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Revisiting The Rat

The Clown Suits and Mike Keenan live together in infamy

This story first appeared on Page 5 (The Five Hole) of the Feb. 27, 2020 edition of the St. Louis Game Time paper, sold outside of every Blues home game. For more information or to subscribe, email gtbradlee@gmail.com

It borders on tragic that these beautiful sweaters come with such a vile association. While Wayne Gretzky wore the Clown Suit, and Brett Hull, and Al MacInnis, these jerseys will forever be linked to one man: Mike Keenan. The Blues wore them throughout his entire tenure (July 1994-December 1996), kept them for one more year, then sought to bury them, along with memories of Keenan, forever.

But both the jerseys and the memories are back. They are a part of St. Louis Blues history, for better or worse. In Keenan’s case, it’s usually for worse. Brett Hull has said of him, “He was a mean-spirited person, he almost was doing it out of pleasure, to belittle people.”

Hull especially remembered when “Dale Hawerchuk’s grandmother was dying, he’s from just outside Buffalo, and we were going to play the Sabres and his grandmother was coming to watch him play for the last time. And Mike Keenan sat him out on purpose. That’s the lowest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Keenan, of course, did plenty of low things. In fact, he started costing the Blues assets before he even started on the job. The Blues were fined $250,000 by the NHL for negotiating with and hiring Keenan while he was still under contract with the New York Rangers — and then, to compensate the Rangers, had to fork over a 23-year-old Petr Nedved for a 29-year-old Esa Tikkanen and Doug Lidster.

As we dale a tu cuerpo alegría macarena, here are the five most impactful moves Mike Keenan made in his 2.5 years with the St. Louis Blues.

1. July 27, 1995: Brendan Shanahan for Chris Pronger.

Pronger had been the second overall pick two years earlier and had shown promise in two seasons in Hartford. Shanahan, meanwhile, had likely been sleeping with (recently traded) Craig Janney’s wife. But Shanahan was not just an established NHL all-star and not just a fan-favorite; his signing had been the cause of losing Scott Stevens in 1991. A good number of Blues fans probably remember exactly where they were when news of this trade broke.

2. August 4, 1995: Curtis Joseph and Mike Grier for Shayne Corson (or two first-round picks, depending on how you look at it).

The story here, as is pretty much everything involving Keenan, is convoluted. But: Keenan signed good-but-not-great Oilers forward Shayne Corson to an offer sheet. Edmonton got two Blues first-round picks, assigned to them by an arbiter, as compensation. But Keenan had never been a Curtis Joseph fan and Grier had yet to break into the NHL, so he shipped those two out to Alberta for the two draft picks he had just lost. The Blues wound up with Corson, who would become captain when Keenan stripped the ‘C’ off Hull’s chest. They lost a near-Hall-of-Fame goalie and Grier, who went on to a solid NHL career.

3. February 27, 1996: Wayne Gretzky for Craig Johnson, Roman Vopat, Patrice Tardif, a first-round pick and a fifth-round pick. The greatest player of all time was a St. Louis Blue, and that’s pretty damn cool. Only four teams can say he played for them. But to lose Gretzky primarily because he hated Keenan — and then to see Keenan fired halfway through the subsequent season anyway — is still a bitter pill to swallow.

4. July 8, 1996: The Blues sign Joe Murphy to a 3-year, $10 million deal.

This signing, in itself, wasn’t a disaster. Sure, it was too much money, but there was no salary cap in the NHL at the time. In Murphy’s previous five full seasons, he had topped 20 goals, and he scored at a 20-goal pace over a season and a half with the Blues. But the Murphy signing was emblematic of Keenan’s penchant for older, mediocre players (usually former Oilers): Charlie Huddy, Glenn Anderson, Tikkanen, Craig MacTavish, Igor Kravchuk … the list goes on. The only one in that mold who worked out well for the Blues was Grant Fuhr.

5. But Fuhr’s signing wasn’t the only good move Keenan made. In his last few months with the Blues, he acquired Pierre Turgeon and Craig Conroy for Murray Baron and Corson, then shortly thereafter, stole Pavol Demitra from Ottawa for Christer Olsson. And who could forget: On January 27, 1996, before a home game against Tampa Bay, Keenan prevented the Blues from taking the ice with the now-infamous trumpet jerseys. “There’s almost nothing I do that I haven’t thought about for months, down to the smallest detail. You can’t compromise on details, because details are what lead to the whole,” Keenan once told Sports Illustrated. “You may think I’m fucking nuts. But that’s O.K., because I am.”

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If you enjoyed this story — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.