With the retirement announcement of Keith Tkachuk, an era of Blues hockey comes to an end. While Big Walt was applauded all over the place, I think the sentiment is mixed in St. Louis. With Blues hockey, it's always a mixed bag. I think it comes from all the times the Blues have threatened to be good or break through to the next level and then never win the Cup. But that's an argument for another day.
When Tkachuk was acquired in the spring of 2001, the Blues were coming off the President's Trophy season where they lost in seven games to the San Jose Sharks in the first round. And instead of addressing the goaltending issue (see Turek, Roman), they went after goal scoring.
Tkachuk had been the first American to lead the NHL in scoring. He had been in the top 10 in NHL goal scoring three times. He was the power forward who could camp out in front of the opposition's net, screen the goalie, tip pucks in -- do the dirty work that Pierre Turgeon, Scott Young and Pavol Demitra couldn't/wouldn't do. And in that first postseason just weeks after joining the team, the Blues made the Conference Finals for the first time since the Monday Night Miracle in 1985-86. That summer the Blues traded for Doug Weight. They went aggressively after Dominik Hasek who chose the Red Wings. It was a heady time when the owner had deep pockets and seemed 100 percent committed to winning the whole damn thing. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Stanley Cup parade down Market Street.
Things started to turn south in the 2002-03 season. Chris Pronger was limited to five games because of injury. Tkahcuk missed time because of injury. The Blues were eliminated in seven games against Vancouver in a series where flu decimated the team half way through the series. The next year the Blues would lose again in the first round to San Jose. Al MacInnis had a serious eye injury. Mike Danton was arrested for trying to hire a contract killer. The NBA wouldn't allow a team to move to St. Louis to satisfy the basketball loving hockey owner. And then in 2003-04, the NHL locked out its players.
As you know, ownership forced the trade of Pronger to Edmonton. MacInnis retired. Weight got old. Demitra left. Young got old. It fell apart fast and the Blues finished last in the NHL. The rest is kind of a blur with the team now missing the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. Tkachuk was traded away three seasons ago to Atlanta and he couldn't make it out of the first round. He came close to being traded last year and was rumored to be on the block this year. He said in radio interviews that even when he was in Atlanta and rumored to be elsewhere that no matter what, when he retired, St. Louis was home now. His kids are active in youth hockey. Tkachuk has strong ties to several local business people and restaurant owners (insert fat joke here). Even though he's a Red Sox fan, he has Cardinals season tickets. He's one of us now.
I wrote all that to write this: while the Blues did not give up players that turned into stars elsewhere (Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, Jeff Taffe), his acquisition probably should be seen as a failure because the team did not accomplish the goal of challenging for a Stanley Cup. Up to the point of the trade for Tkachuk, the plan was to build from within. That strategy changed overnight.And ultimately it didn't work. The rebuilding process left in the wake of the "Win Now" philosophy has been painful. It continues to be painful.
I think some fans will never forget that he was paid $10 and $11 million a season before the lockout and didn't perform to his paycheck. He was the face of this team, the star on the roster and voice of the dressing room. And he couldn't push his team past the first round of the playoffs in any full season in St. Louis.
On the other hand, Walt is genuine. He speaks his mind. He plays hockey like a man -- physically, in the rough areas, taking punishment as much as he gives it. He smiles a lot. He loves this team, this franchise and this city. And if he ever gets considered for the Hockey Hall of Fame, he'll represent the Blues proudly. I'll always respect and admire him for that. But he was never the player here that he was in Manitoba and the desert.
In the end, we'll stand and applaud Friday night. We'll get a little misty eyed (there's an air conditioning vent right over our seats and sometimes it irritates my allergies) and we'll probably curse this team's fortunes, remembering what a player Walt was during his prime and how he wasn't enough to turn this team into a winner. And then we'll start wondering how they replace his spot on the roster and his personality on the team.