Despite problems, Blues extend contract of coach

Thursday, June 23, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- The team's for sale, the league has been shut down for a year and just lost a national television contract. But life goes on for the St. Louis Blues.

On Wednesday, the team with the odd distinction of 25 straight playoff appearances without a sniff of the NHL's Stanley Cup Finals announced that head coach Mike Kitchen has been signed through the 2005-06 season. Terms were not released.

Kitchen took over after Joel Quenneville was fired with 21 games remaining in the 2003-04 season. The 10-7-4 finish was good enough to earn a playoff spot in the season's final week.

"Kitch took over at a tough time last year and did a great job for us -- got us into the playoffs," general manager Larry Pleau said. "I think he's going to be an excellent coach."

The Blues also named Curt Fraser as assistant coach.

The announcements came as peewee players skated on the Savvis Center ice under the instruction of Kitchen, his assistants and minor-league coaches. It was part of an event called Hockey Fest aimed at showing that despite all the uncertainty, the Blues are still focused on their fans and the 2005-06 season -- assuming there is one.

"We've got to reach out to the fans," Pleau said. "We just can't expect them to come back. We can't take the attitude that they're just going to walk back into the building."

St. Louis isn't Montreal, Toronto or Detroit, but it has been solidly behind the Blues since the team joined the NHL in the 1967 expansion that doubled the size of the league to 12 teams. For the 2003-04 season, the Blues' average attendance of 18,560 was sixth-best.

That seems so long ago. Indications are that a season without hockey has left many fans more apathetic than angry. ESPN announced in May it would not pick up its $60-million option for broadcasting rights next season.

Adding to the uncertainty in St. Louis was last week's announcement that owners Bill and Nancy Laurie plan to sell the Blues, a franchise that has been a moderate success on the ice but a financial struggle off of it.

The combined cash deficits of the Blues and the Savvis Center since the building opened in 1994 have exceeded $225 million, team president Mark Sauer said. For the 2003-04 season alone, the team lost about $40 million.

Financially, the lockout was a blessing -- the Blues lost only $20 million last season, when player salaries did not have to be paid.

Despite all that is swirling around them, Pleau and Kitchen say they're focused on keeping the Blues competitive. Pleau is staying on top of labor talks, checking with scouts, preparing for the draft.

Kitchen checks in periodically with his players, making sure they're staying in playing shape. He's spent time on Worcester, Mass., watching Blues' minor-leaguers.

Kitchen expects the game to come back faster and better once it returns, with tweaking of rules aimed at opening up the game.

"I think the NHL cares about the fans," Kitchen said. "We've hurt them in a lot of different ways by being out all season. And the fans are frustrated by that."

Fans agree, but parents of the youngsters skating at the Savvis Center expect to return if and when the NHL does.

Mark Foley saw more than his share of hockey this past season even without the Blues. Youth hockey meant more than 140 games combined for his 6- and 9-year-old sons.

"It's not like I missed hockey, but I missed the Blues last year," Foley, of Glen Carbon, Ill., said. "We'll be back."

Despite their relative popularity, there is some concern the Blues could be sold to out-of-town interests and moved. Earlier this week, Howard Baldwin, former owner of two NHL franchises, told the Kansas City Star he would look into the possibility of buying the team and moving it to Kansas City.

Pleau and Kitchen expect the Blues to stay where they are.

"I think the support, the tradition, the history of this franchise in this city -- I think we will remain here," Pleau said.

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