With a press conference set at 11 a.m. today to introduce new controlling owner Tom Stillman and his group of investors, we draw a close to the ownership of Dave Checketts. What started out with the promise of a Blues revolution ended with a quiet exit stage left in the midst of cash flow problems and a litany of failed promises to fix the ownership situation.
When Checketts arrived on the scene in 2006, the team was in shambles, finishing last in the league and earning the No. 1 pick in the draft. There were a few aged stars left, but the roster was filled with cheap stop-gaps and journeymen. Crowds had dwindled at or below 10,000 a game in an arena that seats 19,150. Checketts represented tangible hope.
He had been successful in running professional sports franchises in New York. He seemed connected. He made all the right statements about committing to the St. Louis area and giving back to the community and wanting to give the fans a team we could be proud of. He immediately brought in John Davidson, a well-known and well-liked hockey guy. They made a splash by signing a hopefully defensive stalwart in Jay McKee. This Eric Brewer kid might work out. Some young guys were given a chance to improve. They fired Mike Kitchen. The next summer they signed Paul Kariya. They focused on the draft, made trades at the deadline and tried to get younger and better (the Brad Boyes trade comes to mind). But money problems were always in the background.
The biggest mistake Checketts made early on was raising ticket prices that first season. It didn't help him start on the right foot with fans and hurt attendance. Later he said the league forced his hand and made him raise prices. The next year, he tried to lower as many of the cheaper seats as possible. That, in retrospect was a bad move. It sent a message that Blues tickets would only be in a certain range and fans would only pay X amount of dollars. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Revenue not rising faster would handcuff the team.
Just two summers in, the team had to sell off the rights to concession stands for $10 million to cover a balloon payment on the loan Checketts had to get to pay for the team. That loan coming due last year forced Checketts to sell all of the team. He had tried just selling the majority shares that had been held by an investment firm, but he couldn't find anyone willing to put up millions of dollars while not calling the shots. When the loan was almost due, he had to sell all of the team.
When the Blues made the 2009 playoffs, we all thought the team had turned the corner. A bunch of injured guys were coming back that hadn't contributed to that season. Guys like Erik Johnson and Eric Brewer and a healthy Paul Kariya were going to take the team to the next level. It was a convenient excuse to not spend money in free agency or by trading picks or prospects. The reality was that the money was running out. At the end of last season, the Blues were less than $1 million above the salary floor. This past summer, the front office made one more play by signing Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott to one-year deals. While those worked incredibly well, they were safe moves for a new owner coming in who might want to shrink the payroll. Hopefully that's not the case.
The worst thing Checketts did (other than not having enough of his own money) was making empty promises on progress for stabilizing the ownership situation. Two years of deadlines come and deadlines gone led to a lot of confusion surrounding the sale. Last year it seemed it would never happen. But here we are today, saying goodbye to Checketts and hello to Stillman.
I don't have any hard feelings. It seems like the franchise has made progress despite the uncertainty. General manager Doug Armstrong sure seems like he knows what he's doing. Ken Hitchcock sure seems like the right guy for the job. This team had a chance to go deep in the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Better days are hopefully still ahead.
So in the end, Checketts helped put the Blues back on the map. He didn't have the resources to get the team over the hump, but few owners in their history have. When Checketts signed on as owner, the salary cap was below where the salary floor is now. No one could have predicted that. Even with the money issues, the roster, front office and entire organization seem stronger today than they were six years ago. For that, Mr. Checketts we thank you.
If you had to give Checketts a letter grade, what would you give him?