Ron Caron is one of the reasons you're reading my words right now.
As a teenager in the late 1980s in St. Louis, I had grown up on the St. Louis Cardinals. One of my first sports memories is spilling a big bowl of popcorn when the Redbirds won the 1982 World Series and thinking I was going to get in trouble. Instead I joined my mom jumping up and down in front of the TV. I was despondent after the 1985 and 1987 World Series losses. I had been spoiled early with baseball good fortune. And when the team started to stink, star players were traded away or allowed to sign elsewhere (I said I would never forgive Jack Clark), I realized the brewery didn't want to put a winner on the field.
And then the Blues started to become a big deal because of a guy named Brett Hull. I started to pay attention in the 1989-90 season and then pushed all my chips to the middle that summer when the Blues signed Scott Stevens to an unheard of free agent contract. It wasn't because the money was outrageous, teams at the time had a gentleman's agreement that said they didn't sign each other's players. The cost was making a trade that brought Geoff Courtnall and five first round draft picks. Stevens only played one year in St. Louis because he was awarded to the New Jersey Devils as compensation for signing another free agent, this time Brendan Shanahan. Caron was the architect behind all of those groundbreaking moves. He also traded Bernie Federko for Adam Oates. The man with the gravelly voice and thick French-Canadian accent was building a juggernaut. The problem was that Caron couldn't control his emotions.
In some of the remembrances online Tuesday, writers and former players talked about fights Caron would start
in the press box and how he had broken into the Maple Leafs broadcast booth and cursed on the air. The walls in
his private box at the old Arena had holes patched several times from his foot, fists and chair. The thing that was
disarming about these outbursts was that Caron was only 5 feet, 7 inches tall and looked like a friendly grandfather.
Plus, his rants usually were caused by horrible officiating (shocking in the NHL) or rough play toward his hockey
team. But it also hinted at his flaw as a general manager.
In 1991 the Blues were near the top of the Norris Division, fighting the Blackhawks for the President's Trophy. Coach Brian Sutter thought his team needed toughness at the trade deadline. At his urging, Caron made a four -for-two deal with the Vancouver Canucks that may have ruined the team's chances at a run for the Stanley Cup that year. The Blues acquired Garth Butcher (a proud wearer of No. 5 in a line of guys with that number including Barret Jackman, Bob Plager and Rob Ramage) and Dan Quinn. The Blues gave up undersized power play specialist Cliff Ronning, streaky scorer Geoff Courtnall, grinding big forward Sergio Momesso and defenseman Robert Dirk. Those players helped the Canucks make a run to the Stanley Cup Finals a few years later while the Blues were almost upset in the first round by an upstart Red Wings squad, their first feistiness in a decade, and then were eliminated by the Minnesota North Stars.
At the time of that trade, Caron was recorded on the radio in talking about his feelings at the trade deadline that "there's always meat on the burner." He just couldn't stand pat. Caron was a wheeler dealer, a fine evaluator of emerging talent, but when it came to the draft under his leadership, well it wasn't a huge loss that the Blues didn't have many first round picks in his tenure. His drafting of Doug Wickenheiser first overall in Montreal helped sink his ship there and he passed on Joe Sackic because the Blues were set at center. Hey, nobody's perfect.
If you're a younger fan or weren't around the team in the late 80s and early 90s, you may not know much about Ron Caron. Here's what you need to know: he saved the Blues in St. Louis by making them a contending team. He was hired by owner Harry Ornest to put together a team on a nothing budget just after the franchise was minutes away from moving to Saskatoon. The Blues made the playoffs every year he served as general manager. His teams filled the old building helping to build the new one. His moves and his team's style of play made new fans. Because of Ron Caron, the Blues have deep roots in St. Louis. Even when attendance plummeted after the lockout, even when the team was stripped and put up for sale (again), even when things looked their darkest there was never a real danger that the Blues would leave St. Louis.
Here's to Ron Caron, gone but not forgotten.