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North Stars Played First Home Game 50 Years Ago

NHL hockey arrived in Minnesota on October 21, 1967

by Devin Lowe / Wild.com

In 1967, the NHL doubled in size from six to 12 teams, marking the largest expansion ever undertaken at one time by a professional sports league. Four of those six teams -- the Los Angeles Kings, the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the St. Louis Blues -- are celebrating their 50th anniversary seasons this year.

But two of those six expansion teams are not. The California Seals turned Cleveland Barons merged with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978, and the North Stars headed south to become the Dallas Stars in 1993.

Before that history unfolded, there was a game: the first NHL game in the state of Minnesota, played on October 21, 1967.

After the North Stars opened their inaugural season on a four-game road trip, they returned to Minnesota for their home opener at the Met Center in Bloomington.

"The Original Six arenas were all pretty unique," said goaltender Carl Wetzel, who played five games for the North Stars that season. "You take something that's that old and then you come into a new building ... it was pretty exciting."

Lou Nanne, who joined the North Stars following the 1968 Winter Olympics, where he played for the United States, also remembers the arena fondly.

"The Met Center, at the time that we were in the League, was the finest hockey building in the country, in the world, in our estimation," Nanne said. "The sight lines were absolutely spectacular. It was clean, it was colorful. The ice was the best in the world."

It didn't take long for the Met to garner a glowing reputation among players, but on the night of the home opener, workers hadn't yet finished installing the arena's spectator seats. Recorded attendance at the game was 12,951, not far off the Met's ice hockey capacity of around 15,000.

What Wetzel really remembers about that night was a break from tradition. Instead of dropping the puck right after lineups and the national anthem, which was customary at the time, stadium announcer Bob Utecht had something else in mind.

"I remember we were standing there, and Bob Utecht is in the penalty box ... and he says, 'Let's play hockey!'" Wetzel said. "We all looked at each other [like], 'Hmm… what are we getting [into] here in Minnesota?'"

"Little did we know that that has caught on. You hear that all over in hockey and some other sports, too. At the time, we thought, 'Wow, is that corny.'"

The North Stars' first home opponents were those same California Seals that Minnesota would welcome in the merger just 11 years later. That night, they defeated the Seals by a score of 3-1 to win their first game of the 1967-68 campaign after battling to two ties and two losses on the road.

The game kicked off a storied era of professional hockey in Minnesota.

The North Stars' record that first year, 27 wins among 32 losses and 15 ties, was good enough for a trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where they defeated the Los Angeles Kings in seven games before the St. Louis Blues knocked them out in seven.

Later, the franchise would go on to win two Western Conference Championships. Their first Stanley Cup Finals run in 1981 was interrupted by the New York Islanders dynasty, and in 1991, Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup on Met Center ice.

In 1999, Dallas celebrated the Stars' first Stanley Cup. While the North Stars never won a Cup in Minnesota, they did sow the seeds from which the Minnesota Wild grew seven years after their departure.

Today, a mural behind Section 110 at Xcel Energy Center depicts NHL hockey's Minnesota beginnings.

Those who played for the North Stars 50 years ago recall it as an era of hockey where the pace was slower and the game was tougher. And while the money wasn't great, the memories were.

"We'd have to leave the night before, play the game and stay the night after," Nanne said. "I would think we bonded more than these guys. They get more money, we had more fun. When you leave this world, you're gonna leave with more memories."

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