by Joe Ashkar, St. Louis Correspondent
Christmas came early for many Blues fans. Just 29 months after being hailed as the savior who would take the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup, coach and general manager Mike Keenan was fired along with longtime club president Jack Quinn.
Blues chairman Jerry Ritter put an end to a disastrous two-and-a-half year reign in which a talented and promising Blues team was dismantled and turned into a mucking and grinding team with turmoil labeled all over it. Erratic performance on the ice, controversy in the locker room, questionable trades of fan favorites, and falling attendance eventually led to the inevitable firing of "Iron" Mike.
Ritter made the official announcement at a press conference Thursday morning at Kiel Center.
"On behalf of our fans and the welfare of the St. Louis Blues organization, it's time we make a change." Ritter said. "The trust built over 30 years between the St. Louis Blues and our fans is being strained, And that's absolutely unacceptable.
"Mike Keenan has the reputation of being a solid hockey man but the Blues have not lived up to our expectations under his leadership, it's time we make a change" Ritter added.
Former general manager Ron Caron will take over as interim GM and assistant coach Jimmy Roberts will assume the responsibilities of interim head coach.
Former baseball executive Mark Sauer was named club president replacing Jack Quinn, who held the position since 1986. Sauer, 50, is new to hockey but he was the Pittsburgh Pirates' club president and a former St. Louis Cardinals executive vice president and chief operating officer.
"The best thing we can do for our fans is to win," Sauer said. "We'll do everything we can to be more fan-friendly. We all want to make Blues hockey fun again."
Ritter tried to make it clear that Keenan's firing was not a direct result of his continuous feud with team superstar Brett Hull, but admitted that it was becoming detrimental to the team.
"The continuous feuding has become a distraction," Ritter said. "We told Brett there was no winner in this quarrel with Mike. We also told Brett we expected more leadership."
According to Ritter and the Blues ownership group, Keenan was dismissed due to his team's lack of on-ice success and the continuous drop in home attendance. The Blues averaged a club record 19,489 in their first season at Kiel Center in 1995 but dropped to 18,806 in 1996 and 15,991 this season.
He came, he traded, he failed.
Keenan abruptly left the New York Rangers in the summer of 1994 after leading them to their first Stanley Cup in 44 years. He was lured over to St. Louis when he was offered both general manager and coaching duties for a lucrative contract paying him over $2 million a year.
Upon his arrival to the Gateway City, Keenan was treated as a hero based on his track record. He had led every one of his NHL teams to the Stanley Cup Finals and nothing less than a Stanley Cup was expected by the long suffering Blues fans. The Blues had not made it past the second round of the playoffs since 1986.
His first year with the Blues, the 1995 lockout-shortened season, was full of excitement but ended with disappointment. The Blues finished third overall with a record of 28-15-5 but they were shocked in seven games by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs.
After the first round loss and a cost-cutting mandate by the team ownership group, Keenan traded away many fan favorites and completely restructured the team.
His demise started with the trade of Brendan Shanahan to the Hartford Whalers for Chris Pronger. Shanahan was a crowd favorite and his popularity rivaled that of Brett Hull. Keenan could not come to terms with another fan favorite, Curtis Joseph. So he traded Joseph to the Edmonton Oilers to reacquire two drafts picks lost in the signing of free agent Shayne Corson.
In addition to the above, core players such as Steve Duchesne, Esa Tikkanen and Kevin Miller were traded for virtually no return value. The fans showed their displeasure when they heavily booed him on opening night of the 1996 season.
The team floated around the .500 mark all season long and fans were losing interest until the acquisition of Wayne Gretzky from the Los Angeles Kings. Gretzky rejuvenated fan interest and played a major role in generating excitement in a memorable playoff run. The Blues dispensed of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round and were and overtime goal away from eliminating the high-flying Detroit Red Wings for a trip to the Conference Finals.
But after the Blues failed to re-sign Gretzky as a free agent and losing him to the New York Rangers, the fans lost faith in their franchise. They blamed Keenan for criticizing Gretzky's performance in the second round of the playoffs which led to his departure from the team. Jack Quinn was also criticized for retracting a contract offer of $21 million for three years to keep the Great One in a Bluenote uniform.
During the off-season, Keenan signed free-agent winger Joe Murphy to a ridiculous contract worth near $10 million over three years and overspent on the signing of defensemen Marc Bergevin and Trent Yawney who at best rank 5th and 6th among defensemen of the team.
On the ice, the result was not much different than the 95-96 season when the team finished 32-34-16 including a losing season at home for the first time in a decade. This season, the Blues were 15-17-1 including a five-game home losing streak and an 8-0 humiliating loss to the Vancouver Canucks. For the first time in his illustrious career, the slick coach was fired for failing to produce a winner and take an NHL team to the Stanley Cup round. Keenan compiled a 75-66-22 regular season record and was a disappointing 10-10 in the playoffs during his tenure with the Blues.
Keenan did not leave the Blues empty handed. The Blues reportedly owe him a sum of at least $7 million for the remaining of a five-year contract and due within 60 days of termination.
The search for a new coach has started and the Blues would like to fill the head coaching position as soon as possible. Jimmy Roberts remains a long shot candidate but the choices seems to boil down to Colorado Avalanche assistant coach Joel Quenneville and former Blues coach Jacques Demers. The Blues seem to be in no rush to fill the general manager's position with Ron Caron back at the helm. Bob Berry remains as assistant GM and Roger Nielson continues in his assistant coach position.
On another note, Blues conditioning coach and fitness consultant Bob Kersey resigned from his position in support for Keenan. Kersey, the husband of Olympic athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, initially worked with goaltender Grant Fuhr after he reported overweight and out of shape to training camp in 1995. He later worked with the Blues on a regular basis for the past two seasons.
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