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Even when the St. Louis Blues were doing well to win as many games as they lost, it could not be said that general manager Ron Caron took defeat sitting down. In fact, at one point during a game last year in Toronto, there was literally no place for Caron to sit. He had hurled his chair 10 feet across the press box in protest of a referee's failure to call a penalty on the Maple Leafs that resulted in a Toronto goal.
Caron's tantrums are well known in the NHL. He once kicked a hole in the wall of the Chicago Stadium press box. Another time he threatened to throw a lap-top computer onto the ice and fire the Blues assistant coach who was using it to record game data. Over the years, Caron has insulted league supervisory officials, challenged sportswriters and opposing club officials to fights and screamed epithets at the other teams' players.
So when the Blues lost a goal, and ultimately the game, in overtime on Nov. 1 because a goal judge in Boston failed to acknowledge that the puck had entered the net, it was assumed that Caron would start a tea party in the Boston Garden press box. He didn't. Oh, his face turned the color of his team's jerseys, and he muttered his way over to referee supervisor John D'Amico to complain. But neither a chair, a jacket nor even a pen was hurled in the press box.
"I have done some soul-searching," says Caron. "There won't be any more chairs. This is finished." Caron, nicknamed The Professor because he once taught French and English in a junior college in Quebec City, has a siren for a voice. It features pitches that fluctuate between high and higher, a Gallic accent and the cadence of an offbeat rumba band. "I have friends who have told me it was time to stop, and I did not have to be convinced," says Caron. "But if you say I am in a good mood because of my team, I could not disagree with you."
Indeed, the Blues are giving Caron good reason to be mellow. That defeat in Boston was one of just two losses in a 15-game stretch (12-2-1) through Sunday night, a run that lifted St. Louis to the best start in its 24-year history (14-5-1). After beating the Quebec Nordiques 4-2 and the Minnesota North Stars 3-2, the Blues lost to the Winnipeg Jets 4-3 to end the week and trailed the first-place Chicago Blackhawks in the Norris Division by three points, though they had played three fewer games.
This is remarkable success for a franchise whose logo, a blue note, was generally considered to be a flat. It is also vindication for Caron, an eccentric, driven, yet generally affable man who has wheeled and dealed St. Louis—a team that has advanced past the second round of the playoffs only once in the past 20 years—into a Stanley Cup contender.
"I would prefer to trade my first quarter for my last quarter," says Caron, meaning he's always thinking of the future. Still, for several seasons after taking over the rundown Blues in 1983, all the quarters that Caron juggled left him with a 25-cent team. Recent successes have suggested that one should not take lightly a man who once said, "You cannot be going north when you are going south. This is an eternal truth." Never mind whether this makes any sense. The eternal truth of sports is defined by your won-loss record, and Caron is fully responsible for the record now owned by St. Louis.
Brett Hull, an overweight underachiever when Caron acquired him from the Calgary Flames in 1988 for defenseman Rob Ramage and goalie Rick Wamsley, has emerged as one of the game's most dynamic players. Hull's 72 goals last season and his pending free agency forced the Blues to cough up a $7.1 million, four-year contract on June 9. The money has not turned Hull fat and lazy again. At week's end, his 21 goals led the NHL.
On July 5, Caron signed free-agent defenseman Scott Stevens to a four-year, $5.1 million contract, unprecedented money for a player who is not a gate draw. Other clubs moaned that Stevens's contract would break the league's salary structure, and they questioned whether the 26-year-old Stevens could do what the Blues expected of him—raise St. Louis from an average club to one of the elite. Stevens, rugged and offensively skilled but often inconsistent when he was a Washington Capital, has provided the Blues with the physical presence and puck movement they had hoped for. He has also emerged as a leader and was named team captain before the season began.
Last December, Caron traded goalie Greg Millen and center Tony Hrkac to Quebec for Jeff Brown, a talented 24-year-old defenseman who was under suspension for lackadaisical play. Brown, the kind of offensive defenseman a contender needs, has a superior shot, which he used on Nov. 12 to beat goalie Ron Tugnutt from a difficult angle in the victory over the Nordiques. Now coach Brian Sutter is trying to teach Brown defensive responsibility by pairing him with Stevens. When Stevens joins the play on offense, Brown has to stay back. Brown's point total is suffering as a result, but his overall effectiveness is improving.