Mike Modano, who began his NHL career when the Stars were located in Minnesota, recently became the all-time U.S.-born scoring leader.
”Is my tie straight?”
”Does this tuxedo make me look fat?”
Believe it or not, question like this once passed the lips of hockey fans in Minnesota, who took going to a North Stars game during the era of the NHL’s first expansion as serious business.
When the NHL announced on March 11, 1965 its intentions to grow from six to 12 teams for the 1967-68 season, a group of Minnesota investors decided to kick the tires and see if they could land a franchise. On Feb. 9, 1966, the Minnesota group led by Walter Bush landed an expansion franchise.
A few months later, construction began on the Metropolitan Sports Center in the old cornfield near Metropolitan Stadium, then the home of football’s Vikings and baseball’s Twins.
Minnesota, a true United States hockey center, finally had its own NHL team. According to Lou Nanne, who joined the new Minnesota North Stars after the 1968 Olympics, there was a different air to the crowd in Bloomington. North Stars games were special occasions and the fans treated the games as such.
"The first year was like a society event," Nanne said. "It was tremendous excitement around there. The league expanded from six to 12, so the expansions were competitive in their own division, but not as much against the powerhouses in the old division. They had some good, quality young players come in and there was very exciting for the fans. It was a tremendous move by the NHL to go into six different markets and be as successful as they were."
Going to a North Stars game was an excuse to go out dressed to the nines.
"Everybody would come dressed up. Women would be in furs, guys would be in suits and ties. It was like a happening and it continued that way for a long time," Nanne said. "I think it was that way in Montreal and Toronto a lot. Maybe that is why the people felt that they had to come to hockey games dressed like they were going out to the theater at night."
The way people dressed to attend a game at the Met might have also had something to do with the weather. Minneapolis-St. Paul is one of the coldest spots in the United States, and keeping warm is a priority.
"It’s good hockey country," Nanne laughed. "Well, it's cold and it is very much like a Canadian town. If you look at a map, Minneapolis is actually further north than Toronto, so you are going to get colder weather. People are accustomed to it and they deal with the winter very well and it doesn't slow them down in any way.”
The NHL's "Second Six" had two built-in rivalries, Los Angeles vs. San Francisco, although the Seals played across the Bay Bridge in Oakland, and the Pennsylvania cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Minnesota and St. Louis were Midwestern cities and became fierce rivals.
In the 1968 Western Division finals, the Blues beat the North Stars in the seventh game in double overtime. A bounce of the puck the other way and it could have been the North Stars, not the Blues, that faced Montreal in the Stanley Cup Final.
"St. Louis was our biggest rival when we first came in and it stayed that way for quite a while until we changed divisions. St. Louis continued a big rival, but the Chicago Blackhawks became our biggest rival afterward, especially in the ‘80s. The Blackhawks-North Stars rivalry was as good as any in sport."
What had slowed Minnesota in its desire for an NHL team was the lack of an arena. The Twin Cities didn’t have an indoor arena that was up to major-league standards. In fact, Minneapolis-St. Paul had a relatively short history with big-league teams, although the area had a lengthy history of high school and college hockey and a good number of U.S. Olympic hockey team members grew up in the state. Frank Brimsek was one of the first great American players from Minnesota. His goaltending exploits for the Boston Bruins from 1938 through 1949 made him the first Minnesotan to be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
George Mikan was the main star of the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball Association with the Minneapolis Lakers and is credited with making Minnesota a major league area. But when Mikan retired, so did Minneapolis as a major league city. The Lakers left the Twin Cities for good in 1960. Minneapolis put up money for a minor league baseball park in 1956 that was built to Major League Baseball standards in suburban Bloomington, and five years later, Major League Baseball and the National Football League set up shop at the Met in Bloomington.
Metropolitan Stadium was built in the middle of a cornfield, and there was lots of land for parking and also a potential arena, which became the home of the North Stars.
Because of the proximity of Metropolitan Stadium and the Met arena, members of baseball’s Twins, football’s Vikings and the North Stars became rather close.
"We were actually maybe 500 yards away from the Twins and Vikings stadium," Nanne remembered. "The players themselves, we actually got to spend time, especially with the football players because they would be practicing at the same time as us. We got quite an affinity with them, and when I was injured a few times and the team went on the road I would go over to the Vikings and their trainer, Fred Zamberletti, used to take care of me. We had a real good time with those athletes as well."
The North Stars had solid local support during the early years of the franchise, but the team stopped winning and fell on hard times and turned to Nanne to right the ship during the 1977-78 season. Nanne quickly rebuilt the North Stars into a quality team that went to the Stanley Cup Final in 1981.
The North Stars got some help thanks to a merger with the Cleveland Barons in 1978. Minnesota added some good players, but Nanne also had to wheel and deal to get his roster under contol.
"That's why I got the job I got," Nanne said. "I was playing in New York on a Wednesday night and Friday I was named manager-coach. That was 1978. We got Cleveland. We didn't get the whole team, we got 10 guys and the other non-playoff teams got to draft from us. Then, we had to get rid of a lot of Cleveland players because we had a lot of players that nobody wanted. But we turned out to be very competitive quickly and we had a real good draft in 1978. When we merged with Cleveland that was the same year we drafted well. We had Bobby Smith, Steve Payne, Steve Christoff, Curt Giles all come in the draft and the following year we had (Craig) Hartsburg, (Tom) McCarthy, (Neal) Broten so that's we really became a good team."
Nanne turned to the World Hockey Association and an old friend for his coach, hiring Glen Sonmor. It was Sonmor's WHA's (St. Paul) Minnesota Fighting Saints that helped to put the North Stars in a tailspin.
"We had to compete against them,” Nanne said. "Glen was running the Fighting Saints then and that hurt us a little at the gate. That was one of the things that hurt the North Stars for a while and that's why we may have not been as attractive a team to come to in ’74, ‘75, ‘76 but we managed to survive that."
Ultimately the North Stars didn't survive in Bloomington and headed to Dallas in 1993. In 1997, the NHL expanded again to Atlanta, Columbus, Nashville and St. Paul. The Minnesota Wild began play in 2000 and have been a tremendous success.
The furs and the suits are pretty much gone now, but NHL hockey is still an event in Minnesota.
"That (hiatus) may have made the fans hungry for it because they have sold out every game since.”(The furs), not quite but it is still an event to be at and the Wild have done a magnificent job of selling hockey in Minnesota."