In 1996, the St. Louis Blues made one of their highest profile trades ever and fans were dreaming of the possibilities. A few, short months later, it had all fallen apart.
When the St. Louis Blues acquired Wayne Gretzky on February 26, 1996, fans of the Note began dreaming of what might be. The greatest scorer that ever lived was going to suit up in a Blues sweater and it was hard not to be giddy.
The Blues were going to have Gretzky pairing with Brett Hull. Not only were these two of the most prolific scorers of their age, if not any age, but they were good friends too. The Blues did not have to worry about the chemistry part since that was taken care of beforehand.
Unfortunately, for those of us that lived through it, the pairing of Hull and Gretzky was even shorter than the potential all-time duo of Hull and Adam Oates. While Gretzky was in the twilight of his career, he could have still been an enormously valuable piece for the Blues going forward.
While the overtime loss against the Detroit Red Wings on May 16, 1996 ripped all our hearts out, little did we know that would be the final time we would see Gretzky wear the Blue Note until exhibition games over 20 years later.
Fans that are too young to remember those days probably wonder what the big deal is. To put it in today’s perspective, it would be as though the Blues traded for Sidney Crosby, saw him walk after the season and were then left to wonder what might have been.
The problem we face with this question is Gretzky wanted to stay. In fact, he thought St. Louis was going to be his final spot.
That has been something he has reiterated over the years. “Look, if I had my druthers, I would have finished my career here,” Gretzky told Dan O’Neil in 2016.
So, what if the Blues had chosen Grezky over Keenan? In retrospect, they should have done just that, if for no other reason than they ended up firing Keenan before the midway point of the following season.
The main issue is the Blues gave Keenan too much power. While Keenan deserves credit for being the man that made the trade to acquire Gretzky, he was also the man who single-handedly drove him out.
The team had already put the bones of a three-year contract together for Gretzky in April of that season. Keenan being Keenan, he yanked the deal off the table when Gretzky did not live up to Keenan’s expectations.
Keenan was known for being a “hardass” for lack of a better term. He proved that by benching Gretzky for much of the third period of Game 2 against Detroit.
Iron Mike probably thought his tactic worked since Gretzky scored in Game 4. Yet, Gretzky had a pretty good playoff overall.
We remember the turnover that led to Steve Yzerman‘s goal, but he was solid overall. Gretzky led the Blues with 16 points in the playoffs. Only two of those were goals, but Gretzky was primarily a playmaker outside of his Edmonton days.
The truth is St. Louis could have used Gretzky going forward. He was getting older, but the Great One still managed to be productive.
In two full seasons with the New York Rangers, after leaving St. Louis, Gretzky scored over 20 goals and 90-plus points. Even in his final season, where he only played 70 games, he scored 62 points.
To put that in perspective, Gretzky would have led the Blues in scoring in those first two years and would have been second on the team in scoring the final year. St. Louis could have used those extra points.
Additionally, Gretzky might have done even better if he stayed with the Blues.
“What made me good in St. Louis was Brett Hull, Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger,. Had I stayed there, from an offensive point of view, I would have exceeded what I did (in New York) over the next three years.” – Gretzky in the Post-Dispatch
If nothing else, Gretzky might have improved Hull’s numbers. Pierre Turgeon was one of the best players the Blues had in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, but just think if St. Louis had him as the second center and Gretzky on the top line.
Gretzky would have also given St. Louis that winning attitude. The thing that seemed to be constantly missing from the Blues locker room was someone who knew how to win and how to drag his team to that holy grail.
Hull was a fantastic player, but he had to go elsewhere to win. He won in Dallas because he was in a room of players that knew how to get it done and he could focus on the game instead of trying to do everything.
If the Blues had both Al MacInnis and Gretzky in the locker room for more years, they might have accomplished what St. Louis finally witnessed in 2019.
Gretzky provided a confidence that the Blues, as a franchise, often lacked. “We had a really good hockey team, and I’m convinced today that if we could have beaten Detroit in double overtime, we could have beaten Colorado,” Gretzky said in O’Neil’s article. “We had a little bit more playoff experience than Colorado. And, I’m not taking anything away from them, but if we’d have had Fuhrsie in net, with our experience, maybe the outcome would have been different.”
As a fan of Patrick Roy, getting by Colorado would have been difficult. However, it’s easy to underestimate how good Gretzky was and how much of a difference he might have made.
Instead, we will never know how big Gretzky could have been in St. Louis. The Blues chose to keep Keenan, whose reign in St. Louis was so up and down, it is hard to keep in perspective.
The bottom line is the Blues made the wrong call. It becomes more obvious by the fact they fired Keenan shortly after.
Jack Quinn could have stepped in and told Keenan to put the deal back on the table. Mike Shanahan, then owner, could have put his foot down.
Gretzky was not the type to make this a him-or-me situation, but that’s what it ended up being. There was no way he would stay with Keenan.
Normally siding with the player is an iffy proposition since there’s always another good player out there. This was a great player and one that should have retired in St. Louis.
There’s no way of knowing if the Blues would have won a Stanley Cup with Gretzky in town. Colorado and Detroit were both stacked. It would have been nice to see what the Great One could have done with Hull, MacInnis and Pronger by his side though.