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Stars-Wild series emotional for Minnesota fans

Many have not forgiven North Stars' move to Dallas 23 years ago

by Dan Myers / Correspondent

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Minnesota North Stars alumni did not know it back in February, but their return to the ice as part of the 2016 Coors Light Stadium Series weekend might have rekindled the state's disdain for the franchise that left town for Dallas in 1993.

An unseasonably comfortable mid-February afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium saw the return of the iconic green and gold "N" logo to the ice for the first time in more than two decades. 

When the Western Conference First Round series between the Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars shifts to Xcel Energy Center for Game 3 on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN, TVA Sports 2, FS-SW, FS-N, FS-WI), it will mark a much different kind of return: For the first time since 1992, the Stars franchise will play a postseason game in their original home state.

"[Fans] still have fond memories of what transpired with the North Stars from 1967 until they left," said Tom Reid, a former North Stars defenseman who is now the radio color analyst for the Wild. "But a lot of these fans don't like the Dallas Stars anymore because of what happened when they left here."

Video: Minnesota Wild/North Stars alumni intros

Reid was one of the coaches for the alumni team that defeated the Chicago Blackhawks alumni one day before the Stadium Series game on Feb. 20. Nearly 40,000 fans showed up that day, most wearing the colors of Minnesota's first NHL team.

"I don't think there's any question it reinvigorated some of the fans from those days. Just look at the amount of North Stars memorabilia we saw in the stands, whether it's jerseys, hats, jackets, scarves or gloves, whatever it may be," Reid said. "People brought out things they had in the past when they were fans of the North Stars in those early years."

If 23 years' worth of time had cooled the emotions of old-school hockey fans in Minnesota still angry about their team being taken away, chances are the outdoor game brought many of those feelings back to the surface.

Wild assistant coach Rick Wilson is one of the few links between Minnesota's former NHL franchise and its current one. He was an assistant on the final North Stars staff in 1992-93, and went with the team when it moved to Dallas. He worked under three different coaches for 16 years, serving a stint himself as interim coach, before leaving the organization following the 2008-09 season. 

"For me, personally, it wasn't a sad thing," Wilson said of the move to Dallas. "It was an unfortunate thing because it's a great place to live and all that stuff. I was only here that last year so I didn't have the history of it."

It wasn't until Wilson returned to Minnesota on Dec. 17, 2000, the Dallas Stars' first trip back to Minnesota since the move, that he truly understood what the franchise meant to the people of the state.

Dallas won the Stanley Cup in 1999, reached the Final in 2000 and went 48-24-8-2 in 2000-01 to finish first in the Pacific Division. The Wild, in their first year of existence with a roster built mostly of castoffs from other teams, finished with 68 points, the second-fewest in the Western Conference.

"You walked around the grocery store a week before the game and the butcher was talking about it already," said former Wild forward Wes Walz, a member of the inaugural team. "We were all wondering if we were going to be in the League the next week."

Minnesota rolled to a 6-0 win.

"I remember the crowd being very vocal to Mr. [former Stars owner Norm] Green," Wilson said. "It was an impressive place to come to the first time we came in here; the arena, the facility, the crowd, just the whole atmosphere in here was extremely impressive. It was like 'This is good, this is all good.' 

"I could tell the difference [between the North Stars' last season and the Wild's first] was dramatic. You could just sense that this franchise, this place, the way they put it together, the way they were making it work, this was going to be a special place and it has become that."

Walz, who grew up in Calgary, said the players in the dressing room knew early on the importance of that game, largely because Minnesota natives Darby Hendrickson and Jeff Nielsen were also on the team and laid out what happened when the North Stars moved. 

The Minnesota boys played critical roles in the win. Hendrickson scored two goals and was plus-3; Nielsen had a goal and an assist and was also a plus-3.

Video: MIN@DAL, Gm2: Stars pinball the puck around for goal

"I'll never forget coming down the tunnel [during warmups] and looking around, the lower bowl was three-quarters full. That was something we just didn't see the first month of the season," Walz said. "Just skating around the ice for warmups, you knew this was something that was going to be different."

Though Dallas and Minnesota have played 60 times in the regular season since that initial game at Xcel Energy Center in 2000, the first playoff game is expected to crank up the same old emotions.

"Judging by the response we had for the outdoor game and the alumni coming here, and how excited [fans] were to see the players of the past, I think this might rejuvenate the feelings from the first year," Reid said. "There are still a lot of 'Norm [stinks]' chants because they left Minnesota high and dry, for whatever reason. [The move] did not sit well with a lot of people, and a lot of people still remember that to this day."

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