Monday, 5 December 2011

Meow Mix Didn't Deliver Blues

If hearing the words "Meow Mix" brings to mind the song sung by Dr. Evil in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, you're not alone. However, it's one thing for a movie to feature some product placement, but it's rare to find that kind of placement on a hockey blog. After all, there aren't a lot of players who would admit to eating Meow Mix despite a vast number of players having cats as pets. I'll fully admit that I have never seen Meow Mix offer up any sort of hockey incentive for buyers or their cats either, so why is HBIC concerned with Meow Mix when you consider that I don't have a cat and I'm a pretty big hockey fan? It turns out that the makers of Meow Mix - Ralston-Purina - almost were responsible for an eighth NHL team in Canada!

I've heard of the rumour that the St. Louis Blues were destined to move to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in the late-1970s or early-1980s. This always seemed to be a little crazy to me when Saskatoon is considerably smaller than Winnipeg, and Winnipeg was one of the smallest markets in the NHL when they joined the big league out of the WHA. It turns out, however, that not only were the Blues almost moved, but they would have definitely been in Saskatoon had it not been for the NHL blocking the move altogether.

I want to be upfront here, and tell you that I am a little disappointed with the vast number of newspapers charging for access to their archives. I get that running a newspaper is a business and that the medium is starting to suffer thanks to the internet, but charging me $3-4 per story per newspaper is a little much. Instead, I went with what I could find for free because, like you, I'm not made of money and this site generates nil revenue. And I'm not even going to consider the thought of charging visitors to read my diatribes.

I'll admit that there are a vast number of websites that have this information available for free, but I wanted to find news stories covering the potential move of the St. Louis Blues to Saskatoon. After all, most people still got their news from newspapers in 1983. Here is the condensed "newspaper" version of the St. Louis Blues-to-Saskatoon saga.

We'll start on January 13, 1983. The owners of the St. Louis Blues, Ralston-Purina, had been suffering through six years of losses as the owners of the Missouri NHL team. Tired of the red ink piling up, Ralston-Purina goes about seeking new ownership for the franchise, and considers an offer from Batoni-Hunter Enterprises of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for a reported $11.5 million. Obviously, this turn of events caught a vast number of people off-guard, most notably in St. Louis, so I began hunting down information from the Saskatoon point-of-view.

Thankfully, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix had ample coverage of the January 13 announcement. According to writer John Cherneski, the announcement "opened a hornet's nest in St. Louis". As Mr. Chesneski's story tells, Ralston-Purina purchased the club in an eleventh-hour sale to prevent it from folding as they saw it to be an asset to the city of St. Louis. According to Emile Francis, Ralston-Purina "was not sports oriented or interested in ownership of sports franchises". Anheuser-Busch, based in St. Louis, could have looked into buying the franchise from Ralston-Purina, but that group "did not feel the franchise was viable in St. Louis". Ouch.

The joint announcement in Saskatoon by Bill Hunter of the Batoni-Hunter group of their intent to buy the Blues and move them to Saskatoon suddenly became a very real possibility. The NHL, along with a few owners, expressed that they would like to see the NHL remain in St. Louis. However, if all efforts in St. Louis failed, it seemed like there was support for a Saskatoon NHL franchise. The change-in-ownership vote, as indicated in that Saskatoon Star-Phoenix article, would be held at the league meetings at the NHL All-Star Game in February.

Some players, it seems, were torn between playing in St. Louis and heading north to the Canadian prairie city. Bernie Federko made it clear that the players were disappointed and that St. Louis had become his home despite his Saskatchewan roots, but said he would be happy to return to Saskatoon if that was the end result of the sale. Of course, there was still half a season to be played before the sale would even be completed, but the Blues were heading towards a brutal 25-40-15 season in 1982-83.

There were a couple of details that need to be brought up. First, there was always the impeding vote against moving the franchise. The NHL still held rights to block the sale and move of the Blues, so fans in St. Louis still had hope that this impeding move of their hockey team wouldn't happen. Secondly, it appears that the Batoni-Hunter group may have had some serious financial backing awaiting them if they were successful in buying the franchise. Labatt's Brewery was interested in at least the marketing aspect of the potential Saskatoon franchise, and would complete the trifecta of Canadian breweries involved in NHL franchises in Canada. Clearly, things had been in motion behind the scenes for a while.

We jump ahead to January 28, 1983 with a story from The Ottawa Citizen that shows that the Batoni-Hunter group weren't the only interested party. A group from Seattle-Tacoma expressed interest in negotiating with Ralston-Purina if a deal with the Batoni-Hunter group couldn't be reached. So not only was the franchise possibly moving to Saskatoon, but now they might be headed northwest to Washington if the Saskatoon deal fell through.

And we'll add another group to the mix on February 4, 1983. A local group from St. Louis reportedly was working on getting their finances together to buy the team to keep the Blues in St. Louis. The Montreal Gazette reports that the St. Louis Globe-Democrat had information on a new St. Louis-based group that needed more time to get their act together. The problem? They were running short of the thing they needed most.

