After former coach and general manager Mike Keenan did to St. Louis what Sherman did to Atlanta, the Blues are in the throes of their own Reconstruction Era. Keenan's dictatorial 30-month regime, which ended last December when he was fired, was pocked by a runaway payroll, unpopular and ill-advised trades, widespread dissension among the players and, perhaps most important, the erosion of a healthy fan base.
"We were on our way to a franchise meltdown," says Blues president Mark Sauer, noting the 16% drop in season-ticket sales from 1995-96 to '96-97. To win back the fans, St. Louis has slashed prices on nearly two thirds of its tickets, revived a tradition of playing home games on Saturdays and spent more than $1 million on aesthetic improvements to the Kiel Center. "With the changes we've made," says Sauer, "we hope the fans will reconnect with us."
New general manager Larry Pleau has had less success upgrading a team that finished 36-35-11 last season and served as first-round playoff fodder for the eventual Stanley Cup champion Red Wings. Because Keenan dealt many of St. Louis's young players for immediate help, the Blues' roster is as deep as the banter on Access Hollywood. St. Louis is particularly shallow at center, where an injury to Pierre Turgeon could prove disastrous. Compounding matters is the uncertain status of sniper Brett Hull, the original moody Blue, who becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season and was unhappy entering training camp without a new contract. Hull is still one of the NHL's dynamic stars, but he turned 33 over the summer, hasn't had a 50-goal season since 1993-94, and has never been mistaken for a supremely conditioned athlete. Don't be surprised if the Blues deal Hull by the March trading deadline.
Coach Joel Quenneville, an avuncular, 38-year-old anti-Keenan, embraced an effective trap and kept the yelling to a minimum after he took over last January. "Coach Q did a great job getting us to jell," says the 22-year-old defenseman Chris Pronger, who is finally fulfilling his potential after being drafted second in 1993. "There's a more relaxed atmosphere these days. For example, during training camp the whole team went to see a Cardinals game."
Cheaper seats, new threads, bonding over baseball—restoring the spirit of St. Louis is afoot. But despite all of the harmony, the Blues don't have the players to hit the high notes.