Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Strictly Worn For Spite

Today's trip into the jersey closet features a well-known redesign for a team that probably didn't need a redesign that happened to get very famous after they acquired Wayne Gretzky. The St. Louis Blues, in my opinion, looked fine prior to their 1994 jersey redesign that left us with the jersey you see to the left. If we press a little deeper into the history, you'll also note that this was the same time that the Blues began to change their strategy in all facets of their business, often using the offer sheet method as their chosen pursuit of high-end free agents and hiring one man whose decisions both as coach and general manager left the Blues reeling for years to come. Yes, it's an "Iron" Mike Keenan article today on HBIC, but not for the reasons you think.

I was cleaning out my inbox today of some exceptionally old emails when I came across one from the gentleman who originally owned this St. Louis Blues Petr Nedved jersey. After he sends me some best wishes about my acquiring the jersey, he added this note which reads, "I was a really big fan of Petr Nedved while he was in St. Louis, and Mike Keenan cost us a good, young player. I bought the jersey sometime in 1994 or early 1995 and added his name on the back. I wish he would have still be playing for us instead of the two slugs we got for Keenan." Of course, reading this email got me to thinking about why Nedved never wore the jersey and why this gentleman was so bothered by the loss of Nedved. Let's head down memory lane to see how this jersey came to be and how it got into my collection.

It's the timing, though, of everything that happened surrounding the Blues for one month - June 23, 1994 until July 24, 1994 - that makes the seller's email so compelling.

The Blues were one of a handful of teams looking to enhance their look in the 1990s, and they spent a full year working with Sean Michael Edwards, a design firm based in Manhattan, on this new look. In a release dated for Thursday, June 23, 1994, the Blues made their new look known to the world with an accompanying unveiling at the state-of-the-art Kiel Center. Appearing on stage that day were Brendan Shanahan, Curtis Joseph, Rick Meagher, and Bruce Affleck - no Petr Nedved to be found - as they modelled the new duds that St. Louis would wear for the 1994-95 season.

Everything seems to be business as usual, right?

If you recall, Mike Keenan was coaching the New York Rangers in 1993-94, leading the Blueshirts to the Stanley Cup with the likes of Messier, Leetch, and Richter as his stars. Following his successful win on Broadway, it seemed like the Rangers had some work to do in trying to keep their roster together, but I'm not sure anyone expected Mike Keenan to be heading out of town as quickly as he did when he claimed that the New York Rangers were in breach of his contract due to missed payments that were owed to him.

"I want to make it explicitly clear that I have not resigned from the position," Keenan told reporters at a press conference in Toronto on July 15, 1994. "This is difficult for me, but I felt I had no choice.... There were some specific parameters in regard to the contract, but the obligations were not fulfilled."

As anyone knows, the NHL wouldn't take kindly to this kind of public squabbling over in-house issues, but Mike Keenan went and made everything infinitely worse by signing a deal with the St. Louis Blues to become their head coach and general manager on July 18, 1994 - just three days after declaring he was a free agent for hire! If you're tracking the timeline, he declared the breach of contract on a Thursday and signed a new five-year deal with the Blues on Sunday before the NHL Offices had even opened!

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman didn't wait long after hearing that the Detroit Red Wings had also been inquiring about the services of Mike Keenan, and he asked that all parties submit their positions on the matter to him by Thursday, July 22 for review upon which, as lawyer-like as he could, he'd render a decision on the matter. Needless to say, this seems like Mike Keenan was doing everything he could to get out of Manhattan for a richer, better deal in St. Louis.

Lo and behold, we got a decision on July 25, one week after Keenan had signed his deal with the Blues. The decision handed down by Bettman was as follows:
  • Mike Keenan was suspended without pay for 60 days and fined $100,000, and was eligible to return as head coach and general manager of the Blues on September 24, 1994.
  • The Blues were fined $250,000 for negotiating with and signing Keenan prior to his breach of contract claim being resolved.
  • The Rangers agreed to pay Keenan the $608,000 playoff bonus they owed him in exchange for Keenan repaying the Rangers a sum of $400,000 which was 80% of the signing bonus he received when he was hired in New York.
  • The Detroit Red Wings were fined $25,000 for speaking with Keenan.
  • The New York Rangers were fined $25,000 for filing a lawsuit against Keenan and his attorney. With the settlement, the Rangers agreed to drop the lawsuit.
  • As compensation for the Rangers losing their head coach to a rival, the NHL instructed the Blues to trade Petr Nedved to the Rangers for Esa Tikkanen and Doug Lidster.
If you're keeping notes at home, that last bullet point basically says the Blues were forced trade 22 year-old Petr Nedved to the Rangers for what amounted to be Mike Keenan, Tikkanen, and Lidster. Nedved, who had been signed to an offer sheet by St. Louis on March 14 which the Canucks declined to match, had only played 19 games for the Blues before the NHL forced him to report to the Rangers!

