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Singing the Blues in Saskatoon




No place in the world exports more potash and uranium as the Canadian province Saskatchewan. Minerals, however, are not the only product that comes from the land of “Easy to Draw, Hard to Spell,” as the center Prairie province also leads the world in the production of NHL players per capita.


Despite the number of players that come from Saskatchewan, the province has never been home to an NHL team. While its population is not that much lower than that of its neighbor, Manitoba, Saskatchewan lacks something that Manitoba has – a city like Winnipeg which is home to a majority of its population. Rather, Saskatoon (metro population 260,000) and Regina (metro population 210,000) are its largest cities. Incredibly, despite those comparatively small urban centers, had one NHL owner had his way years ago, the NHL would have set up shop in the rectangular province.


The year is 1976. Emile Francis, a native of, you guessed it, Saskatchewan is hired as the GM of the St. Louis Blues. The team is in poor financial shape, and Francis successfully appealed to the St. Louis-based Ralston Purina company to purchase the team. Ralston Purina’s chairman, R. Hal Dean agreed to the purchase only because it appeared that it was the only way to keep the team in the city, so the purchase was more viewed as a civic duty than a business decision.


When Dean retired in 1982, his replacement, William Stiritz had a far different view of the team. Stiritz saw a division of a company that was hemorrhaging cash, and decided to put the team up for sale. It appeared that the team would be leaving St. Louis, but I doubt anyone could have expected the destination their new prospective owners would choose: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.


A group led by Bill Hunter, one of the founders of the WHA, and a former owner of the Edmonton Oilers reached an agreement to purchase the team from Ralston Purina. An arrangement was in place to break ground for an 18,000 seat arena, and everything seemed primed for the hockey world to meet the Saskatoon Blues.


The news that the team had been sold came as a shock to the team’s fan base in St. Louis on January 12, 1983, but it might have been a bigger shock to the team. The Blues were, appropriately enough, in Edmonton on a road trip when they received word of the pending sale on December 7. It was a devastating shock wave to the team, who collapsed down the stretch to post one of the worst records in team history.


The idea of moving the team to Saskatoon was widely mocked. Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard poked fun at the idea and the city by quipping, “I don’t want to be taking dogleds to get around. Francis requested to be released from his contract and his desire was granted. Despite the resistance and mockery offered by many, however, the deal was close. It was only one hurdle away from Hunter’s dream coming true. All that was left was approval by the NHL Board of Governors.


That approval would be denied in emphatic fashion. The vote against the sale was an overwhelming 15-3. No doubt the city’s small population played a role in the denial, but Hunter was also persona non grata in the NHL because of his earlier association and involvement with the WHA. Speaking of being told no, Hunter said, “I was braced for it, even half expecting it. Still I was unprepared for the weight that tiny little syllable would drop on my shoulders.”


The drama was not over for the Blues. They still had an unwilling owner – one that had become angry, at that. On May 24, Ralston Purina filed a $60 million anti-trust lawsuit against the league, NHL President John Zeigler, and the owners that voted against the sale or abstained. On June 3, the company announced that they would not remain in hockey and had no intention to continue operating the team, and said they would leave it to the NHL to “remit any proceeds from a dissolution or sale to the company.”


Further, Ralston Purina refused to authorize team personnel to participate in the 1983 draft. Some team executives went to Montreal on their own dime, believing that permission would eventually be granted, but it was not to be. The Blues did not participate in the draft and forfeited their draft picks. To this day, no team has ever boycotted another NHL draft. In response to the move, the NHL filed a $78 million counter claim against Ralston Purina, claiming that the company wrongly damaged “the league by willfully, wantonly and maliciously collapsing its St. Louis Blues hockey operation.” Soon the owners named in Ralston Purina’s suit filed a similar lawsuit. For its part, the company threatened to dissolve the team and sell off assets and players, which brought the threat of a lawsuit from the NHLPA if the players positions were lost.


To avoid losing a team and another lawsuit, the NHL took ownership of the Blues from Ralston Purina for violations of the league constitution. It was announced that the league would try to keep the team in St. Louis, but with such a fluid situation, no guarantee could be given. Zeigler said the league would likely not operate the franchise itself, meaning the team was not out of the woods. However, an ownership bid from a group led by businessman Harry Ornest was accepted just before the team was to be disbanded. Ornest bought the team for $12 million (a sum that would eventually be transferred to Ralston Purina after a settlement of the lawsuits), and the Checkerdome from Ralston Purina for $5 million. After the confusion, stunningly, the team was ready for opening day of the 1983-84 season.


The Blues saga was quite dramatic to say the least. It nearly saw the team move to the most unlikely of cities, then nearly saw the collapse of the team. Nearly forgotten today, the Saskatoon Blues nearly changed the landscape of the NHL as we know it. Now we are left only with the “what if’s.”

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