By Stu Hackel
Some time this week, the Blues will make it official that they have parted ways with John Davidson, a move that they are portraying as sadly necessary for a club that is awash in red ink. Because no individual is bigger than the team -- even in the front office -- you have to hope that this is a move for the best and the few million dollars that new owner Tom Stillman saved by buying out the remaining years on Davidson's contract translates into a healthier organization. But it's difficult to believe that the Blues are going to be better off without J.D.
Davidson would probably still be running things had it not been for the fact that the team's managing partner, Dave Checketts, had to sell the club when Towerbrook Capital Partners -- the real money behind his purchase of the Blues in 2006 -- decided they wanted to get out of the hockey business. Checketts tried to engineer the acquisition of TCP's 70 percent share of the club and keep control, but he couldn't attract new partners. That's not entirely a surprise: The Blues have deep roots in their region and large-sized flock of very loyal fans, but their small market status dooms them to an annual bath. They claim to have lost $20 million last year. Checketts' best option was to sell to a group headed by Stillman, who was already a minority partner in the club.
It was a reflection of the Blues' shaky status as a business that, in an era of skyrocketing franchise values, Checketts had to sell the team and its related properties for $130 million. That's $20 million less than he paid for the franchise -- and it was a mess at the time. "The Blues were at rock bottom," recalls Jeff Gordon of The St. Louis Post Dispatch. "Bill and Nancy Laurie pulled the chute as owners and ordered team president Mark Sauer to dump salaries and empty the cupboards. The franchise sank to dead last in the NHL as a result. The Blues went 21-46-15 in 2005-06." That 30th-best record in the league left Checketts with a massive rebuilding job and he tapped Davidson to lead it as president.
As president of the NBA's Knicks and then all of Madison Square Garden, Checketts had known Davidson for years while J.D. was the Rangers' TV analyst (and, if you need a refresher on how highly regarded he was as an announcer, here's a Sports Illustrated story from 1991 on that). The former goalie had managerial aspirations, understood the game on and off the ice, and possessed a winning and engaging personality. The additional facts that Davidson had been a first-round draft choice by the Blues in 1973, turned pro with them and loved St. Louis made him a natural for the job.
"Davidson decided the team would build from the goal line out, getting stronger in goal and on the blue line," Gordon writes. "They would rebuild largely with youth and look to build a consistent winner in the long haul." It was a blueprint that Davidson would stick with and defend through the inevitable ups and downs of a rebuild.
Larry Pleau was the Blues' GM at the time and, despite the club's awful showing, he was a good one. He had previously overseen a rebuild and led St. Louis to the Presidents' Trophy in 1999-2000. He hired Jarmo Kekäläinen, an outstanding talent evaluator, away from the Ottawa Senators to be his director of scouting. With Checketts and Davidson providing the resources to rebuild again, the Blues started their long road back.
It wasn't easy. They were victimized by injuries to key players and miscalculated on some others. But with J.D. setting the tone, the Blues weren't shy about pulling the trigger when they saw a chance to improve the club in any area. Not only did they stay on the lookout for better players, they continued to bulk up in the front office, bringing Doug Armstrong into their hockey department after he was axed as GM by the Dallas Stars. Armstrong succeeded Pleau two years ago and the Blues continued their improvement. When former Kings GM Dave Taylor left the Dallas Stars, where he had been a director of player personnel in 2010, Davidson added him to the Blues hockey department.
They drafted well, they traded well (Jeff Gordon's story linked above lists a number of those significant moves) and they hired well. Getting Andy Murray to coach in December 2007 after the Blues had dropped seven straight proved a masterful move and in two years they were back in the playoffs. If there's one single move during the Davidson years that I found questionable, it was dismissing Murray when the team slumped the next season and replacing him with inexperienced Davis Payne. I understood Murray was a tough taskmaster for the young Blues and Payne was more of their generation and had coached some of them in the AHL. But Murray's hockey mind is among the best. When Payne couldn't get the Blues to play up to their capabilities early last season, the trigger was pulled again and Ken Hitchcock delivered a Coach of the Year performance, leading them to a 109-point season, second best in franchise history.
All the while, Davidson was the visible, mustachioed face of the franchise, reconnecting with a fan base that had been alienated by the mismanagement of the mercurial, well-to-do Bill Laurie, who had a few billion of his wife's WalMart inheritance money to play with but ultimately didn't want to devote much of it to his hockey team. With the gregarious J.D. out front and some aggressive business practices, the Blues' average attendance remarkably rose from an NHL- worst (averaging just 12,520) in 2006-07 into the top-10 in just three seasons, peaking at 19,150, seventh best in 2010-11. This season might have been even better. Some fans attended because of deeply discounted tickets, however, because Checketts' regime believed it was better to get people in the building, give them a good show and hope they come back. It wasn't necessarily helpful for the bottom line, and that's one of the realities confronting Stillman and his group as they go forward.
The leaked news late last week of Davidson's departure prompted observers to lavish praise on him. "J.D. should be remembered as the guy who reconnected the Blues with their fans during some very difficult times," said Kevin Wheeler Host of Sports Open Line on KMOX Radio. "He didn’t do it alone, obviously, but he was the 'face of the franchise' for a period of time. JD was honest with the fans and he laid out a common sense vision of the path the franchise needed to follow. People responded."
But at the same time, Stillman had to make his case to the public that the team's way of doing business needed to change. It was too top-heavy, he said. "We had three levels of vice presidents, and that was under the person below the level of the person running the business. It was a pretty bloated organization," he told Jeremy Rutherford of The Post-Dispatch. Stillman is streamlining the front office and has cut 20 positions throughout the organization, although it's unclear whether those layoffs are due to the lockout or the team's economics. It's probably some of both.
He also poured some local brew for those tipsy on the champagne served up by the New Yorkers who previously ran the Blues. "We see the business differently from the prior ownership," Stillman added. "We see that we're not some large glitzy national or worldwide business. We see the Blues as a small- to medium-size very local company. So we need to operate on that scale."
Stillman's a St. Louis guy, a beer distributor in one of America's big beer towns, and he knows the people in his market are very locally oriented; one of the first questions two adults there often ask of each other is what high school they attended. He may hope to soften the blow of removing Davidson by identifying him with a previous regime that may not have had the same values as his fan base. But there's no mistaking or denying how genuine J.D. can be in front of any audience. Regardless of what title or team or TV network has been on his business card, regardless of the city where he lives. there have been few better salesmen for this sport than John Davidson. And with the Blues on-ice success under his watch, he also has proven his himself in that area.
Just where Davidson might land next should be the subject of much speculation in the coming months. He interviewed with Columbus a few months back, many presumed for a senior hockey adviser's job, which Hitchcock had occupied with the Blue Jackets before the Blues returned him behind a bench. Nothing apparently came of that. There will always be hopes from a segment of fans that he'll return to TV, but it's uncertain if he wants to travel that much at this stage of his career. One well-placed hockey man believed he'd be perfect for a job in the NHL's New York office.
This is a time when the game's image is taking a beating at the hands of those making money decisions. There will undoubtedly be a place for J.D. back in the NHL when this current madness ends, those decisions have finally been made and the substantial work that will be needed to reconnect with fans begins again.