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North to South: A Brief History of The Dallas Stars

by Greg Fernandez / Dallas Stars

Since the team’s arrival from Minnesota in 1993, many Dallas Stars fans have become familiar with the franchise’s already rich history of hockey.

What many don’t realize is that the Stars’ franchise history also has an intriguing, yet very complicated connection that runs from not only through Minnesota, but to California and Ohio and back as well.

The inaugural Minnesota North Stars team in 1967
The inaugural Minnesota North Stars team in 1967

The Minnesota North Stars experienced ups and downs from their inception in 1967, including an extremely rare and mostly unknown merger with another NHL club. In 1978, the cash-strapped North Stars were on the brink of bankruptcy, and the Cleveland Barons, who had recently relocated from the California Bay Area, were struggling at the gate and facing financial issues of their own. The two joined forces and completed something considered unprecedented in the NHL, as the North Stars absorbed the Barons to make one team.

George and Gordon Gund, the then-owners of the Barons, bought the North Stars out of their financial trouble and took control of the franchise.

Fast forward to 1990. The Gund brothers, frustrated with their situation in Minnesota, attempted to move the franchise to the Bay Area. While the NHL initially denied the request, both sides eventually reached a compromise: the NHL would agree to give the Gunds ownership of a new franchise only after they found a buyer for the North Stars. Howard Baldwin, Morris Belzberg and Norm Green expressed interest in purchasing the team from the Gunds, reaching an agreement to buy the club for $38.1 million. Free from their Minnesota troubles, the Gunds took their newly acquired franchise west, bringing hockey back to Northern California.

Following along?

In what might be two of the most intricate deals in NHL history, there are two common factors - the Gund brothers and the North Stars.


The California Golden Seals and NHL expansion

To fully comprehend the intricacies of the situation, it’s easiest to start in 1967, when the NHL decided it would add six franchises to its “Original Six.” Philadelphia, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, California (Oakland), and St. Louis were awarded the six coveted expansion franchises to join New York, Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Detroit and Montreal in the league.

The official California Golden Seals media guide from the 1974-75 season

Two teams were required to occupy California through an agreement with the CBS television network. The Bay Area, which had already been exposed to the sport through the San Francisco Seals of the Western Hockey League, was a natural spot for one of the two California teams. New owner Barry Van Gerbig chose Oakland as the newly-appointed franchise’s home base, but named the club the California Seals to appeal to San Francisco fans as Oakland wasn’t yet considered “major-league.” But a month into the season, he had a change of heart and converted the club’s name to the Oakland Seals.

Regardless of their name, the Seals enjoyed instant success on the ice, making the playoffs in two of their first three seasons.

However, the Seals’ on-ice success didn’t equate to box office profits and Van Gerbig began shopping the team around. After several failed attempts to sell the team, he found a suitor in Oakland Athletics owner Charles O. Finley.

An innovator in creative ways to bring fans to A’s games, Finley made various changes to the Seals that he found successful with his baseball club. He changed the team’s color scheme to the patented green and gold, and added names to the back of the jerseys – one of the first to do so in the NHL. The team even went as far as painting their skates white to model the A’s signature look of white cleats.

Despite Finley’s creative marketing ploys, the team continued to struggle. It was said that players used to joke that at the end of each season, after the skates had been painted white multiple times to cover marks the puck would leave, their skates would weigh up to 20 pounds.

The struggles continued until the NHL finally stepped in and took control of the Seals in February 1974, and ran the club until San Francisco hotel financier Mel Swig grabbed ahold of the reins in 1975. The former owner of the WHL San Francisco Seals had intentions of building a new arena in the San Francisco area.

The Seals, whose play had improved from previous seasons, still fell short of the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. More failures on the ice brought disappointment to Swig. His arena plans were denied by the city and his hope of building a premier arena in the Bay Area was looking more like a dream than a reality. Cleveland native George Gund III, a minority owner with club, convinced Swig to move the team to Ohio. On July 14, 1976, the move was made official and the Cleveland Barons were born.


