Blue No Longer
During his rookie season with St. Louis, in 1977, Bernie Federko and a few teammates were doling out autographed sticks to some fans when Blue coach and general manager Emile Francis happened on the scene. With the franchise strapped for cash and on the cusp of an ownership change, an angry Francis demanded that Federko and his mates take back the sticks. "So we played with those sticks," recalls Federko, who retired in 1990 and who is now a part owner of the St. Louis Vipers of Roller Hockey International. "We did a lot of things to save money in those days, like wearing passed-down hockey underwear and taking three-stop flights from St. Louis to Montreal. But things have changed a bit, eh?"
Indeed. The 1995 Blues are the league's nouveaux riches: self-assured, ambitious and maddeningly excessive. The franchise's exorbitant spending the past couple of years—the team's payroll has increased from $3.5 million in 1990 to roughly $24 million this season—has finally put the Blues in position to contend for hockey's Holy Grail. Says Blue president Jack Quinn, "I don't think anybody can question our commitment to bring a Stanley Cup to St. Louis now."
After a tumultuous '93-94 season, during which the Blues spent and traded with abandon but were swept by the Stars in the opening round of the playoffs, St. Louis's management took several drastic measures to change the situation. The boldest stroke, of course, was the hiring of Mike Keenan as the team's coach and general manager. Keenan, who bolted from his contract with the Rangers after New York won its first Cup in 54 years last spring, agreed to a five-year, $7.5 million deal with the Blues on July 17.
Keenan, a control freak, now has what he covets most—total authority to remake the team. While such veterans as defensemen Al MacInnis and Doug Lidster and forwards Esa Tikkanen and Guy Carbonneau have added the grit and Cup experience that were missing last year, Keenan promises a further shake-up. "I am prepared to say that I don't think we are a Stanley Cup team at this time," says Keenan. "You can expect more changes."
At week's end the Blues were off to a 3-2-0 start, and Keenan had already shown that he is willing to shuffle his lineup. Craig Janney, the team's top playmaker, who will earn $1.8 million this season, did not dress for either the Blues' 3-1 win over the Kings in its first game in the gaudy $135 million Kiel Center last Thursday or their 3-1 loss to the Canucks on Saturday. "With our payroll, he's the most likely to go," says one Blue source.
One player who appears to be staying is the free-spirited right wing Brett Hull, who had asked to be traded last summer and who, it was assumed, would be granted his wish after the hiring of the hard-driving Keenan. Hull, however, has gotten off to a strong start, scoring four goals while actually playing some two-way hockey. "I don't plan on going anywhere," says Hull, who scored 57 goals last season. "Who'd be crazy enough to want to leave a team that's in our position to win a Cup?"
Fire on Ice, Too
On his return from the lockout three weeks ago, 19-year-old Islander rookie Brett Lindros was walking into the north entrance of Nassau Coliseum before a team practice when he was stopped by one of the building's security guards.
"Who are you?" growled the guard.
"I'm one of the players," said Lindros. "I'm Brett Lindros, a rookie with the Islanders."
Unmoved, the guard tossed him out of the building and told him to go through another entrance. "Actually, I got a kick out of it," says Lindros. "I enjoy the fact that there are places here where I can go and nobody has any idea who I am."
Since being selected as the ninth pick in last June's entry draft, Lindros has steered clear of the controversial path his older and more famous brother, Eric, has taken. Eric, who was drafted first overall in 1991 by the Nordiques, refused to play for Quebec and wound up with the Flyers. After the 6'4", 215-pound Brett indicated to the Kings and the Lightning—who held the seventh and eighth picks, respectively, in the draft—that he did not wish to play for either club, they passed him over, avoiding a nasty row. In September, Brett signed a five-year, $7.5 million pact with the Islanders. Though he didn't score a goal in his first five games, he has been an intimidating force and has settled comfortably onto New York's second line.
"I don't think he'll make a big difference this year," says Pierre Page, a Maple Leaf scout. "But he belongs here, and down the road I can see him scoring 30, 35 goals and being a tremendous physical presence. And he'll be a big draw."
To be sure, the Isles are banking on the Lindros name to put more fans in the seats. They also hope the passion Brett shares with his brother for freight-training opposing players will add needed grit to the franchise. "For the last four, five years, the identity of this franchise has been that it doesn't have one," says Islander G.M. Don Maloney. "We're hoping Brett will give us more of a personality."
Woe Western Canada
Nowhere has the fallout from the lockout been more serious than in western Canada, where antiplayer sentiments were particularly fervent during the work stoppage. The result? Calgary has been drawing well, but arenas in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver have been running about a quarter empty.
Most worrisome was the hostile reaction of hard-bitten Vancouver fans, who were hit with a 43% ticket-price hike during the off-season. In each of the Canucks' first two home games, including opening night when they were feted for finishing as the Stanley Cup runner-up last spring, there were more than 3,500 empty seats in the 16,150-seat Pacific Coliseum. "We're in the business of putting on a show, and you hope people will attend," says Vancouver general manager Pat Quinn. "These crowds just aren't good enough."
Part of the problem is the dismal show the Canucks have put on. At week's end Vancouver was 1-3-1, and some of the players are squabbling with management over pay. Forward Geoff Courtnall was planning to sue the club over money he believed he would have received as a free agent under the previous collective bargaining agreement. Center Murray Craven is sitting out while he awaits word from the league on whether he is a restricted or unrestricted free agent. Regardless of the outcome, he will not return to the club.
Then there is right wing Pavel Bure, who claims there is a clause in the five-year, $25.5 million contract he signed last spring that guarantees him pay for games lost to the lockout. Whether or not the Russian Rocket has a gripe matters little to the Vancouver fans, who have tired of Bure's repeated contract difficulties. Their frustration was neatly summed up by a sign outside a Vancouver watering hole two weeks ago: DON CHERRY WAS RIGHT, PAVEL BURE IS A WEASEL.
Expect Detroit to start shopping star center Steve Yzerman soon. With the firing of former general manager Bryan Murray, a staunch supporter of the Red Wing captain, there are few Yzerman boosters left in the Red Wing front office. While Detroit coach and director of player personnel Scotty Bowman has been effusive in his praise of Yzerman, one Western Conference general manager says, "The more Scotty praises Yzerman, the more you should read it as a sign that he's on the block." ...Through Sunday there had been an average of 5.5 goals per game scored, a dramatic drop-off from last season's 20-year low of 6.5.