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Thus Caron has obtained Hull, a game-breaking scorer; Stevens, a steady, all-around defenseman; and Brown, the point man for the power play. And when one continues down the list of ingredients that make a winner, it becomes even more obvious that Caron has been on an uncanny trading roll. The day after Stevens became a Blue, Caron acquired left wing Geoff Courtnall from Washington for center Peter Zezel and defenseman Mike Lalor. Courtnall was one of the three Capitals who had been investigated by a grand jury for an alleged sexual assault of a 17-year-old girl in a car outside a Georgetown bar. Though the jury cleared the players, the publicity over the incident had left their reputations tainted. "In the back of my mind, I thought it was probably best that I be traded," says Courtnall. Caron thought it was a good idea too, because Courtnall, who had 10 goals for the Blues as of last weekend, added speed and a consistent scoring threat from the left wing.
But Caron's best trade may have been the one in which he acquired Adam Oates, a playmaking center who came from the Detroit Red Wings with winger Paul MacLean in June 1989 for center Bernie Federko and winger Tony McKegney. After one year with the Red Wings, Federko, 34, retired; McKegney is currently playing for Quebec. Last season, Oates, now 28, finished 11th in the league in scoring, with 102 points.
On the deficit side, St. Louis will have to give up its first-round choice in each of the next five years in compensation to Washington for signing Stevens; the Blues can avoid that scenario only if Caron is able to trade for picks in the top seven overall selections in the next two drafts and hand them over to the Capitals. Still, the Blues are a young team ( Rod Brind'Amour, a rookie last year, is a potential star) with several prospects in their system, the result of Caron's astute picks in the last few drafts. Caron also believes that second-round picks can be as fruitful as late first-rounders; now that St. Louis has risen to power, that is the best Washington can expect from those five first-rounders.
Besides, it was time that the Blues, who had operated on an extremely tight budget under previous owner Harry Ornest (he sold the team in 1986), spent some money and took some chances. The St. Louis market is ripe for a winning team. The football Cardinals moved to Phoenix in 1988. The baseball Cardinals, the town's true sporting soul, finished last in the National League East in 1990 and are rebuilding. To pay for the Hull and Stevens contracts, the prices of tickets to Blues games have been raised an average of $4.50; still, the team is averaging 96% of capacity in the creaking, old 17,188-seat St. Louis Arena. A proposal for a new arena is pending and the Blues' newly found popularity justifies the construction of one.
"The atmosphere is so different now," says Paul Cavallini, an underrated defenseman now in his fourth season with St. Louis. "We finally have upper-echelon players who attract attention."
Except for the Los Angeles Kings' Wayne Gretzky and the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux, no NHL player has a higher profile than Hull, whose father, Bobby, was the greatest left wing in NHL history. The Flames, who considered Wamsley and Ramage the two finishing pieces on their 1989 Stanley Cup-winning team, now insist they knew they were trading a future scoring star in Hull. But at the time of the deal, Calgary had pegged Hull as a floater who would score 40 goals but would be a defensive liability. After Hull got 41 goals in his first full season with the Blues, Sutter and assistant coach Bob Berry called him in for a meeting. "I thought they were going to tell me I had a great season," Hull says. "Instead, they said that 41 goals for me was nothing. I thought if they had that much respect for my ability, I would show them what I could really do."
He went on an extensive off-season training program, lost eight pounds, added some muscle and last season scored 72 goals, the most ever by a right wing. Hull thereby earned both a huge contract and the responsibility of leading the Blues. "After telling myself all summer that I was still going to be myself, I started training camp and panicked," says Hull. "I didn't know if I could handle this. Then the season started, and I just started scoring and I was fine."
Hull's forte is lurking behind the play, jumping into a hole in the defense and releasing either one of the league's quickest wrist shots or hardest slap shots. He has both. But now he has become a more complete offensive threat, a player who can carry the puck and initiate the action.
In the game against Quebec, the Blues were struggling until Hull took over. With the score tied 2-2 (Hull had gotten a goal in the first period) and less than two minutes remaining in regulation time, he took a pass at center ice, got a step outside on defenseman Craig Wolanin and cut toward the net. Tugnutt stopped the shot and Brind'Amour's rebound attempt, too, but the puck bounced back to Hull, who was on the goalie's left. Though Hull's momentum was taking him toward the goal line, worsening his angle as he drifted, he waited for the bouncing puck to lie flat on the ice. When it finally did—and with Tugnutt prone and desperately reaching his glove skyward—Hull wristed the puck into the only place in which it could have hit the net, just inside the juncture of the far post and crossbar.
It was the kind of game the old Blues probably would have tied, but now they are a team with winning talent. Hull did what a superstar is supposed to do with the last shot. Win the game. That's why the fans are buying seats in St. Louis these days. And why Caron is no longer throwing them.