Davidson proud, persistent as Blues president

Updated: November 20, 2006, 3:03 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Danger pay is nothing new to John Davidson.

Not for a man who worked on northern Alberta power lines in his teens, or verbally jousted Canadian hockey columnist Al Strachan during countless "Hot Stove Lounge" segments of "Hockey Night in Canada" telecasts.

But this …this assignment just might beat them all.

"You know what bothers me," momentarily bristled the Blues' new president of hockey operations, "this obsession with our attendance figures. Look, facts are facts. You can't dispute the numbers.

John Davidson
Duffy-Marie Arnoult/WireImage.comAfter playing in the NHL and serving as a TV analyst for the sport, John Davidson has moved to the front office.

"But when I read [Oilers defenseman Marc-Andre] Bergeron saying things like 'We get more people for practices,' that pisses me off. It's as if they're laughing at us.

"How long ago were they struggling to put people in the seats in Edmonton? Or here in Calgary, for that matter? Six years ago? Seven? There are some awfully short memories, obviously. The world goes around and around."

Davidson pauses, as if readying for a trademark Guy Lafleur slap shot off the right wing three decades ago. "We're going to get there."

Anyone old enough to remember the electric atmosphere in the old Checkerdome/St. Louis Arena, when the organist would start pounding that jaunty Budweiser theme or "When the Saints Go Marching In" or the eruption of noise when Brett Hull would flick his wrists like a wet towel snapped in a cold wind and the puck would explode behind some hapless goaltender, knows what a grand hockey town St. Louis can be.

This isn't some sunbelt franchise still in its infancy. These are, by gawd, the St. Louis Blues.

The Blues of Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante, the Red Baron and Scotty and Barclay Plager, wearing his heart on his sleeve like a flag, holding off cancer until the 1988 All-Star Game in St. Louis so he could say goodbye to his second family.

The Blues of Bernie Federko and Brian Sutter and Liut and Emile (The Cat) Francis and the Golden Brett and Wayne Gretzky (ever so briefly). Of Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger.

"Change doesn't happen overnight," Davidson said. "There's a price to be paid for getting where you want to go."

He believes Lee Stempniak is going to be a "special player." As is Christian Backman. And the club's 2006 first-round pick, Bloomington, Minn.-born defenseman Erik Johnson. The talent level on the farm in Peoria, led by defenseman Jeff Woywitka, is encouraging. Former Calder Trophy winner Barret Jackman and Eric Brewer aren't old, but injuries have slowed their progress and Davidson believes the best is yet to come for both.

His signing of old free agents, such as Doug Weight and Bill Guerin, raised eyebrows in the offseason, but clearly they're stopgaps in the process.

"The kids," he said, "are the future of the St. Louis Blues. Of the seven free agents we signed, many, like Dougie Weight, have ties to the team and the city. And all seven were in the playoffs last year. That was important to us."

John Davidson climbed down from the broadcast booth at Madison Square Garden and NBC, from one of the best gigs in all of hockey, the undisputed calm, reasoning voice of the game in the United States, to step into the incinerator of NHL management.

"Why do it?" Davidson said, shrugging. "I was getting stale. A case of 'Been there, done that,' I suppose. No disrespect to the job, I loved it. But I saw 153 games last year, including the Olympics. 153! I was tired. I needed a change.

"The group coming in, with [Blues chairman] Dave Checketts, I knew and felt comfortable with. Put it this way: If I hadn't done it, five years down the road, I know I'd be asking myself, 'Why didn't you take the shot?'"

OK, but to take on all these headaches?

"It's not as if I carry around a bottle of Advil with me wherever I go," Davidson said. "I do wake up nights now, though, still thinking about a missed play in our own zone or a referee's call. And in this job, there are so many fires to put out. Maybe someone could get me an extinguisher for Christmas, then I could tie it to my back."

There's a distinctly Bluesie feel to what Davidson is pushing to build in the shadow of the big Arch. Davidson, of course, was a draft pick of the organization and started his goaltending career in St. Loo in 1973.

He retained Mike Kitchen, an assistant with the Blues for 6-½ seasons, as head coach. He brought in another alumnus, Rick Wamsley, as goaltending guru. Al MacInnis, who had his No. 2 raised to the rafters of the Scottrade Center seven months ago, has been promoted to be Davidson's right-hand man as vice president of hockey operations.

But all the famous names and familiar faces are not in themselves going to get this thing turned around.

"The bottom line is winning," MacInnis said. "On a rink or a court or a field or a diamond. It's simple, really. If you win, people get excited. If you win, people want to watch you play."

And right now, without trying to belabor a touchy subject, not enough people want to watch the Bluenotes play. And J.D. is right. Facts are facts. Numbers don't lie. The team has had eight under-10,000 crowds after averaging 18,000-plus for years in the Kiel Center-turned-Savvis Center. The lockout of 2004 and the first non-playoff year in a quarter-century last season combined to drop the average down to just over 14,000. They'll need a startling turnaround to draw that many this season.

"There were a lot of people upset by the lockout and then the previous ownership stripping down the team," MacInnis said. "Making the Pronger trade, as an example.

"It's never one thing. It's cumulative. But it all hurt. Look, we're all Cardinal fans, what they did was great for the city. But when they got on that run and won the World Series, people were paying a lot of money to watch them. It affected our gates in October and November."

What the future holds for December through mid-April remains unclear, if somewhat ominous. The old broadcaster admitted there are days when manning the power lines or yakking with Strachan seems like child's play in comparison.

"We've inherited what we have," Davidson said, sighing. "We got in late. July 1 is late, believe me. But this is a proud group of people … [GM] Larry [Pleau], Al. We care about the city. We care about the Blues.

"We will get there," he repeated. "We are going to get there."

Here's hoping.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.