Fantastic stuff from the Stribs Youngblood today about the early North Star days.
Forty years later, J.P. Parise still remembers those strangers, thrown together by fate and a feisty general manager in frigid Minnesota: 20 guys together on the ice and in the dressing room, 20 couples out to dinner at Dutch Delmonte’s place in St. Paul.
It has been that long since the NHL first came to Minnesota. The league doubled in the fall of 1967, adding six expansion teams to its original franchises in Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York, Detroit and Chicago. The Minnesota North Stars were one of those new teams during a winter Parise calls “one of the all-time greatest.”
“Most of us had been waiting for a chance in the NHL and we were together,” Parise said. “This was a chance. For most of us, our first.”
Toronto traded Parise to the North Stars in December of that first season. He was 26 and had played in only 22 NHL games in the previous two seasons. By the time he left the league, he’d played in nearly 900, most of them with Minnesota.
Parise is now the director of hockey recruiting for Shattuck St. Mary’s School in Faribault. He laughs — but isn’t joking — when he says his son, Zach, makes more playing one game for the New Jersey Devils than he made in that first year with the North Stars.
But the memories he has of a season filled with both tragedy and triumph are priceless.
The North Stars — placed in the same division as the other newcomers from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Oakland — finished 27-32-15 and came within a goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. That January, teammate Bill Masterton fell on the ice, lost consciousness and never regained it, dying about 30 hours later. He remains the only player in NHL history to die from on-ice injuries.
Talk to members of that first North Stars team about that night at Met Center and their voices grow soft. That year all of them felt like brothers. “We were the same age and we were getting the same chance,” said Andre Boudrias, now a scout with the New Jersey Devils.
Boudrias played for three minor league teams and in seven NHL games for Montreal before expansion, and played 655 NHL games thereafter. Wayne Connelly, a hard-skating and harder-shooting right winger, went on to score 307 points in more than 500 NHL games.
A few players near the end of their careers — Moose Vasko, a Chicago Blackhawk for a decade, Parker MacDonald, Dave Balon — were obtained for their guidance. But most were taking their first real NHL plunge.
Stars? Not many. The Original Six hoarded their best players. That inaugural North Stars team rescued Bill Goldsworthy from the Boston farm system, and the Goldy Shuffle was born. Goalie Cesare Maniago bounced around the Original Six — from Toronto to Montreal to the New York Rangers — before the North Stars took him with their first pick in the expansion draft. He played in Minnesota for nine seasons.
“It was my most memorable year in the game,” Maniago said.
Opening at the Met
Walter Bush Jr. left Minneapolis to play college hockey at Dartmouth, then came back home and played semi-pro in 1955. By 1959, he managed the U.S. team sent to Prague for the world championships. A few years later, he, Gordon Ritz and Bob McNulty brought pro hockey — the Boston Bruins’ Central Hockey League farm club — to the Twin Cities, and not long after, they and six other investors went looking to land an NHL team.
When he went to the NHL meetings on its proposed expansion in February 1966, Bush brought a presentation — and an aerial picture of Metropolitan Stadium in suburban Bloomington taken during the Twins’ 1965 World Series appearance with a big parking lot next door — but no building yet in which to play.
Minnesota was awarded a franchise anyway, and Met Center, a gleaming arena with 15,000 seats inside and glittering white columns that vaguely recalled ancient Athens outside, went up in that empty lot. It was the team’s home until it left for Dallas in 1993.
On Oct. 21, 1967, after the team had played its first four games on the road — workers bolted seats into place just minutes before the Met doors were first flung open. Rink-side tickets cost $5.50, games started at 8 p.m. and fans arrived dressed as if they were going to the theatre. The North Stars averaged 11,861 fans that first season, slightly above the league average.
The Bird’s the word
By far the most colorful figure on that first team didn’t play winger or in goal. He was the general manager and, eventually, coach: Wren (Bird) Blair, a bombastic hockey man from the Boston organization credited with discovering and signing Bobby Orr.
