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No Time to Be Singing the Blues

May 03, 1987|Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Blues' season ended abruptly with first-round elimination in the NHL playoffs, but new chairman of the board Michael F. Shanahan does not dwell on the past. He tries to learn from it.

"I spent a day saying 'Doggone it,' but tomorrow and the day after that there will be a little less disappointment," Shanahan said. "The season ended fast, but we'll be back."

The Blues were eliminated in six games by the Toronto Maple Leafs after winning the regular-season title in the Norris Division. Still, Shanahan has plenty of believers, including his players.

Since the 46-year-old Shanahan and a group of investors purchased the Blues from Harry Ornest last Dec. 12, the lifetime St. Louis resident has been the object of much praise.

Shanahan, president and chief executive officer of a military equipment company called Engineered Air Systems Inc., didn't immediately produce a Stanley Cup contender. In fact, while winning the Norris Division, the injury-plagued Blues' performance actually was down from last season. St. Louis improved from third to first, but finished one game under .500.

What Shanahan did was end a period of turbulence for the franchise and confirm to fans and players that the Blues, rumored on the move, would remain in St. Louis.

Players and Blues front office personnel say Shanahan has made an easy transition from the board room to the locker room by using a personal touch.

"The little things mean a lot," said Blues center Doug Gilmour, who finished fifth in the NHL with 105 points. "This is the fourth year I've been here, and it's the first year I got a Christmas gift."

Added injured forward Brian Sutter: "He's such a fine, down-to-earth man. He's made it fun, that's for sure."

Shanahan has given baby gifts to players' wives, held an investment seminar for the players themselves and made frequent postgame clubhouse visits, win or lose. He once showed up alone at the airport to greet the team after a successful trip.

Because the Blues had so many injuries, he authorized midseason bonuses to the team even though the incentives were not met.

Before playoffs began, he gave contract extensions to vice president-general manager Ron Caron and President Jack Quinn.

He also pressed the city, which owns the 1929-vintage Arena, to clean up the place. The facelift included an upgrading of restroom facilities and a fresh coat of paint. He has conducted "white glove" inspections of the premises to make sure the fans are happy.

As a byproduct, regular-season attendance was up 15% over last season.

Shanahan is new to the business, but Quinn doesn't think the novelty will wear off.

"You've got to give him high grades," Quinn said before getting his contract extension. "And I think he's in this for the long haul."

Operating a professional hockey franchise was never one of Shanahan's secret dreams. Shanahan has made his mark in the highly competitive world of defense contracting.

Engineered Air Systems has gone from one to four plants in five years, with products such as lightweight decontamination units and smoke generators to screen areas during tactical operations. The company also designed the environmental control systems for all 1,000 Minutemen missile sites, Shanahan said.

His connection to professional sports? Shanahan is a former Blues season ticket-holder.

Shanahan said it came as a shock when Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. suggested he head a group of investors to buy the team.

"That's a question you don't expect," Shanahan said. "But we began discussing it, and I got involved."

Now he's hooked, and every night at The Arena was family night this season for the Shanahans. He and his wife, Mary Ann, and the couple's three children, 22-year-old Megan, 20-year-old Mike and 17-year-old Maureen, were a fixture in the owner's box.

In stark contrast to the clean-cut Shanahan regime was the stormy era of Harry Ornest.

Ornest was trumpeted as a savior when he purchased the team in March 1983 and thus kept the Blues from being shipped to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He made other positive moves by hiring Quinn and Caron, who in turn hired Jacques Demers to coach.

The Blues built with young players, and in 1985-86, Demers' third season, St. Louis advanced to the Stanley Cup semifinals.

Off the ice, the outlook was not so rosy.

Ornest was constantly at odds with the city, feuding with Mayor Schoemehl and haggling over the lack of ticket sales. He began to court offers from other cities, such as Hamilton, Ontario. Demers, popular with players and fans, apparently had agreed verbally to a three-year extension before jumping to the Detroit Red Wings last June, prompting a civil suit.

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