Many of you will recall that I took a look at potential NHL homes who stand to win at the conclusion of this lockout last week. Referencing locales such as Quebec City and Hartford are the natural inclination for all of us. Hockey crazed markets that have had a team plucked from their clutches are natural fits for a league looking to boost revenues and potentially curb the drain of franchises that run deficit after deficit.

There’s obviously more to it than just plopping a team back where there used to be one – there used to be a team in Atlanta after all, though the number of damns given about hockey in that town are minimal. However, cities such as Colorado (sorry, Quebec) and now Winnipeg have had successful returns, which make it more likely for a return to other past towns.

Those of you looking for a legitimately heartwarming return story, however, ought to look no further than the State of Hockey.

It’s difficult to overstate how deeply Minnesota natives love hockey. From the high school level, up through the junior ranks into the collegiate leagues and at the top of the NHL, you will find devout hockey fans all over Minnesota. There is an argument to be made in many ‘hockey hotbeds’ that they are simply ‘NHL fans.’ Complaining about “no hockey” with other amateur or professional leagues in your backyard certainly serves that argument.

That argument doesn’t hold much weight in Minnesota.

The 2012-13 season (locked out) marks the 20th anniversary of the last season North Stars hockey was played in Minnesota. A lot has changed since then. Four other franchises have picked up and left their hometowns. Wayne Gretzky retired. The North Stars franchise eventually captured their first ever Stanley Cup in 1999 in Dallas under the ‘Stars’ moniker.

Then again, the Leafs haven’t won anything so how different could the world be? (Zing.)

I suppose there is some justice to be extracted for original North Stars faithful that their lineage captured a Stanley Cup before the Chicago Blackhawks did, though, the amount of solace one can take from 960 miles away is certainly diminished. Perhaps it was a good omen. St. Paul was awarded the Wild less than a week after Brett Hull’s foot was definitely in the crease but still counted as the triple OT winner.

The name Norm Green in Minnesota sparks emotion. By “sparks” I, of course, mean “sets off an apocalyptic forest fire” and by “emotion” I, of course, mean things such as rage, hate, fury and ire. The man is, for all intents and purposes, the devil’s mistress – the demon who laid waste to professional hockey in Minnesota some 20 years ago.

Sports Illustrated did a post-mortem of the North Stars in Minnesota shortly after the move, and it was apparent that Green didn’t leave anyone with the warm and fuzzies.

“Norm Green is a money-hungry, egotistical, country-club-seeking lizard,” a young woman from St. Paul, Wendi Rodewald, said, sitting there in her official North Star game jersey topped by her unofficial NORM SUCKS button. “Wait a minute. Did I say ‘greedy’? He’s a greedy, money-hungry, egotistical, country-club-seeking lizard. And he looks like Satan.”

“He says a lot of different things now,” says Julie Hammond, president of the North Star booster club. “When he came here, he said, ‘Only an idiot could lose money on hockey in Minnesota.’ Well, I guess he proved that point.”

Note: If at any point you find yourself being called a greedy idiot who literally looks like Satan, you’ve done something wrong. Proceed with this information accordingly.

The loss of the North Stars was a tragedy, plain and simple. There were obviously financial factors and location issues at play – not to mention a lack of on-ice success by and large – but the team had a devout following. For Green to allege that they could not compete with the likes of the Golden Gophers, Twins or Timberwolves was a cop out. Nothing more. The team lost money, sure, but the lack of a concrete figure when asked how much indicates that it wasn’t as bad as advertised (a businessman will know how much money he has lost), and realistically, with such a zeal for the sport locally, a concerted effort would have yielded better results.

Green took over the team with the intention of moving them, even going so far as saying he would take the Stanley Cup to Dallas if the team had won in an interview. His takeover was a death sentence for a fanbase who deserved much, much better.

As the North Stars closed out their final game, long time commentator Al Shaver captured the moment beautifully despite the utterly depressing context.

“It’s Ludwig, giving it to Dahlen … 4,3,2,1 … and it’s all over. The Stars lose it here, 5-3, and now it’s pack-’em up time and on to Dallas. We wish them good luck. And to all the North Stars over the past 26 years, we say thank you, all of you, for so much fine entertainment.

“It’s been a pleasure knowing you, Minnesota’s loss is definitely a gain for Dallas – and a big one. We thank you, though, from the bottoms of our hearts, for all the wonderful nights at Met Center, when you’ve given us so much entertainment and you’ve been such a credit to the community in which you played. We will still remember you as the Minnesota North Stars.

“Good night, everybody. And goodbye.”

Here’s the footage of those final minutes courtesy of a Chicago broadcast.

The day after the North Stars left town gave birth to a new phase of hockey. The “let’s get the NHL back” phase. It was a process that lasted the better part of six years and culminated in the birth of the Minnesota Wild.