The Cleveland Barons and an NHL merger

The Cleveland Barons were set up for failure from the start. Engaging in the first NHL relocation since 1934, the Barons chose to play their hockey at the Richfield Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio. A promising arena at the time, Swig and Gund took a gamble with the Coliseum due to its large seating capacity (18,000-plus for hockey games - then the most in the NHL) and what they considered a prime location, as it was less than an hour drive for people residing in both Cleveland and Akron.

To pay tribute to the city’s hockey past, the team decided to take on the name of the “Barons” after the former Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League, who played from 1929-34. The city of Cleveland had previously shown much promise as an NHL city, but the league had declined the city’s request for a franchise three times prior to the Seals’ move from California.

Unfortunately, all these pieces weren’t used to their full potential. While the move was announced on July 14, 1976, the deal wasn’t finalized until August, leaving the team in a crippling situation. With a short amount of time, the owners were unable to promote the new team that had been brought to Cleveland. The attendance numbers faltered, as residents found the drive to the Coliseum a hassle. On opening night, the Barons skated out in their new red and white threads to only 8,900 fans.

Generating business was a constant obstacle for Cleveland, as the team would fail to bring in more than 10,000 fans for 33 of the 40 home games during the 1976-77 campaign. With money presenting itself as an issue, rumblings began to surface that the Barons wouldn’t be able to complete the season.

After missing two payrolls in February 1977, the NHL took control of the Barons to avoid the team folding midseason – something that had occurred in the rival World Hockey Association (WHA), which at one point was considered a legitimate threat to the NHL. A $1.3 million loan from the League guaranteed the Barons would finish out the season. Unfortunately, the Barons concluded the year in the cellar of the Adams Division and encountered lower attendance numbers than they had seen in Oakland. Enough was enough, as Swig jumped ship and sold his shares to George Gund and his brother, Gordon.

Gordon Gund was a brilliant businessman and a ‘hockey guy’, having played for Harvard in the late 1950s. Shortly after college though, he began to lose his sight to a disease known as retinitis pigmentosa, finally going blind in 1970. Even though he lost his vision, Gordon went on to own four professional sports franchises – the Minnesota North Stars, Cleveland Barons, San Jose Sharks and the Cleveland Cavaliers – and helped build Cleveland’s Gund Arena (now known as Quicken Loans Arena).

“Gordon is an incredible businessman,” said Ralph Strangis, Sr., Gund’s lawyer for much of his time in Minnesota. “If you would have talked to him through a teleconference there is no way in the world anybody would ever know (he was blind). Even in face-to-face meetings, he had such a photographic memory that you just forget about it.”

Dennis Maruk, Giles Meloche, Al MacAdam and Greg Smith (not pictured) were the only players to play for the Seals, Barons and North Stars.

Unfortunately for the Gund brothers, the Barons weren’t one of their successes. While the two invested an exceptional amount of money in the team to try to keep it afloat, the struggles on the ice continued and the Barons finished last in the Adams Division for the second straight year.

While the Barons had been reporting more than $2 million in losses, the Minnesota North Stars were also struggling financially, as their attendance had begun to falter. The NHL, which was attempting to continue its reign of superiority over the WHA, acknowledged that their worst nightmare – two teams folding – was a very real possibility. With that in mind, NHL President John Ziegler comprised a plan.

To keep the Minnesota North Stars franchise from vacating one of the premier hockey hotbeds in the United States, Gordon and George Gund agreed to purchase the team and merge them with the Barons. With that, the Cleveland Barons disassembled and the North Stars took over their place in the Adams Division – all while the North Stars picked players from the Barons roster. Of the players added, Giles Meloche, Dennis Maruk, Al MacAdam and Greg Smith are the only players to skate for the California Golden Seals, the Cleveland Barons and the Minnesota North Stars.

