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The NHL / Chris Baker : Ornest Is Turning the Blues Into a Sound Team

January 22, 1986|CHRIS BAKER

It was in January of 1983 that Harry Ornest spotted the newspaper story that changed his life.

"I read that Ralston Purina was selling the St. Louis Blues to a group in Saskatoon, Canada," Ornest, 62, recalled recently.

The Blues had lost an estimated $17 million in the six years that Ralston owned the team, and reportedly were being sold for $11.7 million.

Ornest's lifelong dream had been to own a National Hockey League franchise.

Although he once had owned a minor league baseball team in Vancouver, he twice had failed in an effort to acquire an NHL team.

First, he had been unsuccessful in a bid to buy the Vancouver Canucks before the team was admitted to the NHL.

Later, he had been a member of a group that lost out to Jack Kent Cooke in an attempt to acquire the NHL franchise in Los Angeles.

Now, Ornest, who had made his millions through real estate investments and a vending machine business in Western Canada, was being given another opportunity.

When the St. Louis deal came up, Ornest jumped in, buying the Blues and the St. Louis Arena in July of 1983.

Because of the uncertainty of ownership, however, the Blues had not participated in the NHL draft, putting them behind the 20 other teams right from the start.

The Arena wasn't in much better shape than the team. Built in 1929 and opened for hockey in 1931, it is the third-oldest building in the league, behind Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium.

Ornest set about changing both.

So far, he said, he has spent $2.5 million on improvements to the building. He has done an even better job with the team.

Ronald Caron, who was the Montreal Canadiens' chief scout, was hired as director of hockey operations, and Jacques Demers, who had coached for the Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques, was brought in to coach the team.

The Blues finished second in the Norris Division in 1983-84, Ornest's first season as owner. Last season, they won the division championship, but lost to the Minnesota North Stars in the first round of the playoffs.

Currently in second place in the division, they have sold about 6,000 season tickets and are averaging close to 13,000 fans a game. They have had two sellouts this season, both against the Chicago Black Hawks.

Ornest said the team was close to breaking even last season, and that has brought about another problem.

There have been reports in St. Louis that a group in Hamilton, Canada--the same one that failed last year in an effort to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins--is trying to buy the Blues.

Hamilton recently opened a new arena and played host to the world junior hockey championships earlier this month.

Ornest confirmed the attempt, but said he had rebuffed it.

"I had a substantial offer and I rejected it," he said. "We're committed to St. Louis and we're committed not to going broke."

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