The NHL owners and governors got together on February 7, 1983 on Long Island during the All-Star Break to discuss the potential sale of the Blues. Unfortunately, that chatter never happened as the discussion over the sale of the St. Louis Blues was postponed after Ralston-Purina asked for the topic to be taken off the agenda. However, Ralston-Purina was still pushing ahead with the sale of the team to the Batoni-Hunter group.

On February 16, it appeared that Ralston-Purina and the Batoni-Hunter group had finalized a deal to bring the Blues north to Saskatoon. It appeared that the snag holding up the discussions about the sale at the All-Star Game dealt with the proposed arena for Saskatoon, but Paul D'Agata stated that the $44 million arena's financing had nothing to do with the hold-up. Saskatoon Tunes? That's horrible. The Saska-Tunes? Brutal.

As an aside, if you've been keeping track of the dollars and cents in these reports, the offers for the Blues have jumped from $11 million to $13 million to $15 million. The 18,000-seat arena was going to cost $44 million. Has inflation really pushed the price of an NHL franchise from approximately $15 million to somewhere around $200 million? Wow.

While everything sounded rosy on the exterior for Saskatoon, the Regina Leader-Post did some digging into the Batoni-Hunter group's financing on February 25. And what they dug up wasn't very reassuring. If the financing wasn't in place, the bluff by the Batoni-Hunter group would be called in. If they did have the money, things looked good. The problem is that no one knew for sure unless they were named either Batoni or Hunter.

The February 26 edition of the Calgary Herald brought up a good point: relocation and transfer fees. No one had mentioned that in any of the earlier articles to any degree, so it was interesting to read about how the NHL would impose these on the franchise if the Blues were to move. John Zeigler, president of the NHL, basically told the Batoni-Hunter group that they should expect to pay at least $5.1 million in a transfer fee if they were to move the Blues out of St. Louis. Can you imagine paying $13 million for the franchise, and then adding another half of that to move it to Saskatoon?

March 10 saw the local group from St. Louis get its biggest ally as NHL president John Zeigler requested that Ralston-Purina look at the offer from the local group in order to keep the Blues in St. Louis. Ralston-Purina took a somewhat backhanded swipe at local ownership hopefuls when they said they were willing to hear any offer that the group wanted to put forth as they always had been. Slinging mud wasn't going to solve this problem.

On March 15, the local group met with Ralston-Purina in order to present their offer for the Blues. Newspapers pretty much said that this meeting would either make or break the Blues in St. Louis, but there was absolutely no timeline that anyone had put forth for the closing of the sale. After all, there was hockey still being played during these meetings.

While Ralston-Purina mulled over the two offers made for their team, as well as interest from Seattle-Tacoma, a new player emerged in the St. Louis sweepstakes. March 29, 1983 saw Harry Ornest toss his name into the ring as a potential buyer for the Blues as a part of the local group. Ornest made it clear that he had no interest in moving the team anywhere, and that keeping the Blues in St. Louis was his priority. Advantage St. Louis? Things looked better on the horizon at this point, but Ornest made no mention of his financial commitment in any article at this point.

While the fever pitch over the hot commodity known as the Blues died down while the NHL season concluded, April 20 saw Ralston-Purina finally come to a decision: the Blues would be sold to Coliseum Holdings Limited, aka Batoni-Hunter Enterprises. It appeared that the Blues would play out of Saskatoon for the 1983-84 NHL season as long as the NHL approved the transfer of the franchise. And that looked like a monumental problem considering the vast majority of NHL owners did not want the franchise moved.

The vote on whether the franchise would move happened on May 19, 1983. In a 15-3 vote, the NHL defeated the motion to allow the St. Louis Blues to move to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Just as the owners predicted, the Blues would remain in St. Louis for the upcoming season. In a rather bizarre twist, the Blues laid off all front-office staff as well. Why? No idea.

June 2, 1983 saw the NHL schedule a meeting to discuss the newly-filed anti-trust lawsuit that Ralston-Purina filed against the NHL for blocking the move to Saskatoon and collapsing the deal with Coliseum Holdings Ltd. If you're selling a franchise you don't want, can you honestly file an anti-trust suit? I suppose you can, but that seems silly.

Two days later, Ralston-Purina literally abandons ship. They turned over the St. Louis Blues franchise to the NHL to "operate, sell or 'dispose of in whatever manner the league desires'". Apparently, Ralston-Purina expected the NHL to do the dirty work for them, but felt that any cash windfall the league made was also payable to them. Have your cake and eat it too? Is this the original version of the Phoenix Coyotes?

In response to the anti-trust lawsuit facing the NHL, the NHL and 17 NHL teams counter-sued Ralston-Purina on June 26, 1983. The only people making money in this entire saga? The lawyers. At this point, both sides need to cut lines and walk away.

July 21 saw the NHL dispose of the franchise once and for all. The St. Louis Blues were conditionally sold to Harry Ornest for an undisclosed amount of money, thereby ensuring that the Blues would remain in St. Louis for the foreseeable future. For nearly six months, it looked as though Canada would get its eighth team, but a solution was found and the Blues lived on as part of St. Louis' culture.

There's the story on just how close the Blues came to being the Saska-Tunes from the eyes of the reporters and newspapers paid to cover the story. I'll have more historical stories this week, but now you have the full story on how the Blues almost became a song on the Canadian prairies.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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