PHT Time Machine: When Blues skipped NHL draft

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Throughout the summer we will be taking a look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the 1983 NHL draft … which was skipped entirely by the St. Louis Blues. 

In terms of the talent that was picked the 1983 NHL draft was your typical run-of-the-mill draft class.

A couple of Hall of Famers at the top (Steve Yzerman, Pat LaFontaine, and Cam Neely all went in the top-10; Dominik Hasek was a late-round steal), some really good front-line talent sprinkled throughout, and a few busts mixed in.

It was neither an historically great class, nor was it an historically bad class.

It just … kind of happened.

That does not mean it was not noteworthy for other reasons.

For one, the Minnesota North Stars made history by making Brian Lawton the first American-born player to be selected No. 1 overall. To this day he is still the only high school player with that honor.

Teams took a lot of late-round gambles on Soviet superstars, including the New Jersey Devils who selected Slava Fetisov, Alexander Chernykh, and Alexei Kasatonov.

Vladislav Tretiak (Montreal Canadiens) and Sergei Makarov (Calgary Flames) were also selected in this class.

And then there was perhaps the most notable — and bizarre — development in which one NHL team completely sat out the draft, making zero selections. It was the first and only time that has ever happened.

That team was the St. Louis Blues.

The Background

The Blues have been nothing if not consistent throughout their existence.

Always good enough to be somewhat relevant, but never truly great. In 51 seasons the franchise has missed the postseason just nine times. In their first three years in the league they played in the Stanley Cup Final and were the most successful of the NHL’s expansion teams to enter the league in 1967.

As the league continued to expand, however, the Blues started to slip a little and went from being a successful expansion team to just another mid-level, run-of-the-mill franchise that was mostly making the playoffs because of the league’s format where almost every team got a ticket to the dance. Between 1971 and 1983, for example, the Blues qualified for the playoffs nine times in 12 years, but managed a winning record in just two of those seasons.

It was during that 1983 season when things started to look bleak for the franchise’s long-term outlook in St. Louis.

In the middle of the season Ralston Purina, the team’s ownership group since 1977, released a statement saying it was looking to get out of the hockey business and was in the process of looking for a local buyer to keep the team in St. Louis but that no one had stepped forward.

As such, the group warned that if an agreement could be reached with an ownership group from Canada the team would be relocated to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a development that the NHL was vehemently opposed to (Yes, even before Gary Bettman the NHL was not willing to move teams from an American market to a small market Canadian town).

What followed was a seven-month saga that left the future of the Blues hanging in limbo as the city mounted a charge to keep the team in St. Louis. League president John Ziegler practically begged Ralston Purina to find a local buyer. Investors from Canada tried to purchase and relocate the team to Saskatoon, and Ralston Purina simply tried to find somebody — anybody — that would take the team off of its hands after admitting it had lost more than $1.5 million per season since purchasing the club.

Finally, in May, the NHL officially voted 15-3 against the sale and relocation of the Blues to Saskatoon (St. Louis, Montreal, and Calgary were the only three teams to vote in favor it) which sent the entire situation into chaos.

One week later Ralston Purina filed a $60 million lawsuit against the NHL arguing that the league violated antitrust laws. A week after that Ralston Purina announced that it had tendered the franchise to the NHL “to operate, to sell, or otherwise dispose of, in whatever manner the league desires.”

During this time Ralston Purina had completely shut down the Blues’ offices and dismissed almost all of the staff, including team president and general manager Emile Francis (who was also opposed to relocating to Saskatoon), letting him out of his contract so he could become the team president and general manager of the Hartford Whalers.

While all of this was happening, there was still actual hockey business to tend to, specifically the entry draft on June 8.

The Draft

As part of ownerships anger with the NHL over the rejected sale of the team, Ralston Purina informed the league the Blues would be boycotting the draft and sent zero representation to Montreal for the event.

Their draft table was empty and the team made zero selections, forfeiting all of them.

What impact did this have on the long-term outlook of the Blues? Well, even in hindsight that is difficult to assess because they did not even have a selection in the first two rounds.

The 1982-83 Blues were nothing special (news of the teams attempt to relocate almost certainly was a distraction) and despite making the playoffs were dispatched in the first-round by the Chicago Blackhawks. This result would have given the Blues the No. 6 overall pick in the draft. The catch here is that pick was traded a year earlier at the 1983 draft (along with their 1982 first-round pick) to the Colorado Rockies (before their relocation to New Jersey) in exchange for defenseman Rob Ramage.

Most of the top players in the draft were already off the board by the time that pick was on the clock (LaFontaine went third overall to the New York Islanders, Yzerman went fourth to the Detroit Red Wings, Tom Barrasso went fifth to the Buffalo Sabres) but it still could have been a significant pick as it was used to select forward John MacLean, who would go on to be one of the most productive players from the class with 413 goals and 842 total points. Both numbers fourth best among all players in the class.

Neely was also still on the board, having been selected three picks later by the Vancouver Canucks.

The Blues also had no second-round pick that year (No. 27 overall) after having traded it to the Montreal Canadiens in March of 1982 for Guy Lapointe. The Canadiens eventually used that selection on Sergei Momesso.

It was the next 10 picks that were all forfeited as the Blues had no representation at the draft to speak for them and make a selection.

What did they potentially miss on?

Here is a quick rundown of the best players taken after their pick in each round.

Round 3: Brian Bradley, Marc Bergevin
Round 4: Bob Essensa, Darren Puppa, Esa Tikkanen
Round 5: Gary Galley
Round 6: Kevin Stevens (selected with the sixth pick in the third round, that should have been the Blues on the clock), Dave Lowry, Rick Tocchet
Round 7: Vladislav Tretiak (never played in the NHL, still notable name)
Round 8: Tommy Albelin, Pelle Eklund
Round 9: Brian Noonan
Round 10: Dominik Hasek
Round 11: Uwe Krupp
Round 12: Sergei Makarov

Would the Blues have actually selected any of those players under normal circumstances? Who knows, but their absence at least opened the door for other teams to perhaps snag a different player than they otherwise would have and there were still some pretty good (and even borderline great) players on the board at those picks.

The aftermath

One day after the draft, the NHL filed a $78 million countersuit against Ralston Purina alleging that they “willfully, wantonly, and maliciously collapsed its hockey operation” in an effort to force the NHL to approve the sale of the team.

Meanwhile, Ralston Purina was planning to sell off players and other assets (including equipment) belonging to the team unless the league accepted their offer to “tender” the team to the league.

At that point Ralston Purina considered itself out of the NHL.

From the June 10, 1983 St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

 

A few weeks later the other 17 NHL teams filed another suit against the Blues for maliciously folding the franchise in a suit that pretty much matched the NHL’s.

Later that month Harry Ornest, a California based businessman, stepped up his efforts to put together a group to purchase the team and keep it in St. Louis and was making progress on reaching a deal.

Finally, in July, the NHL approved the sale of the team to Ornest provided he was able to meet certain conditions by the end of the month, including the purchase of or the securing a long-term lease for the team’s arena (The Checkerdome). All of that happened and on July 27 Ornest reached an agreement to buy the team’s arena  for $5 million, satisfying all of the league’s conditions. With that settled, the NHL granted his group the franchise putting an end to the entire mess and keeping the Blues in St. Louis.

It was perhaps one of the most bizarre and convoluted ownership sagas in the history of the league and in the process produced an NHL first: A team skipping out on the entire draft.

More PHT Time Machine: Remembering the Jaromir Jagr Trade Nobody Won

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.