Inside the NHL
By the time the St. Louis Blues played a second National Hockey League season in 1968-69, their decades-old arena had overcome the Great Depression, the stain of once-segregated seating for black fans, a killer tornado and more than its share of circus elephants.
But despite its weary and worn reputation, the now-defunct St. Louis Arena and its 14,500 seats also became known for the NHL’s loudest fans and best sight lines. Into this fray, all of age 9, skated a local boy named Tod Leiweke, who had only recently taken up hockey and been afforded a chance to skate on what passed for hallowed ice in Missouri at the time.
“I remember all the lights were out except the ones directly behind the nets,’’ Leiweke said. “So, you’d skate back there, look up at the arena and the seats and go, ‘Wow, if only …’ ’’
That “if only’’ part has since materialized with the Blues last week finally winning their first Stanley Cup after 52 seasons with a 4-1 road victory over the Boston Bruins in Game 7.
For Leiweke, 59, an original Blues fan from Day One, the culmination of a half-century’s dreams was tempered by a string of personal “if-only’’ hockey moments already realized: having served as an executive with the Vancouver Canucks, then CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning and now the same role with an incoming Seattle expansion franchise.
Helping make the proverbial sausage for multiple NHL teams quickly drums the hometown loyalties out of you, though Leiweke admits he rooted for the Blues during much of the playoffs out of respect for that organization and what its fans have been through. Still, it should be noted, Leiweke also hoped the Bruins would force Game 7 and — once they did just that — that they’d score early in the third period to make it a 2-1 game instead of falling behind 4-0 as they did.
“You know what I’m a fan of? Good hockey,’’ he said.
He’s tasked with bringing that here, something that, a day after Game 7, had Leiweke more pumped up than the Blues parading Lord Stanley’s mug around. “We had three seasons to get through, and now this means we’ve officially got two more left,’’ he said. “Two more seasons and then it’s go time.’’
And while his team’s October 2021 launch seems distant, those hoping to make it competitive realize stuff’s starting to feel more real. This will be a busy week for NHL Seattle, with an in-town board meeting of managing partner David Bonderman and the ownership executive committee Monday, followed by a gathering of minority investors both local and from out of state Tuesday.
For some owners, it’s their first opportunity to meet Leiweke and tour the KeyArena construction site and NHL Seattle offices. They’ll hear about proposed uniform color schemes and — of course — potential team names. That name shortlist had been pared to four, but now is apparently back up to five or six depending on which owner is listened to most — though you’d best “release the Kraken” from office pools because that name ain’t happening — so there’s still work ahead.
Then, by Friday, an NHL Seattle contingent travels to Vancouver, B.C., for the league’s annual draft. Part of that will involve watching the machinations of how things unfold, preparing for when NHL Seattle hopes to host the event in June 2021. But the Vancouver draft also represents a networking opportunity as the new team prepares for hockey-operations hiring — including the possibility a general manager will still be signed this summer.
The pros and cons are numerous: Waiting until next year allows more candidates to emerge. But then again, two prime Seattle GM candidates — Ken Holland and Kelly McCrimmon — were yanked off the market this spring before Leiweke and company could so much as get a word in.
Having that happen 2 ½ years before launching wasn’t disastrous. But repeat that a year from now, NHL Seattle could be forced into a panic situation of needing to hire a not-first-choice GM for a bigger check than it wants to write.
So, though Leiweke remains tight-lipped, that GM chapter could still get written this summer. After all, if the Blues finally winning a title taught us anything, it’s that the NHL has become ultracompetitive and the margin between Cup champion and cellar-dweller is as thin as the KeyArena construction timeline.
The Blues were a last-place team in January. They’d already fired their coach, would later stick in a rookie goaltender and then — as improbably as Laura Branigan’s “Gloria’’ becoming a sports anthem — claim a championship.
Consider as well how this decade began, with the Chicago Blackhawks snapping their Cup slump at 50 seasons in 2010, the Boston Bruins halting theirs at 42 in 2011, the Los Angeles Kings at 45 in 2012 and the Washington Capitals last year winning their first title after 44 seasons.
The Toronto Maple Leafs remain the butt of jokes at 52 seasons and counting since their last Cup, but the rest of the NHL truly has changed. Parity is such that all teams — expansion or otherwise — no longer must build for years toward a predetermined championship window in the distant future.
As Holland said when hired as GM of the Edmonton Oilers, the goal is stabilizing a franchise, keeping it competitive and being poised to strike when opportunity avails.
For the Blues, with just one 30-goal scorer in Vladimir Tarasenko, two 20-goal scorers overall, a top point-getter in Ryan O’Reilly at 77 and an interim coach in Craig Berube better known for bashing heads as a player than matching wits, their window unexpectedly opened. And Berube rode Conn Smythe Trophy MVP winner O’Reilly, rookie netminder Jordan Binnington, a bunch of guys with uncanny puck sense and enough “Gloria” reprisals for a year’s worth of Casey Kasem countdowns, to a place even hard-core Blues fans didn’t dare dream of.
But dreams don’t just happen, as Day One Blues fan Leiweke can attest.
“The real work starts right now,’’ he said. “We want that to be us some day.”