SPORTS

Bringing the Blues back home

DALE EISLER May 2 1983
SPORTS

Bringing the Blues back home

DALE EISLER May 2 1983

Bringing the Blues back home

For almost five months entrepreneur Bill Hunter has had Saskatchewan hockey fans on an emotional roller coaster. The ride began last December when Hunter announced that he was negotiating to buy the National Hockey League St. Louis Blues and move them to Saskatoon. It continued last week at an emotion-charged breakfast for 600 fans in Saskatoon where Hunter proclaimed the realization of a major piece of a dream.

With the support of a loan guarantee from the provincial government, Hunter and a Saskatoon investment group led by developer Les Dube were able to put together an elaborate package that could see Saskatoon skaters facing off in the NHL next season. The group bought the Blues from Ralston Purina Co., the St. Louis-based dog food firm, for $14 million, secured a $32-million loan guarantee from the provincial government and will get another $18 million in promotional fees from Molson Breweries of Canada Ltd. The final piece in the $64-million jigsaw puzzle is a public stock offering that is expected to raise $14 million.

But before any of the financial arrangements fall into place and construction begins on a $39.6-million, 18,000-seat arena, the NHL board of governors must approve transfer of the Blues from St. Louis. As one of the founders of the defunct World Hockey Association, Hunter will not be eagerly embraced. The WHA ignited the era of six-figure hockey contracts in a bidding war for NHL players. Among those still holding a grudge is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ bellicose owner, Harold Ballard.

Ralston Purina, which lost $10 million during its five-year ownership of the Blues, last Friday requested an emergency meeting of the NHL board of governors to consider the sale. Elmer Richars, director of corporate communications for Ralston Purina, told Maclean’s last week that the meeting is expected within two weeks. Richars declined to comment on how the board might decide, as did the league governors. But the possibility of antitrust action will loom large. The Los Angeles Raiders’ successful suit against the National Football League’s attempt to block the team’s move from Oakland may have set a precedent.

Meanwhile, Hunter is barging ahead, oblivious to the perils. At last count he had 19,000 letters requesting season tickets. “This is the greatest moment of my life,” Hunter beamed. No one in Saskatchewan was about to disagree.

DALE EISLER in Regina.