or imported big-name players like Brett Hull, Scott Stevens, Brendan Shanahan, Curtis Joseph, Phil Housley and Al MacInnis and used those stars to market the team.
On the other hand, the Blues came no closer to winning a Stanley Cup in his tenure while increasing their payroll from $3.5 million in 1989-90 to nearly $25 million. Shanahan became tremendously popular with Blues fans who have persevered through tough times in the 27-year history of the franchise. They had endured the bumbling management of the Ralston-Purina era, the near-folding of the franchise in 1983 (after Civic Progress wouldn't buy it for $1 million) and the penurious Ornest era before Shanahan arrived.
He regularly worked the crowd at The Arenaand he was a frequent guest on radio call-in shows. "Pride is contagious," Shanahan said in 1991. "When the team and the fans realize the owners have pride in the team, they feel it too. Players are proud to wear the Blue Note. Fans are proud to support the Blue Note."
However, the daily management of the team was subject to much speculation. Team President Jack Quinn's power appeared to grow during the regime, often superseding general manager Ron Caron on hockey matters.
Quinn's influence was demonstrated by the franchise's frequent journey into the free-agent market for flashy, fan-pleasing signings that also drove up salaries and ticket prices. "We've always put (fans) first," Shanahan explained. "We've tried to be tuned in. We don't run around saying, `I want to make a decision now, I want to be the boss.' It's what's best for the team and where we want to go. We want to go to the Stanley Cup finals."
The original owners were successful insurance executive Sid Salomon Jr., his son Sid Salomon III and Robert Wolfson. Ralston Purina was the next to invest in the franchise. The Checkerboard Square chief, R. Hal Dean, even re-painted the fading Arena and re-dubbed it the Checkerdome. Ten days before the deadline NHL President John Ziegler set for dissolving the franchise, Los Angeles-based entrepreneur Harry Ornest stepped up with the only formal bid. He also purchased the Checkerdome from Ralston Purina for $5 million, then raised $3 million in operating expenses. Ornest sold the Blues to a group led by Michael Shanahan, head of Engineered Support Systems Inc. From Salomon to Shanahan there has been a legacy of commitment. The various owners in St. Louis Blues history have made more great saves than an all-star goalie.
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