Now here's where things get really twisted. When Vancouver declined the offer sheet match that St. Louis has submitted for Nedved, the NHL was forced to award a player back to the Canucks as compensation since the Blues didn't have any first-round picks to use as compensation after they signed Scott Stevens to an offer sheet in 1990 which Washington declined to match, thus giving Washington all of St. Louis' first-round picks from 1991 until 1995.

Because the Blues didn't have first-round picks to offer up to the Canucks, the NHL awarded Craig Janney to the Canucks midway through the season (which now sounds like a totally insane thing to do) despite the Canucks asking for Brendan Shanahan as compensation. Janney, however, refused to go to Vancouver, so the NHL told the two teams to work out the standoff. In the end, Janney's rights were "traded back" to St. Louis in exchange for Jeff Brown, Bret Hedican, and Nathan Lafayette - all players who would play vital roles in helping the Canucks reach the Stanley Cup Final against Mike Keenan and the New York Rangers.

The cherry on top that makes this whole Mike Keenan-Petr Nedved mess a little funnier? The St. Louis Blues in 1994-95 under Mike Keenan would be ousted from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the tournament in seven games. Petr Nedved, meanwhile, had a dreadful season in New York, scoring just 11 goals and 23 points in 46 games, and he was traded in August of 1995 with Sergei Zubov to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Luc Robitaille and Ulf Samuelsson.

Back to our unhappy email sender, I can understand his disappointment in seeing a player who scored 20 points in 19 games as a Blues centerman sent on his way without so much as season to get his feet wet. Keenan would go 75-66-22 over the next three seasons before being fired after 33 games in 1996-97 with only a second-round appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to show for the trouble despite having names like Hull, Gretzky, Turgeon, Pronger, MacInnis, Corson, Hawerchuk, Fuhr, and Steve Duchesne skating for him at one point or another. Nedved, who was the compensation for Keenan, may have been a better fit in St. Louis than any of the centermen they had over those tumultuous three-and-a-half seasons under Keenan.

So how did this spiteful NHL jersey land in my closet?

I acquired the jersey sometime in the mid-2000s off eBay as the seller was getting rid of a few sports pieces with the majority being St. Louis Cardinals stuff. The seller and I had a couple of back-and-forth emails about it before we agreed on shipping costs, and it was how that story got to me. His seeming hatred for the Blues sacrificing Nedved for Keenan was the reason behind the jersey, and I think it's a cool story about one person's fandom and how he basically wore his Blues jersey with Nedved on the back out of spite for Mike Keenan.

Incidentally, the two slugs as the writer called them - Tikkanen and Lidster - were decent in their times with the Blues, but, like Keenan, never helped the Blues to the promised land. Nedved had a couple of outstanding years with the Penguins before going back to the Rangers where he'd play out the majority of his NHL career.

One of the cooler things about the Blues' logo that I didn't know before acquiring the jersey was that they had the "St. Louis" sewn onto a swatch of fabric which was then added to the logo rather than embroidering it straight onto the note. I would have thought the embroidering would be easier, but I guess it wasn't?

Do you have a jersey in your closet with a player's name who never actually wore it? I know I've seen some "Selanne" and "Hawerchuk" Jets 2.0 jerseys out there, so there might be a few. I'd love to hear how you acquired that jersey or why you added that name, so post your stories in the comments!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Nick Beef said...

Loved the article.

Wanted to add a correction. The NHL didn't 'force' the Blues to trade Nedved for Tikkanen and Lidster.

The Blues offered this to the Rangers as compensation to satisfy them and the NHL.
The Rangers were fine with just that - because they were going to get this 22-year old phenom centreman. It was a trade that Niel Smith said they wouldn't have been able to get in any other circumstance.

The Blues and Rangers submitted this to the NHL to be done with the dispute, but Bettman wasn't satisfied. He was fine with the trade, but was more outraged at Keenan, the Blues, Rangers and Red Wings and how they all handled themselves. Keenan declaring himself a FA, the Blues and Red Wings offering him deals before knowing if he was actually free. The Rangers not paying their bonus on time, then suing the Blues and Rangers. It was a big mess and they were all guilty of some wrong-doing.

On top of the trade that the teams had agreed to individually, he fined the three teams and Keenan a boat load of money and then suspended Keenan for 60 days.

As it turns out... had the Blues simply not made any trade with the NY Rangers, the fines and suspensions might have been the only punishment.

Teebz said...

I've been reading up on this, and it looks like you might be right. The Associated Press story in the LA Times was what I had based the "forced" comment on, but it seems the Washington Post has an entirely different account of what happened.

I'll have to update the story above. Good correction, Nick! Thanks for this!