Why would a team not attend the NHL Draft? That’s one of the best ways to improve your franchise but at the time the owners, Ralston Purina, felt differently. It doesn’t make sense. Even if you intend on selling the team wouldn’t it have been easier to sell if they had drafted John Tucker, Peter Zezel, Claude Lemieux, Esa Tikkanen or Kevin Stevens? They traded their first-round pick in 1982 but they had a shot at these players.
Here’s how it all started. At the time the coach, general manager, and executive vice president was Emile Francis. “The Cat” was trying to bail out a team that was in financial distress.
“When I went to the St. Louis Blues (in 1976) the Salomons already at that time were 11 million in the hole. I had a chance to be with 2 or 3 other teams in the league. I insisted on 10% ownership if I was going to continue on as general manager and coach,” said Francis. “They brought me to St. Louis to talk to the Mayor. The mayor said in the next election he was committed to building the Blues a new arena.”
Francis thought he was in the clear and then something unforeseeable happened.
“The St. Louis Arena had been there since 1929. Even the hole that the team was in, it didn’t bother me. With a new building, I could build this franchise up in a couple of years,” Francis thought. “We would be able to recover that money and be back in business. Then the election happens in November and the Democrats lost for the first time in 25 years. The Salomons were Democrats. The Republicans won the election and they wouldn’t give us anything.”
Then something happened that clearly changed the course of the franchise.
“My contract was running out with Ralston Purina. I had a 5-year contract. It was running out in June. A new chairman of the board took over and he called me in the building. He said, ‘I don’t think Ralston Purina should own a hockey team so I’m going to put it up for sale in the Wall Street Journal’. I said please don’t do that. Give me 30 days and let me see what I can do. I must have interviewed 10 different people. I couldn’t find anybody interested in buying the franchise.”
Francis was in a quandary. He was the point man with the NHL and they would check in with him to see what the status of the club was.
“I had to report to the league. We owed the league money. I think we owed them around $700,000 dollars and they were wondering when we were going to pay them,” Francis remembered. “I finally told the league I couldn’t find an owner. So, they looked like they were going to take it over, like Oakland (Seals), and they took over Cleveland (Barons) at one time too. With a month to go, it was May. Hartford called the league to find out what it would take to get permission to talk to me?”
What would happen next happens to a lot of general managers around the NHL.
“The league told the Whalers the Blues were owned by Ralston Purina so you’d have to talk to them,” he added. “The new guy was only too anxious to dump my contract and gave them permission. They called and said at the end of your contract would you come over to us? So, that’s how I ended up in Hartford.”
At some point, the Blues decided to not send anybody to the NHL Draft. They would pass.
“It looked like there would be no franchise. The league hadn’t said they were going to take it over. That’s probably why they made no arrangements to send anybody to the draft,” Francis guessed. “I was shocked because I went to the draft with Hartford. I was shocked that they had nobody there. I didn’t know what happened.”
Francis, now 90, said this was preventable.
“The league should have drafted. The league at that time had enough scouts that they could have put together a list pretty quickly,” Francis added. “They could have protected, at least, the franchise.”
1983 was a strange year for the Blues for sure.
photo by Reznik