It was the 1995-96 NHL season. The Blues were looking awfully stylish in their blue, yellow, and red jerseys. The amount of future hall of famers on the squad was ridiculous. The Blues had recently hired Mike Keenan as their head coach and general manager. In the previous season, Keenan had led the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup championship in just his first year as head coach there. But week’s later due to a conflict with the Rangers GM, Keenan resigned. Then came the Blues who hired him.
One of the first moves Keenan made was trading an aging Brendan Shanahan for a young Chris Pronger. Both are great players but at the time, Shanahan was approaching 30 years old but still had plenty of gas in the tank and Pronger had only played in two NHL seasons, both for the Hartford Whalers and his potential was sky high. Some were not fans of the trade, but it made sense.
Before the season had started, Blues star Brett Hull was the captain of the team. Keenan and the Blues signed Shayne Corson. Keenan immediately stripped Hull of his captainship and handed it to Corson, even though he was just signed. This started a feud between Hull, the teams leader in goals and points that year, and Keenan. After Keenan left at the conclusion of the season, several players decided to go their own ways. Hull left after just two more seasons with the Blues to join the Dallas Stars, who he would win a Stanley Cup with.
Perhaps the biggest thing that happened during the 1995-96 season was the trade for The Great One. Wayne Gretzky was in his last year of his contract with the Los Angeles Kings, and the Kings were not a good team that year. So on February 27, 1996 the Blues traded Craig Johnson, Patrice Tardiff, Roman Vopat, and draft picks to the LA Kings for Gretzky. Gretzky had 21 points in 18 regular season games. He was also named the captain amidst his arrival. Late in the season, the Blues offered Gretzky a contract extension. Reportedly, Gretzky loved the city of St. Louis (his wife was an STL native) and the contract offer was in the area of what Gretzky was asking for.
However in the playoffs, Gretzky struggled mightily. In the second round of the playoffs against the Red Wings, the Blues fell behind and Gretzky didn’t’ look like his former self. So as what some saw as a motivational tool, Keenan pulled the contract offer to Gretzky off the table. After the season, Gretzky went on to sign with the New York Rangers. The Rangers actually tried to get Gretzky at the same time the Blues did and were about to but the deal fell through which allowed the Blues to execute the trade. Later after Gretzky retired, he said he thought St. Louis was going to be his final stop and was going to be the last team he played for.
Before the season had started, Keenan and the Blues signed future hall of fame goaltender Grant Fuhr. In 82 regular season games, Fuhr started in 79 games, including 76 consecutive games. Now for those who know hockey, that is not healthy for a starting goaltender. It does a lot of wear and tear and is certainly not an easy task for a goalie. The average starting goaltender in the NHL present day starts in about 60-70 games during the regular season. And even if they reach the 70+ mark, no goalie is going to play in 76 games in a row.
But the Blues reached the playoffs and Grant Fuhr ended up tearing several knee ligaments when Maple Leafs forward Nick Kypreos ran into him in the crease. The Blues were able to finish off the Leafs in six games with backup goaltender Jon Casey, who had only started three games in the regular season. But if you’re a Blues fan, you know what comes next. The Blues took the President Trophy winning Detroit Red Wings to Game 7 and Steve Yzerman unleashed the slapshot that haunts Blues fans ‘til this day. He let it go just inside the blue line and Casey saw it too late and it went in. Wings won it 1-0.
The 1995-96 Blues had seven current Hall of Famers on the team (Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr, Dale Hawerchuk, and Chris Pronger). Other notable players on the team included Geoff Courtnall, Ian Laperriere, Craig Mactavish, and Stephane Matteau. It’s truly a shame that Mike Keenan tore this team apart when in fact; a dynasty could have been built from it. The amount of talent on this team was unreal. But Keenan’s unruly style of coaching and decision-making drove the team apart, including the best hockey player in the NHL. Now all Blues fans can say is “who knows?” when it comes to what a team like that could have done with a better coach and management.