It was early May of 2011. The St. Louis Blues had missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season and for the fifth time in six years when outgoing owner Dave Checketts announced a contract extension for his pal, John Davidson, the team’s president of hockey operations.
Davidson came aboard soon after Checketts put together a group to buy the Blues. The two had extensive ties dating back to their years together in New York, where Checketts was the president and CEO of Madison Square Gardens and Davidson did colour commentary for MSG network, while freelancing for Hockey Night In Canada’s Satellite Hot Stove program (where we worked together for years).
Davidson made the switch from broadcasting to hockey operations for the same reason that a lot of ex-players do - deep down, they still dream of winning the Stanley Cup. And if they couldn’t get their names on the trophy as a player, well, there was still a chance to do so in management.
Under Checketts, the Blues needed to run an exceedingly frugal operation. They were the classic small-market team, annually keeping the payroll below the league median, so they could qualify for revenue sharing. Trying to rebuild an organization, in the context of a tiny budget, is fraught with difficulty, but the Blues hacked away at it - in the draft, through the trade market, and by making shrewd moves at the managerial level (appointing Doug Armstrong general manager, hiring Ken Hitchcock as coach early last season to replace Davis Payne.)
Last year, all that painstaking work finally came together in one big happy confluence. The Blues were in contention for the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s top team right up until the final weekend and ultimately finished third overall, behind the Vancouver Canucks and the New York Rangers. They did it mostly with depth (their leading scorer, David Backes, managed just 54 points), and a lot of homegrown talent.
Davidson - who stepped down Thursday, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch - brought credibility to the organization. More than anything else, he was a great salesman. He sold players on the merits of the city and the organization. He sold sponsors and advertisers on the value of supporting the team, even as it struggled. He convinced the fans that a patient rebuild was the only way to go in their market and promised that until the Blues turned the corner - and their kids matured - the paying customer would never be shortchanged in the effort department. It was Davidson’s ability to sell all these divergent interests in the truth of his vision that ultimately helped the Blues turn the corner, not just on the ice, but in the business arena as well.
Will St. Louis be the same without Davidson? Presumably, for a while, they’ll manage just fine. The hockey operations department remains strong. You’d have to think that the Blues’ best young players - defencemen Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk; forwards T. J. Oshie and David Perron - have some upside and thus can still get better.
But sometimes, the sort of convivial, understated aw-shucks leadership style that Davidson embraces is a difficult act to duplicate. Cliff Fletcher had it down too. They made coming to work not seem like work at all. Not everyone can manage that trick. It requires a certain amount of personal charm to pull it off properly.
They had a pretty good going in St. Louis, this last little while, and some of the credit had to go to Davidson, the man in charge of the whole shebang. It’s hard to imagine why the new ownership fronted by Tom Stillman, who was formerly a minority owner of the team, felt they needed to make a change.
Davidson was linked to a front-office position with the Columbus Blue Jackets back in May. In a year when Columbus’s credibility took a significant nose-dive after their bitter parting with Rick Nash, someone with Davidson’s unique skill sets is just what they need to restore some of their flagging credibility. It will interesting to see if he ends up there; or somewhere else in the NHL; or back in broadcasting. Or maybe he’ll just collect his severance and sit on the sidelines for a while, enjoying his sabbatical and silently thanking Checketts for that golden parachute he handed him on the way out the ownership door.