ST. LOUIS — “Thank you, fans,” the greeting painted on NHL rinks the year after the lockout, rang hollow coming from the St. Louis Blues. New ownership really means it.
Revamping a roster that led to a last-place overall finish last season, raising payroll and changing coaches in midseason was the first step for the franchise in its effort to put people back in the seats. On Sunday, players, coaches and management fanned out to nine area rinks for a meet and greet, and on Saturday the team is offering free concessions.
They mean to make inroads both on and off the ice.
“Our team’s playing better, but this has been on the schedule for a while,” team president John Davidson said Monday. “It’s not necessarily about sales, it’s about reconnecting with our fans.
“Athletes come and go, but when they’re here, they’re going to be a part of the community.”
One of Davidson’s first moves was setting a date to retire Brett Hull’s No. 16 jersey, a festive December night that gave the Blues their first sellout of the season. The field trip and the free food game, which will produce another packed house, aim to continue the momentum.
Fans waited an hour or more at the Kirkwood Community Center to have jerseys, yearbooks and hats signed. Players matched that dedication with enthusiasm.
In several of the rinks, they also hit the ice to assist in running clinics.
“We’ve never done anything of this scale,” defenseman Barret Jackman said. “I know J.D. was real adamant about getting out in the community, and the guys are happy to oblige.”
Jeff Street of St. Charles made a day of it, hitting three of the rinks along with his two young sons while amassing signatures.
“We made the rounds,” Street said. “It’s great that the team decided to do this.”
Scott Modde of Kirkwood and his two sons waited patiently for an hour for a few autographs and a little chitchat with the players. His verdict: “It’s great P.R.”
“Just an hour,” Modde said. “There were people with a longer line than that. It’s been wonderful.
“They were happy, smiling, very generous.”
Attendance has been on the rise since Davidson made his first tough decision, firing Mike Kitchen and hiring detail-oriented Andy Murray on Dec. 12. There were nine crowds below 10,000 before Murray and there’s been one since, for an ill-timed 5 p.m. Sunday game.
Davidson said bigger crowds are not the main aim of the Blues’ initiatives.
“Coming here from New York, I could sense a disconnect,” he said. “There was a serious disconnect. New ownership wants to create goodwill and create a buzz.”
The Blues trailed the NHL after previous ownership gutted the roster, trading off star defenseman Chris Pronger and just about every other marketable player in a misguided effort to facilitate the sale. Their 25-year playoff run, the longest in professional sports, came to an ignominious end, and attendance steadily dwindled.
The Blues were in last place again when Murray, who has a reputation as a coach who can mold young talent, took over. The Blues exited the cellar after scoring a point in eight straight games, and were 6-4-3 under Murray heading into Tuesday’s game at Columbus.
“The way we’re playing, not just winning games but giving a consistent effort, that’s the kind of product fans want to see,” said rookie forward David Backes. “That’s the kind of product fans want to see, and they’re starting to come out more and more.”
The Blues aren’t leaving that to chance.
“People here are good hockey fans,” Jackman said. “I think this is just to remind them the Blues are still around.”