The Wild have been a mark of pride for the NHL since their return. The Xcel Energy Center which replaced the old Met is a beautiful facility, attendance has been consistently among the league’s best since their first season, the organization itself has been praised for its practices by numerous outlets, and the team has had more on-ice success to date than their expansion cousins in Nashville (who is the closest comparison), Atlanta and Columbus.

Now with the acquisitions of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise – son of former North Stars legend J. P. Parise – to join an already talented roster and farm system, the Wild have all but quashed the thought that the NHL cannot survive in St. Paul. They have also done well to pay credence to the legacy left by their North Star forefathers, though I would argue that no moment was more touching than Mike Modano’s return.

(Trivia: The only active hockey player ON THE PLANET who suited up for the North Stars after Mike Modano’s retirement is ultimate journeyman Mike Craig… the more you know.)

What can we take away from all of this?

Minnesota has set a precedent for the league. Locations that have had their viability questioned can ultimately regain their place in the league and become a hallmark for how the NHL ought to do business.

We’ve seen similar strides taken north of St. Paul in Winnipeg as the Jets and their faithful paid their dues and had a relatively promising first season back in the league. Now, as we shift our gaze to the likes of Quebec City, Hartford (fingers crossed), and other cities that have made their intentions known, they can point to the Wild and say “We can do that.”

The loss of the North Stars was a tragedy for hockey fans in Minnesota, but hockey never stopped and the NHL just went on a short vacation. I said earlier that Al Shaver captured the final moments of North Stars history beautifully with his send off; though in retrospect perhaps his delivery was off after all.

“Good night, everybody. And see you later.”

Comments (2)

  1. Minnesota lost the North Stars for two deserved reasons:

    1.) The first, and by far the biggest, was the failure to replace the aging Met Center. This was complicated by the Timberwolves at the Target center and the two team’s inability to come to terms. Just like the Whalers, the Nordiques and the Jets, the arena issues were the primary problem in town. It’s the same thing going on in Edmonton right now. I don’t think Green ever claimed he couldn’t make money in Minny – he claimed he couldn’t make money at that arena. Combine that with his money issues from other businesses (including the lawsuits) and the fact that there wasn’t exactly a line out the door to buy a team with iffy attendance in an old money-suck of a building and you get the reasons he moved. Let’s also remember the Met Center was imploded in 1994 – no one else wanted to play there either. And the team was losing money before Green got there. The Gunds wanted out for the same reason – they couldn’t develop the land around the old arena to make up for the money they lost through its small size and lack of money-making amenities.

    2.) Waning attendance informed by a loathing of Green. The reason there wasn’t a savior out there was because the Minny fans didn’t come in nearly the numbers people like to claim. Over the final five years of the franchise, the North Stars averaged 11,269 fans with two season of under 10,000 average attendance. In 1990-91, the year the team made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Finals, the average attendance was 7,838. And lest you think it was all Green-hate related, in 1988-89, before Green bought the franchise, the team averaged 9,795 fans per game. This only contributed to the financial difficulties wrought by the old arena and sped up the moving of the franchise.

    The league tried to save the team in Minnesota back to the time the Gunds wanted to move them in the late 1980s (when the local sports commission shot down giving money for improvements to the Met Center). Here’s a great summary of everything that went down with the move:

    So was it a tragedy the North Stars move? Frankly, the city (and to a lesser extent, the fanbase that didn’t buy tickets) brought it upon themselves. When a lease is up with an arena, as it was in this case, the arena is old, the team across town gets money from the city to build a new one but the NHL team gets nothing for improvements, then you’re setting yourself up for that team going away. It’s not a tragedy because that implies it was ripped away unfairly – it’s the consequence of a series of events by the city that started with their agreements to build the T’Wolves a new arena.

    I’m glad the NHL has returned to Minnesota, and the Wild are obviously (no pun intended) wildly successful. The arena is full and beautiful, and hopefully they never reach the point again where they’re drawing less than 10,000 fans per night.

    But trying to pretend any of the four teams that moved in the early-to-mid 1990s was ripped from the hands of deserving hockey markets is ignoring the true business issues at play behind the scenes.

  2. There is no doubt in my mind that Minnesota fans will support good hockey. The operative word is “good.” Even though they went to cup final in 91,…they basically did not put a good product on the ice since the 81 cup appearance.

    When fans have other good hockey such as the Gophers, semi-pro, even high school, they will not spend the extra dollars to go see mediocre hockey. And don’t forget that Minnesotans tend to be a frugal bunch,..and don’t try to woo them with glitz either.

    So to say the fans brought it on themselves (by not attending) is to ignore the product that was on the ice. Especially when you factor in the cost.

    BTW, is that logo not one of the best ever in sports!!!

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