1980-81 Stanley Cup runner-up squad with George and Gordon Gund pictured in the center

The Gunds and the North Stars experienced moderate success in the beginning of the new ownership tenure, making it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1981, losing to the defending champion New York Islanders. However, with a poorly-located arena and an inability to compete with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Twins and Vikings, the team began to suffer.

“When you grew up in Minnesota and you were a hockey player, you had two aspirations,” said Dallas Stars play-by-play man Ralph Strangis. “You want to play in the state tournament, which was huge, and you want to be a Gopher. Nobody ever wanted to be a North Star.”


San Jose and the 1991 dispersal/expansion drafts

By 1989, the Gunds became fed up with the Minnesota Sports Commission. After a failed attempt to buy the land around the Met Center, the two threatened to move the North Stars to the Bay Area. George had been a minority owner of the Seals and felt they would have a bigger and more lucrative market to work with than in Minnesota.

“They went to the league ‘seeker’ and told them that the fans aren’t responding anymore and the Gophers and other clubs are taking up all the action,” former Stars owner Norm Green said. “We aren’t winning, we aren’t getting attendance so we’re losing money and we’d like to move it to some big market.”

With the NHL wanting to maintain a presence in the hockey capital of the U.S., Ziegler struck up a deal with the Gunds: “find another owner to take over the team, and the league will grant you an expansion team in San Jose.”

Howard Baldwin, Morris Belzberg and Norman Green came forward and purchased the team for $38.1 million. Shortly thereafter, Green bought out Belzberg and Baldwin to become the sole owner of the team by the 1990-91 season. Green had been an owner with the Calgary Flames throughout the 1980s and had won a Stanley Cup with the team in 1989. He expected to experience the same success in the Twin Cities.

“I think the fans thought we were off the hook when the Gunds were out. ‘Oh thank god they’re gone,’” Strangis said. “They were moving that team. That was it. I think when I heard Norm Green had bought the team or that there was a deal in place to buy the team I was very pleased because then I knew the North Stars were staying in Minnesota. That’s what Norm Green buying the team meant at that time.”

During Green’s first year, the North Stars went on to play in one of their most competitive seasons as a franchise. While they snuck into the playoffs with a losing record, the team had been preparing the final month of the regular season for their first round opponent, the Chicago Blackhawks. The North Stars demolished the Blackhawks in the first round, pummeling them with power-play goal after power-play goal, finishing with 35 throughout the playoffs, the most in a Stanley Cup playoff year.

“They did everything for a month to prepare to beat the Hawks,” Strangis said. “Every game they played was to beat the Hawks. They figured how they would attack (Chicago goaltender Ed) Belfour, what their forecheck was going to look like and all those things. They put a plan in place. It was really fun and the people came back.”

The North Stars reached their second Stanley Cup Finals in 1991, but fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games (Photo Credit: The Pioneer Press)

After thrashing the Blackhawks, the North Stars advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they faced off against Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins. While the team succumbed to the Penguins in six games, fans began to fill the arena once more, leaving the end of the 1991 season with a glimmer of hope that professional hockey could be saved in Minnesota. With Mike Modano blossoming into a superstar, a veteran influenced team and a bevy of up-and-coming prospects from the 1990 draft, the team could only go up in terms of success and attendance.

Despite the team’s inspiring run, the NHL – in an agreement with the Gunds on their new expansion team – went forward with an off-season dispersal draft between the North Stars and the newly-founded San Jose Sharks, marking the second time the Gunds had taken or merged players onto a new team.

“Ziegler dealt with the Gunds and we just had to take what was offered,” Green said. “We could have said we’re not going to make the deal unless we get a better arrangement with the players. We weren’t unhappy about it – it was a pretty set thing.”

Due to certain rules placed for the dispersal draft, the North Stars were able to protect certain players, including Mike Modano.

