Ten Facts About a Fun Team is a new feature in which we’ll take a look back at a notable team and season from NHL history. That team may have been good. It may have been bad. But it was definitely interesting, and as such it deserves to be remembered.
When the St. Louis Blues signed Martin Brodeur last week, something about the move seemed vaguely … familiar.
The signing seemed like a curious decision, and one that was somewhat out of character for a Blues front office that’s spent years patiently building a legitimate Cup contender. The last time they tried to get fancy was the Ryan Miller trade and that didn’t work out well, so you figured the Blues would go back to being, well, the Blues.
But there was a time almost two decades ago when this kind of move — bringing in an aging, Hall of Fame–caliber veteran with a big name that he made elsewhere — was pretty much the Blues’ trademark. And during the 1995-96 season, it led to the creation of one of the most fascinating teams we’ve ever seen.
Of course, that year’s team had what we could politely call a “unique” vision at the top of the org chart. We might as well start there.
1. The 1995-96 Blues: From the mind of Mike Keenan
We need to start here, because all the madness that follows springs directly from Iron Mike.
The 1995-96 season was Keenan’s second as the coach and general manager of the Blues. He’d jumped to St. Louis after winning the Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994, citing a technicality in his contract and kicking off a debacle that ended up getting him suspended for 60 days. That suspension, and the half-season lockout that followed, prevented Keenan from wreaking too much havoc on the Blues roster.
The next year was different. With a full offseason to play with, Keenan went to work. He traded Brendan Shanahan for Chris Pronger. He signed Grant Fuhr as a free agent. He signed Shayne Corson, too, losing Curtis Joseph to the Oilers as compensation in the process. And a few weeks into the season, he stripped Brett Hull of his captaincy and gave it to Corson.
Hull didn’t especially appreciate that last move, and it set off a feud with Keenan that would be one of the dominant subplots of the season. Hull was the best player in franchise history and would go on to record his seventh consecutive 40-plus-goal season (not counting the lockout year), but Keenan didn’t like the winger’s offense-first style of play. To this day, it’s fair to say Hull is not a fan.
As the season wore on, the crusty coach/GM decided the franchise needed a new face. And so he did what any of us would do: He went out and landed the biggest star the game has ever known.
2. They traded for Wayne Gretzky
Any hockey fan can picture Gretzky’s greatest moments: smashing records and lifting Stanley Cups as a kid in Edmonton; bringing the game to a whole new segment of fans as a slickly marketed star in Los Angeles; taking one last victory lap as a classy veteran in New York. But you could be forgiven for forgetting that The Great One was also, briefly, a St. Louis Blue. Lots of hockey fans have.
With the 1996 trade deadline approaching and Gretzky playing out the final year of his deal on a bad Kings club, it became apparent that Los Angeles could end up moving its captain. The Rangers emerged as the favorite, but couldn’t close. That opened the door for the Blues, and Keenan got the deal done: Gretzky for Craig Johnson, Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat, and draft picks.
That doesn’t sound like much, and in hindsight it wasn’t. Vopat was the centerpiece, a 19-year-old rookie who’d played 25 games in St. Louis. Johnson and Tardif were both young forwards. Of the group, only Johnson went on to any sort of productive career, although even that was mostly as a depth guy, and none of the players the Kings chose with the draft picks ever played in the NHL.
Keenan might have been a tyrant in the dressing room, but he knew how to win a trade. Gretzky was immediately named captain, relieving Corson of his duties. The idea of the greatest setup man in history being paired with Hull was almost too good to be true. Gretzky even scored in his first game.
And besides, there was little doubt Gretzky would feel right at home in the St. Louis dressing room …