The NHL came to the State of Hockey – for real – on October 21, 1967 in the form of the Minnesota North Stars when in the words of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press:
“With (a) banner crowd of 12,951, largest of the season so far among Western Division teams, looking on in shiny new Metropolitan Sports Center, the home team captured its first victory and now stands with four points out of a possible 10.”
It may have seemed like a “banner crowd” to Pioneer Press hockey writer Glen Redmond, but to a couple of close participants, North Stars’ defenseman Mike McMahon and Coach/General Manger Wren Blair, the numbers didn’t appear overwhelming: “All I can remember was going on the ice and thinking there were only 7 or 8,000 there and they seemed pretty quiet,” recalled McMahon some 42 years after the event.
Wren echoes that view in his book The Bird: “Even though we won our home opener, there were only 9,000 people in the stands…the fans who attended our games were deathly silent.”
Blair would subsequently get himself into a media brouhaha when he described Minnesota fans as “phlegmatic Swedes,” but they were more than into the NHL game by 1971-72 when it was hard to find a seat at what had come to be called “The Met.”
Minnesotans were no strangers to the game after having a culture with the sport that dated to the 1890s and it was only a matter of time until that culture would extend to the game’s highest level once the NHL doubled its size to twelve teams in 1967.
The expansion North Stars had opened the season on the road with a 2-2 tie at St. Louis in a game in which they held the lead with a minute to go. Road losses to Oakland and Los Angeles followed before tying Pittsburgh and coming home to launch NHL hockey against the Oakland Seals. The team was ripe for a good performance and they got it on the best night possible. After a scoreless first period in which they outshot their visitors 20-9, the man who would become the face of the franchise in its earliest years, Bill Goldsworthy, got the squad’s first goal, a little bit beyond the eight-minute mark of the second period.
Goldsworthy, a gifted gold scorer who would introduce “The Goldy Shuffle,” a post-goal celebratory dance, into the state’s hockey lexicon, was Blair’s best acquisition in the previous June’s expansion draft. Pioneer Press
, October 22, 1967:
“Minnesota finally broke the tie at 8:23 of the second. [Andre] Boudrias, the helmeted first-line center, picked up a loose puck just inside his blue line and deftly fed up ice to Dave Balon.
“The North Stars No. 1 draft choice sped down the right side with the rangy Goldworthy on his left and only one Seal defender was between them. Balon hit Goldy perfectly and [Charlie] Hodge didn’t have a chance on big Bill’s short chip just inside the circle.”
While Oakland would tie things up at the 16-minute mark, the Stars got two third period tallies from Ray Cullen and Balon to secure the 3-1 victory. They had put on a superb offensive performance in outshooting the Seals 53-22 and only Hodge – a former Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup netminder – had kept the score respectable.
Minnesota went on to finish fourth in the new Western Division by the end of the season, in which all the expansion teams had been placed, and advanced to the Semifinal Round of the NHL playoffs before being eliminated.
A new chapter had been written in the State of Hockey’s history.
By the way, you may have noted the use of the word “real” in the first paragraph. That relates to the fact that the NHL did play a regular season game in Saint Paul on February 23, 1955 when the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins played to a 3-3 tie. It just took another 12 years for the league to realize this is where they should “really” be.