There were ripples in the new agreement between the league and the Gunds. As per the rules of the dispersal draft, the North Stars were allowed to protect 16 members of the team, including Mike Modano. However, the team still lost 24 players to San Jose, many of whom went on to have successful NHL careers – most notably goaltender Arturs Irbe. After the Sharks picked their players from the North Stars, both teams then took part in an expansion draft, allowing each to draft 10 players from franchises around the NHL.

Artus Irbe was one of the few dispersal draft picks to go on to have a successful NHL career

The end result of the dispersal draft left the team decimated of depth. There was a silver lining to that dispersal draft however, which allowed the North Stars to keep its’ entire 1990 draft class, including heralded prospects Derian Hatcher and Roman Turek. They were also able to reacquire the Sharks’ first pick in the dispersal draft, winger Shane Churla, in a trade. Unfortunately, they failed to make the playoffs the following year after their magical run to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Sharks would go on to prosper in San Jose, developing an energetic fan base that was not seen during the Seals era. The Gund brothers helped build the Sharks into one of the most consistent teams in the Western Conference before finally cashing out of the pro sports business and selling their shares of the team to the San Jose Sports and Entertainment Enterprises (SJSE) in February 2002.

As for the North Stars, after another dismal season in America’s hockey hotbed, the writing was on the wall, and the underappreciated franchise inevitably was going to move. The problem though was what market was going to be the correct fit. Green went out in search of his options.


North Stars leave Minnesota

During the decision process, the North Stars were left with nontraditional hockey markets to choose from. The first place they looked was Phoenix, but Green was unable to reach a deal to bring the team to the desert.

Before long, the North Stars had found a suitable suitor that would provide a new fan base and a good opportunity to flourish.

No, Dallas was not that location. The North Stars had a deal in place to go to… Anaheim?

Anaheim had just built a new arena that was hockey ready. The deal was all but done for the Minnesota North Stars to become the Los Angeles Stars until a new obstacle entered into the discussion and derailed the talks. Michael Eisner and Disney began to express interest in putting a team in Anaheim. Once Disney called, the NHL listened.

“(Former Commissioner) Gil Stein calls me because I’m on the expansion committee and he tells me I have to come down to Florida. ‘We’ve got issues with expansion, but they’re going to work out,’” said current Dallas Stars president and CEO Jim Lites. “There are about six guys on the committee. Gil Stein’s got Wayne Huizenga and Michael Eisner sitting in the room, and they’ve brought the league a proposal that they will both buy franchises in the NHL, but they are a joint effort. They have to come in as a pair, and Eisner, and bear in mind this was when Mighty Ducks came out, will only come in with a team called the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.”

With this new predicament presented, Lites was given the unfortunate task of informing Green that his deal was going fall through.

“Jay Snider and I get assigned, because we’re friends with Green, to go tell Norm Green that he can’t have Anaheim – even though he’s negotiated and signed a lease agreement,” Lites said. “But he hasn’t been given a franchise. So he’s stuck in Minny.”

Not the situation that the North Stars brass had in mind when they began exploring a new location for the franchise. As the 1992 season continued, fans failed to show up to the games and the team was bleeding money, reporting $20 million in losses.

Discouraged that he might not be able to move the team, Green reached out to the only Texan he knew to help him with his relocation, Roger Staubach. The former Dallas Cowboys quarterback spoke highly of Dallas to Norm and said it would be a great place for the team to prosper.

One thing was made clear from the beginning – Dallas is a sports town that loves a winner. And in January 1993, the city that loves a winner got one when Green decided to move the team to the Lone Star State.

Since their arrival in 1993, the Dallas Stars have been one of the most successful sports franchises in Dallas, making 12 playoffs appearances during that span – most out of any team (tied with the Dallas Mavericks). Even though many weren’t sure how the Stars would fare in this nontraditional hockey market, the Stars have prospered and helped usher in hockey into the south.

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