NHL commissioner: Blues status brighter with new ownership

Thursday, May 10, 2012 | 5:58 p.m. CDT
St. Louis Blues goaltender Brian Elliott defends against San Jose Sharks center Michael Handzus during the third period in Game 5 of an NHL Stanley Cup first-round hockey playoff series in St. Louis. The Blues won 3-1 and won the series 4-1.

ST. LOUIS — NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gave his stamp of approval to new St. Louis Blues ownership, saying the franchise's financial picture is much improved.

Bettman spent time at the podium alongside Tom Stillman, a beer distributor who heads an all-local ownership group, at a news conference Thursday.

"We know the future is extraordinarily bright," said Bettman, who referred to the Blues as a member of the NHL's "Original 12" franchises. "The balance sheet looks much, much better, much, much stronger.

"I know he won't rest until the players are hoisting the Stanley Cup."

Stillman, previously a minority owner, introduced 16 major investors including his father-in-law, former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, and a representative from previous ownership that will retain a significant but not controlling interest in the franchise. Stillman said the goal was to make the franchise financially sustainable for the long haul.

Bettman said the Blues are "less leveraged" and have more "equity" than before the sale.

"We are honored and humbled to take ownership," Stillman said. "Our new ownership group is 100 percent local, and we are 100 percent committed to the Blues and to St. Louis."

Stillman said it'll take some time to straighten out finances and asked for support from fans, local businesses and the rest of the community. He said most in the ownership group are lifelong hockey fans and most have season boxes.

Coach Ken Hitchcock watched the news conference from a doorway alongside president John Davidson. Most players on the current roster attended, along with more than a dozen former Blues.

The sale was thought to be about $130 million for the Blues, the AHL Peoria Rivermen, the Scottrade Center and what the team said was a "substantial" interest in the adjoining Peabody Opera House. The price is well below the $157 million that Forbes had valued the Blues in December, which was 27th among the 30 NHL teams according to the magazine.

The team sold for $150 million in 2006.

Stillman's group was a fallback option after a deal headed by Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer fell through on Dec. 31.

"I'd have to say a lot of times I didn't think it was going to happen," Stillman said. "If there was another strong local option, I would have been OK with that, too."

The Blues have been for sale for two years and were at least $10 million below the NHL's salary cap last season. They're coming off one of the best regular seasons in franchise history with a mix of emerging talent and veterans. The 109 points tied for second-best in the NHL and Hitchcock, general manager Doug Armey and captain David Backes are finalists for awards.

"If you study the franchise, it's in pretty good shape regarding the hockey itself," Davidson said. "I'm not going to talk about business because that's not my business right now to talk about business.

"The business side has come a long ways, and it's come a long ways from 6,000 people in the building to having out-of-this-world crowds and the playoffs and enthusiasm within the city itself."

St. Louis beat the San Jose Sharks in five games in the first round before getting swept by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round, a series that ended Sunday.

"We are fortunate to be taking over one of the best teams in the NHL, with a strong, mostly young nucleus and a very bright future," Stillman said. "Our top priority will be to put a serious contender on the ice year in and year out and to establish the Blues as an elite NHL franchise."

They inherit a motivated roster still recovering from the Kings series.

"I think everyone thought we'd have big beards and playing into June," forward Andy McDonald said earlier in the week. "Obviously, I'm disappointed, but I'm also encouraged because this team has a lot more to give."

The Stillman group becomes the eighth owner of the Blues since the franchise began in 1967. They bought the team from Towerbrook Capital Partners and Sports Capital Partners Worldwide, a group headed by former franchise chairman Dave Checketts.

The previous ownership's interest was rolled into Stillman's group with approximately half of the "common shares," according to a spokesman for Checketts.

"While we will still retain significant ownership in the Blues, we are happy that they are now in the hands of local ownership and wish them well," Checketts said in a statement. "We will continue to be Blues fans and enjoy what is a promising future."

Stillman is chairman and chief executive officer of Summit Distributing and for his first venture into professional sports purchased a minority share in the Blues in 2007. He played hockey and soccer at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt.

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