“We needed a showman, and that’s what he was,” said Bush, who hired Blair to be his GM.
On June 20, 1967, Blair named himself head coach. He tried to refuse any more players after selecting 16 castoffs from Original Six teams in an expansion draft that furnished the North Stars with their first 20 players. He fined players for a night out drinking at the team’s first training camp in Ontario, before they had even practiced.
Two games into the regular season, he demoted the veteran MacDonald to the minors for a few games just to prove a point. He once wanted Bush to remove an arena-supporting beam from the Met Center dressing room because players tried to hide behind it.
“He would go nuts on the bench,” said Milan Marcetta, a center who came to the North Stars, along with Parise, in that December trade. “He’d curse and swear and holler.”
There was a method to his, er, meanness. Thirteen years before Herb Brooks did the same with the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, Blair brought together a collection of players from everywhere by uniting them against him.
“It was part of the plan,” said Blair, who when reached at his home in Ontario asked how many of his players had called him an SOB . “They responded pretty good. They played hard that year.”
In Los Angeles, Blair, his team getting thumped pretty good, stormed into the dressing room between periods, threw off his jacket and tried to pound on the trainer’s table. He slipped on an orange peel and fell.
“He just laid there,” North Stars defenseman Mike McMahon said. “Wren says, 'Anybody laughs and you’ll be sent so far away, the Hockey News won’t be able to find you.’”
He called Minnesota fans a “bunch of Phlegmatic Swedes sitting on their hands like pieces of stones.’”
The Star’s Jim Klobuchar wrote a column reproaching Blair for ignoring all of Minnesota’s phlegmatic Norwegians, Italians and Germans. But they all started showing up at games, perhaps just to spite him.
It was that way with the players sometimes, too.
“I was never closer to my teammates than I was that year in Minnesota,” Maniago said. “We did everything together.”
And that included mourning.
Tragedy on the ice
Masterton led the University of Denver to consecutive NCAA titles in 1960 and 1961, played some minor league hockey while he went back to school to get his master’s degree, then got a job at Honeywell in Minneapolis.
When the league expanded, he saw a chance. In his 38th NHL game, Masterton — not wearing a helmet, like most players back then — collided with an Oakland player, fell backward and hit his head on the ice. He was rushed to the hospital. It was Jan. 13.
“I drove with him to the rink that night,” center Ray Cullen said. “We lived close to each other. I picked him up, his wife picked my wife up. Everybody loved him. … It was just a bump, not a crushing blow. It was a simple body check.”
The night before that fateful game, Masterton complained about a headache from a hit a couple of days earlier.
“My wife firmly believes that he was out before he hit the ice,” Maniago said.
After the game, the North Stars set out for Boston, where they were to play the next night. The team, still in shock, lost 9-2. Radio broadcaster Al Shaver — in his first year as an NHL play-by-play man — remembers walking out of his hotel room the morning after the Boston game and bumping into Blair and assistant coach John Mariucci.
''I looked at their faces, and I knew it wasn’t good,’’ Shaver said. ''Bill had passed away during the night.’’
On Jan. 16, the NHL All Star Game went on as planned, despite the North Stars’ request to delay it. On the 17th, the North Stars’ season resumed in St. Louis, the same day as Masterton’s funeral in the Twin Cities.
''Nobody wanted to play, but they made us play,’’ McMahon said.
That same season, the North Stars beat both defending champion Toronto and about-to-be-champion Montreal. Connelly scored a hat trick in a 3-2 victory over the Canadiens.
In the playoffs, they beat Los Angeles in seven games in the first round. In the Western Conference finals, they took St. Louis to overtime in Game 7 before losing.
They might have won that series had they played three home games instead of two. Bush hadn’t anticipated a playoff run and booked the Ice Follies into Met Center, sending his team to St Louis for five of the seven games.
When the North Stars flew home from St. Louis the morning after Game 7, thousands of fans greeted them.
“We were just trying to do our best,” MacDonald said. “Win some games, draw some fans. Nobody knew how it was going to work out.”