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Kragthorpe: RSL's Checketts still facing the music in sports pursuits

Published February 14, 2011 10:03 pm

Déjà vu • Funding fix with Blues is similar to one he had with Jazz.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

St. Louis • Dave Checketts can see his life in the music note.

The logo adorning the St. Louis Blues' hockey jerseys looks a lot like the symbol of his first big job in sports. It all started nearly 30 years ago with the oddly named, underfunded Utah Jazz. Besides remaking the organization and establishing its place in the market, Checketts was charged with finding more money to make it all work.

That describes his challenge with the Blues, although their nickname actually fits.

"I should have known this was going to be my life," Checketts, 55, said with a wry smile, as the Blues skated on the Scotttrade Center ice below.

Much like the quest for funding that led him to Larry H. Miller with the Jazz and attracting a local investor in Real Salt Lake, Checketts is seeking to replace a primary backer of the Blues. He's confident about the prospects and says the franchise is "on very solid ground."

In contrast to launching RSL or joining the Jazz after only four seasons in Salt Lake City, Checketts owns a team with more than a 40-year history in St. Louis. The restoration is slowly taking hold. The Blues have sold out every game this season in a 19,150-seat arena, but the team stands well below the Western Conference playoff cut, thanks partly to injuries.

Fans are becoming restless. Yet in his fifth season of ownership, Checketts is considered something of a savior in St. Louis. Whenever he greets fans, they thank him preserving a treasured franchise. In turn, he welcomes their Midwestern sensibility, having operated the NHL's Rangers and NBA's Knicks while in charge of New York's Madison Square Garden.

"St. Louis is a very different town than New York," Checketts said. "There, you get judged by quarters. I don't mean three months, I mean 12 minutes."

He's not enjoying the Blues' recent struggles, though, with four wins (and four overtime losses) in 17 games. When Checketts watches televised games at his home in Connecticut, not even Randolph, the family's golden retriever, sticks with him if the Blues are losing.

"He gets frustrated like the rest of us, because he cares about winning," said Blues President John Davidson, who worked with Checketts in New York. "He wants people pushed; no excuses, and that's an important way to run a company."

The players feel both support and a sense of urgency from the owner. "He demands a certain standard from us," said T.J. Oshie, one of the team's young stars.

Having built the team through the draft, Checketts hopes the Blues will "grow into something special."

Scott Grochoff, a lifelong fan who was watching his young sons Caleb and Cole participate in an on-ice event after a recent game, is a believer. "We're within a year or two of just being a really solid team," he said.

The franchise was a $150 million bargain, following the NHL's 2005 season that was lost to a lockout. The purchase came complete with the arena and an adjoining facility that had been shuttered since 1991. With a naming-rights sponsor's backing, the historic Peabody Opera House will reopen in about eight months, hosting concerts and touring shows.

That rebuilding effort also has boosted the image of Checketts' group. Yet nothing made an impression quite like Free Food Night. Davidson can still picture Blues fans loaded down with hot dogs, hamburgers and popcorn, personally distributed by the team owner. "It showed people in St. Louis that this guy's real," Davidson said.

It's an annual event now, only with volume limits. Hockey is mostly selling itself again, although the Blues' progress is requiring more patience than Checketts or most fans would prefer.

As he drove through St. Louis after a Blues victory, Checketts recalled visiting in 1982 as a business consultant and inquiring about local events. The cab driver took him straight to the old arena, known as the "Checkerdome." So his first NHL experience came with the franchise he would one day try to restore.

Passing the darkened opera house, he cited satisfaction in contributing to the revitalized downtown area. The building's remodeling is scheduled for an Oct. 1 completion. There's no published timetable for the hockey team's resurgence, but Checketts is determined to make that happen.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com —

St. Louis Blues attendance

Season Avg.

2005-06 14,213

2006-07 12,520*

2007-08 17,610

2008-09 18,554

2009-10 18,883

2010-11 19,150**

*Dave Checketts' first season of ownership

**Capacity —

Checketts on …

What's next for his Sports Capital Partners • "I really like the NBA as an investment now, because I think [owners] are running for the doors in light of the labor situation. So we're interested in a number of NBA situations. I think we'll probably find one."

His experience in charge of Madison Square Garden, operating the NHL's New York Rangers • "You can't buy a hockey team with free agents the way you can in basketball. It's a long-term build, the ultimate development project."






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