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Top Shelf: J.D. sticks to the Blueprint

The St. Louis Blues currently sit last in the Central Division with a 5-6-1 record.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

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The St. Louis Blues currently sit last in the Central Division with a 5-6-1 record. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Even when you’re doing something you love, not every day is a good day.

John Davidson can tell you that. And he would have told you it even before he left a cushy spot in the broadcast booth to become the St. Louis Blues’ president of hockey operations in June of 2006.

That was six days after the Blues had selected Erik Johnson first overall in the draft, on the heels of a season in which the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 1978-79 by finishing with a league-worst 57 points. 

Davidson, a former goalie chosen fifth overall by the Blues way back in 1973, didn’t re-join the Good Ship St. Louis with a mask over his eyes.

“If you take an opportunity like this and want to jump into it, you have to expect everything,” he said. “I said to my family when I first took it, we’re inheriting a 30th-place team here – dead last. This is going to be a school of hard knocks for a while and we’ve gone through that and it’s still tough, but that’s what it is.”

Whereas teams such as Toronto have been willing to part with first round picks in hopes of accelerating a turnaround, Davidson has stressed a ground zero approach from Day 1 of the Blues rebuild. Embracing the lean years it takes to get fat off quality draft picks isn’t always something fans are willing to do, but spectators in St. Louis seem to have bought into the plan.

In Davidson’s first season at the helm, 2006-07, the Blues finished dead last in attendance, with an average of just 12,520 people taking in the underwhelming happenings.

The next season, St. Louis was slotted at 13th in average attendance, before climbing to 10th last year, with typical crowds of 18,554  re-discovering a love for the team.

“Fans here are very respectful of the process,” Davidson said. “And we’ve preached patience and rebuilding the proper way. We’re on course, but our guys are so darn young.

“Everybody gets a little impatient, you want to climb that mountain real quick, but the only way you get to the top of the mountain in our game is a step at a time.”

The ascent was accentuated by the Blues’ incredible push for a playoff spot over the second half of last season. In fact, as recently as Oct. 3 of this year, when St. Louis had just finished sweeping the defending Western Conference-champion Red Wings in Sweden, you could probably find a few people who thought the Blues had an outside shot at winning the ultra-tough Central Division.

Middling results upon their return to North America have hushed that talk a bit, but such is life when your success or failure is so heavily dependant on the kind of still-developing youngsters that dot the Blues roster. For every great stride made by Johnson or 19-year-old blueliner Alex Pietrangelo, there’s a missed assignment and healthy scratch for 21-year-old center Patrik Berglund or a too-long, too-dry spell for 25-year-old David Backes.

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“We had some good progress last year; we’ve had an inconsistent beginning to this year, but that’s also part of the process when you play as many young people as we are,” Davidson said. “It’s gone well. We’ve shown progress, that’s the biggest key of all.”

Though St. Louis obviously believes the gateway to success starts with youth, Davidson’s club is still reliant on a slew of veteran players to help lead the way. One, in particular, stands out.

“The one guy I’ve really gotten to know as a player and who has bought into what we’re doing is Keith Tkachuk,” Davidson said. “He wanted to stay here, he’s been a good soldier for us. He’s a crusty veteran, been around the block, he wants to be a Blue, he wants to play in St. Louis, which is a great city to play in, and he’s really helped us with these young guys.

“We have a core of players here who want to be in St. Louis, they want to be Blues, they want the Blues to do well. It’s a great place for players to play, great fan base.”

While his career as an organization builder is still in its infant stages, Davidson will be honored next week by the Hockey Hall of Fame with the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for his nearly 30 years of quality work as a hockey broadcaster.

After an almost decade-long playing career with the Blues and Rangers, it must be rewarding for Davidson to be back on the “inside” of the game again. But life behind the microphone was a pretty good gig, too. Ever miss it, John?

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” he said. “There was a lot of friends I had made doing that job, but it’s an interesting mix.

“It’s just nice to be within the game itself and I’ve been lucky since I retired when I was 29 years of age. I’m still in this thing. It’s been good.”

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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