The decade of the 2000s was one of tremendous change for the St. Louis Blues. They began the decade riding high on a wave of success that carried over from the 1990s, endured the league lockout, disassembled a powerhouse team, and then slowly began the painful process of selling and rebuilding a once-proud franchise. Along the way, there were bright and dark moments, both in great measure. Let's see if we can't pick out the three most important, shall we?
#3 -- 3rd August, 2005: Chris Pronger Departs
What it was: Following the league-wide lockout, several NHL teams began to reassess their structures, but none managed to blow up a team quite so effectively as the Blues. Finances lay at the heart of the matter, as the Blues had been operating at a deficit for years as the Laurie family poured monetary resources in to the team in an attempt to sustain success. All that changed after the lockout, and the Blues suddenly went into the sporting equivalent of a 36-hour Sale-a-Thon. (Everything Must Go!!!!!!)
Why it was: The team was almost completely gutted, with players like Pavol Demitra being shipped out for pennies on the dollar, but Chris Pronger was the killing blow. One of the top defensemen in the NHL, Pronger had combined with Al MacInnis as the bedrock on which the Blues had been built since the 1995-96 campaign. As great as many of the forwards who played for the Blues in all those years were, it was the defensive combo of Pronger and MacInnis that really kept the Blues competitive year in and year out.
The trade of Pronger also completely overturned the culture of Blues hockey. For years the Laurie family had financed the team to the top of the standings, paying for some of the best talent available in the league. Once Pronger was dealt, that was clearly no longer the case.
#2 -- 9th September, 2005: Al MacInnis Retires
What it was: Al MacInnis announced his retirement from the game of hockey before the 2005-2006 season, the first back after the lockout which had forced the cancellation of the previous year's campaign. MacInnis had been trying to come back from a nearly two-year layoff caused by a combination of the lockout and an eye injury which had forced him to miss most of the 2003-04 season as well. He had first suffered the injury in 2001, when a stick to the face caused his retina to become detached.
Why it was: Al MacInnis, physically, probably had another couple years in him; that's the real hell of it. His body had held up almost ridiculously well to the continuous pounding an NHL defenseman must endure, and his patented slapshot was still as intimidating as ever. No matter how good his shot may have been, though, it was no good if he couldn't see where it was going.
At the end of the 2002-03 campaign, the Blues had the single best defensive combo in the NHL, with Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis anchoring a powerhouse team near the top of the game. By the beginning of the 2005-06 season, just one full hockey season later, both were gone, and the Blues were left with only the meager return from the Pronger deal to try and rebuild their backbone.
#1 -- 24th March, 2006: The Blues Get Bought
What it was: After ten months of searching for a suitable partner, the Lauries finally agreed to a sale of the team to an investment group led by Dave Checketts. Checketts' group had been one of the early favourites to purchase the franchise, but had apparently backed off as negotiations proceeded. After several other groups failed to make an enticing enough offer, Checketts and his partners jumped back in and completed the deal.
Why it was: Well, let's face it: when a team changes ownership, that's most definitely a momentous occasion. In the Blues' case, the sale of the team represented a (relatively) fresh start, a chance to return to discussions of the team's on-ice fortunes, rather than the freefalling attendance or the suddenly tight-fisted ownership. When John Davidson was named team president shortly after, the buzz about town became even more palpable. One of the most respected minds in the business, the man called JD brought both a knowledge of the game and an unquestioned passion to an organisation brought low by a systematic dismantling.
Going on four years later, the Blues' return to prominence has hit a bit of a snag. The organisation's plan appeared to have been going swimmingly as recently as last season, when the Blues turned a late-season surge into an improbably playoff berth. Optimism for the future of the club was at a very high tide. Unfortunately, that momentum has not carried over into this season, as the team has struggled mightily on home ice and has been forced to deal with several underperforming players.
The 2009-10 season could very well represent the biggest test of the Blues' new ownership thus far. The team they inherited was so far down the weight of expectation was almost completely absent until recently. How Davidson, Checketts, and the rest of the Blues' front office approach turning around a ship suddenly adrift will go a long way toward determining both how the new owners are viewed long-term, as well as just what kind of important moments we can look toward in the next decade.
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