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What If Week: What if the Blues drafted in 1983?

Purina, a sale to a Canadian businessman, and a near-relocation cost the Blues a year of player development.

Chicago Black Hawks v Boston Bruins Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

You’re probably familiar with the Blues’ ownership issues in the late 1970s and early 1980s. If you’re not, here’s a refresher.

The Blues were owned by Purina during that time, and also had to deal with some issues brought about by the Salomons. Deferred contracts - buy now, pay later kind of deals - are contingent upon future success. By the mid to late 1970s, the Blues were in a lull, slipping out of the playoff picture for the last three years of the decade. The team did not have as solid and reliable of an income stream as they did a few seasons earlier. In 1977, the Salomons sold to Ralston-Purina, who were very clear that they were just a placeholder ownership group until a new owner could be found. Despite a successful season in 1980-1981, the Blues performance dropped and with it, their take at the gate. The team was bleeding money, and Purina wanted to get back to focusing on their core businesses.

Enter Bill Hunter, the founder of the WHA, who had a dream and $12 million dollars. He was pulling the Blues to Saskatoon. The story was published in Game Time over a decade ago, and is well worth your time. Long story short, the NHL’s Board of Governors said no - there wasn’t a tenable reason to move a team from a metro area with millions of people to one with about 150,000. Ralston sued the league in 1983 over the dropped sale, and the team elected not to send anyone to the Entry Draft that year. No one knew who was in charge, no one knew who was going to own the team or where they’d even be located in a few months, so the responsibility of drafting was abdicated for the year.

The 1983 NHL draft is a fascinating group of players to look at, especially the later rounds. Seven Hockey Hall of Famers were selected over the eleven rounds of the draft, along with pugilists Claude Lemieux and Bob Probert. Future Blue Esa Tikkanen was taken 80th overall by the Edmonton Oilers. Instead of beginning his career on a line with Wayne Gretzky and Jarri Kuri and winning a Stanley Cup before he even played a regular season game, he could’ve played a part on the 1984-1985 Blues. The Blues’ loss was the Oilers’ gain - Tikkanen was key to the Oilers winning the Cup in 1987, 1988, and 1990. He won one more time with the New York Rangers in 1994, finishing his career with five Stanley Cup rings.

Tikkanen spent July of 1994 through November 1995 with the Blues, being traded for the Devils’ third round draft choice in the 1996 draft. New Jersey then promptly traded him to Vancouver for a second round draft choice in the same draft.

The Blues also missed out on the chance to draft future Stanley Cup champions Kevin Stevens and Rick Tocchet. Stevens was on the juggernaut Penguins teams that won back to back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, and Tocchet won in 1992. Stevens benefitted from playing on a line with Mario Lemieux. Over the course of six and a half-ish seasons in Pittsburgh, Stevens put up 246 goals and 274 assists in 442 games. Before being sent to the Penguins, Tocchet was a star player for the Philadelphia Flyers. He spent seven and a half seasons there, cracking the 40 goal mark twice.

The most intriguing missed opportunity is Dominik Hasek. Drafted 199th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks, Hasek didn’t make his NHL debut until 1990. Unfortunately for him, Ed Belfour had the starting job for the Hawks, and Hasek didn’t get an opportunity to play much over his time with the team. The Buffalo Sabres acquired Hasek in a deal that, in hindsight, seems very lopsided: Stephane Beauregard and future considerations. Hasek became the Sabres’s starter and won the Vezina trophy in 1994. He remained with the Sabres through a feud with coach Ted Nolan, and despite the drama and fan contempt over the dispute, he won the Vezina Trophy, as well as the Lester B. Pearson Award and the Hart Trophy in 1997 and again in 1998.

Hasek finished his career with the best all-time save percentage of a NHL goaltender (.922). The six-time All Star won the Vezina Trophy six times, and was a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Detroit Red Wings in 2002 and 2008. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014.

There is no guarantee that the Blues would’ve had success with Hasek in the crease - the Sabres certainly never won the Stanley Cup, which was a wasted opportunity for both Hasek and the club. During the same stretch Hasek was with the Sabres, the Blues had Curtis Joseph, Grant Fuhr, and Roman Turek - and as a whole had about as much success as Buffalo did. Joseph is still waiting on his Hall of Fame call, and Fuhr was chosen based mostly on his achievements with Edmonton - though we can debate how things would’ve ended for him and the Blues had Nick Kypreos not injured him in the 1996 playoffs.

The Blues found an owner in Harry Ornest on July 27th, 1983, well after the NHL draft had been completed. The team was saved from relocation and dissolution, and time, like the Blues, marched on. It would take another nearly 36 years before the Blues would win the Stanley Cup, but had they participated in the 1983 draft they could’ve snagged it sooner.

Or maybe not. Hasek didn’t win a Cup with a team until he left Buffalo, and Tikkanen, Stevens, and Tocchet played on some of the biggest powerhouse teams that the NHL has ever seen - and it took Tocchet being traded well into his career to wind up on the Penguins. Hindsight is 20/20, but we still can’t predict the future - not even alternative ones.