ST. LOUIS – Tom Stillman nodded and smiled when the applause began, a new era in St. Louis Blues history starting with a standing ovation.
To his right on the stage, mayor Francis Slay and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman joined in the welcome. Below, a large crowd of friends and family, current and former players, members of the new Blues ownership group and other acquaintances marked the moment with 41 seconds of praise.
Soon, Stillman turned toward the microphone at Scottrade Center and addressed the occasion. The franchise’s two-year search for an owner was complete, and his local group of 16 investors had given the Blues stability. He thanked Slay and Bettman, then spoke about what the purchase meant to him.
“Our group is honored and humbled to take ownership of our hometown Blues,” Stillman said. “We are 100 percent local and 100 percent committed to the Blues and to the city of St. Louis. We see the Blues franchise as a hometown institution, a critical civic asset. And we see ourselves more as stewards of the Blues than owners.”
With those words Thursday, the man who will become the face of the Blues’ eighth owner had accepted his role. The sale, reportedly for an estimated $130 million, had given his group control of the Blues, the American Hockey League’s Peoria (Ill.) Rivermen, the Scottrade Center and the adjacent Peabody Opera House. It closed a two-year pursuit that Stillman at times considered “up-and-down” and “an outside chance.”
Stillman’s introduction meant closure, but it also opened a new beginning. The former minority owner heads a group that will be entrusted to help the Blues extend momentum from their best season in recent memory: a 49-22-11 regular-season record with 109 points, a franchise-record 30 victories at home and an appearance in the Western Conference semifinals for the first time since the 2001-02 campaign.
The purchase by Stillman’s group has made the Blues more financially sound. Now work begins to preserve the franchise’s upward trajectory.
“Tom now has a strong foundation,” Bettman told FOXSportsMidwest.com. “If you take what’s in place now – the fact that there’s a strong ownership group of local people, and you have Tom Stillman at the helm – I think the future is very bright. We’re coming off what is really a terrific season for the Blues and Blues fans. I think Tom’s vision is it only gets better from here.”
Recently, a friend asked Stillman if owning the Blues would be a dream come true. No, he answered, because he never could have dreamed such a scenario would be possible.
Stillman’s interest in leading an ownership group began in May 2010, when former Blues chairman Dave Checketts announced that TowerBrook Capital Partners, the team’s top investor since 2006, was divesting its interest.
Later, in March 2011, Checketts said TowerBrook Capital and his group, Sports Capital Partners Worldwide, had placed the Blues on the market.
The news caused a reaction. Stillman, CEO of St. Louis-based Summit Distributing, owned a 10 percent share of the team as a minority owner since 2007. He worried what an uncertain future would mean for the franchise.
“It only started once TowerBrook announced that it was selling its interest, and therefore at that time it looked like the whole team would get sold, and as a result, I would no longer be involved,” Stillman said. “I didn’t want that to happen. We just wanted to get ourselves in position in case that did happen.”
Stillman brings a background in hockey to his role. He was an enthusiast growing up in suburban Minneapolis, where he spent countless hours with friends at local rinks and on a frozen creek behind his home. Former NHL greats Brett Hull, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky were his heroes.
Later, he played hockey and soccer at Middlebury (Vt.) College. His passion for the game made him a common sight at the Blues’ alumni skate sessions in recent years, where he said he was jokingly referred to as “Father Time” for “moving at a glacial pace.”
“He’s just a good guy that comes from a very good family,” Blues president John Davidson told FoxSportsMidwest.com. “(It’s) kind of nice to be able to sit and chat with him. He’s a good man.”
Stillman’s group takes ownership at an opportune time. Coach Ken Hitchcock was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, center David Backes was named a finalist for the Selke Award and general manager Doug Armstrong was named a finalist for GM of the Year. The nominations show a consistency that allowed the Blues to finish just three points short of clinching their first Presidents’ Trophy since the 1999-2000 season.
The Blues’ turnaround was one of the NHL’s biggest surprises. But the season also offered a growth moment: Some view being swept by the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference semifinals as a lesson that can be used in the franchise’s attempt to win its first Stanley Cup. To some, the result was a rite of passage for a young team learning what it takes to survive in the postseason.
Finding ownership is another sign of progress. Stillman approaches his position as a chance to build. “I think it’s very important to pick up where we left off and move from there,” he said. “Very few teams in the last several years have ultimately won the Stanley Cup without going through what we went through this year. It’s part of the process. It’s part of learning just how hard it is.”
Stillman has a vision for the future.
He knows his group’s purchase made the Blues healthier financially, but he also understands there’s work to do. He spoke like a smart businessman Thursday: He addressed a need to control expenses and increase revenue while keeping the team’s competitive interests in mind.
Early on, he said, organizing the Blues’ finances will be his group’s top priority.
“The people in that group are committed to the Blues and St. Louis,” Stillman said. “They understand the importance of a major-league franchise like the Blues to a city (like) St. Louis. They wanted to make sure that it was successful and stabling.”
That effort could go far in making the Blues one of the league’s most consistent franchises again.
For the most part, performance under Checketts/SCP Worldwide declined. St. Louis has two postseason appearances since 2006. In addition, the Blues hadn’t won a playoff series since 2002 until reaching the Western Conference semifinals this spring.
Those totals stand in contrast to earlier gains. The Blues made the Stanley Cup playoffs each season from 1980 to 2004. The last 11 years of the streak included four trips to the Western Conference semifinals and one appearance in the Western Conference finals.
“It’s huge,” Davidson said of maintaining the Blues’ momentum. “It’s very important, because everybody else is going to try to improve too. It’s going to be tough. It will be a battle. That’s what sports are – that’s what’s it’s about. It’s an everyday evolution – you try to improve your franchise in all areas everyday. You think about different ways: Could we be scouting in this country a little more? Should we be thinking about this guy in the draft? … It goes on and on and on. It’s going to be hard.”
Perhaps so, but Stillman pictures all the work leading to the NHL’s greatest prize. Before leaving the stage Thursday, he was asked to imagine the emotions of bringing a Stanley Cup to St. Louis.
He paused. Then he smiled before answering.
“I guess I’d start answering that by the feeling you get in this city when the Blues start getting on a roll,” he said. “It’s as though you’ve touched this live nerve, this third rail in this city, and people start buzzing. … If you take that, and you multiple that several times by a run all the way to the Stanley Cup and then a celebration afterward – it’s hard to imagine the level of excitement.”