A look back: The Minnesota North Stars, the story back then and its legacy today

This summer, we witnessed a team from Atlanta re-locate to a former NHL market in Winnipeg to become the Jets 2.0.  For Atlanta, it was the 2nd time in 40 years that they lost an NHL franchise and rather likely means it will never be home to an NHL team ever again.  For Winnipeg, it was a reprieve, a second chance at hosting an NHL club and a do-over where it can show the hockey world that the league never should've left Manitoba.  In someways its a lot like the Wild's story, as Slap Shot goaltender Denis Lemieux would've stated "we felt shame" when the North Stars departed Minnesota in 1993 for Dallas, Texas.  Bringing NHL hockey back to Minnesota became a mission for some people; and even a 'trophy' that was featured in political ads.  We tried to snag other clubs that were apart of the relocation craze of the mid-1990's; attempting to bring the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets to no avail.  It wasn't until the league granted Minnesota an expansion team in 1997 did we finally realize the league was coming back. 

When I look back on it, its tough to believe that it was 18 years ago when the North Stars left the State of Hockey.  I was 14 at the time, but it still seems surreal to me to this day.  Today, I live in South Central Wisconsin not too far from the tourist mecca that is Wisconsin Dells and people who know that I'm a hockey fan will ask me if the team is still called the North Stars.  As a former North Stars fan and current Wild fan I cringe and calmly explain that they're the Wild and they've been around for 10 seasons.  That normally draws a shrug of the shoulders and a "oh, really, the Wild huh?  Do they play in Minneapolis?"  Another near cringe on my part, and I tell them they play in St. Paul.  "Oh, St. Paul?!?!  Hmm, whatever happened to the North Stars anyways?"  I normally (sigh) and give them a fairly condensed version of why the team left for Dallas and how we waited 7 long years for the NHL to return to Minnesota.  Yet, it tells me two things.  To those outside the State of Hockey; and for a great many of those fans who were barely old enough to remember the North Stars this event seems to be a mystery.  Also, for anyone who lived outside of Minnesota there wasn't a lot (if anything) reported about the sad tale other than when the team left for Texas.  I began to think about how now there are kids who are 10 years old that really are unfamiliar with the tragedy on September 11th, because for them it either happened as they were an infant.  For 'older' fans we remember this without too much difficulty and these youngsters can quickly be brought up to speed via a few Internet searches.  Yet how many places can you find out why the North Stars really left?  A quick search via Google only finds 3 places that explain the story; and 2 of those are on message boards. 

It is a story that deserves to be told.  It is a story that needs the correct context as well as a fan's perspective so those that hear about what happened can read what those people felt that were around when this departure took place.  So what I am going to attempt to do is to stick to the facts, using a variety of different sources as well as fan recollections to really tell the whole story.  Will some argue my bias; perhaps, but I never said this story was going to be 100% objective.  I'll do my best to keep it that way but I am sure someone could find bias to my recollection of what took place.  To use a line from the Declaration of Independence (which wasn't exactly written without bias either), "let these facts be submitted to a candid world." 

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Why did the North Stars leave Minnesota?

As best as I can identify; the series of events leading to the team's departure from Minnesota go back to 1983-84.  The North Stars owners at the time, George and Gordon Gund hoped to develop a shopping area nearby the Met Center in Bloomington after they demolished Metropolitan Stadium.  The Gunds' put a bid for it; and hoped to not only build a shopping center but make improvements to the Met Center.  At the time it looked as though the Gunds' were going to get their wish but the deal fell through.  Feeling cheated as the land was sold to the Ghermezian brothers instead (who later built the Mall of America on that site) they demanded that the Metropolitan Sports Commission give them $15 million to improve the Met Center by adding nearly 40 suites and expanding the arena's main concourse.  The MSC turned the Gunds' down who again felt jilted but North Stars General Manager Lou Nanne managed to calm them down and even managed to get them to fund the construction of 20 suites for just $3.5 million.  This may seem like a minor setback for the Gunds', but after this they were more volatile and frustrated with their situation in Minnesota.  Meanwhile, the North Stars were a pretty sorry product on the ice.  With failed drafts, little talent and mediocre finishes season after season attendance predictably started to lag.  Many fans felt the ownership only cared about profits rather than putting a good team on the ice and some even called the club the 'No Stars' as a sign of their frustration over the inability of the team to acquire marquee talent.  The Gunds' had originally purchased the North Stars in 1978 and merged the team with their original club the Cleveland Barons.  The North Stars benefited quite a bit from this merger as they acquired Dennis Maruk, Gilles Meloche and Al MacAdam.  Yet after nearly 10 years of owning the club in Minnesota the Gunds' grew tired of carrying the team with little to no support from the Metropolitan Sports Commission.  In 1989, the MSC was finishing the Target Center in Minneapolis for the Timberwolves.  The Gund brothers felt it was only fair that the construction of the new arena coincide with some improvements to the Met Center and so they asked for some money for that purpose but were again rebuked by the MSC.  One of the Gunds' good friends (Art Savage) was hoping to start a team in San Jose; and the city was willing to build a brand new arena.  The Gunds' saw an opportunity to immediately get what they wanted; a new arena and they began to push to relocate the North Stars to northern California. 

Bill Wirtz 

Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz nearly saved the North Stars?!?!

The Gunds' were all ready to just move the team when Lou Nanne stepped in and asked if they'd make some sort of deal with the NHL where they'd sell the team and then get an expansion team for San Jose.  George Gund was fine with that idea but Gordon was not.  He felt they had tried their hardest and why sell a team if you already had one.  Lou tried to warn Gordon that the league would not let the North Stars leave Minnesota.  Eventually the Gunds' would meet with the league's Board of Governors as well as NHL President John Ziegler.  The leader of the Board of Governor's was Chicago Blackhawks owner 'Dollar' Bill Wirtz.  Wirtz was firmly against a relocation of the North Stars but said the league would grant the Gunds' an expansion franchise in San Jose if they sold the franchise to an owner who would keep the team in the State of Hockey.  In addition, since the Gunds' were originally the Cleveland Barons' franchise owners that merged with the North Stars they would be allowed to take most of the clubs star players and a good portion of their best prospects.  The Gunds' took the deal and sold the North Stars for $32 million to Howard Baldwin and Morris Belzberg.  If it wasn't for 'Dollar' Bill, the North Stars would've departed Minnesota in 1989 instead of 1993.  I have little doubt that Wirtz did not wish to lose one of his franchise's best rivals and the fantastic ticket sales and media buzz that took place whenever the two clubs played one another.  Who knew a Blackhawks' owner; especially the curmudgeon that 'Dollar' Bill Wirtz was, nearly saved the North Stars?  The thought itself almost seems sacrilegious but its true.  

Minnesota Timberwolves  Did the Timberwolves keep the North Stars from moving to the Target Center?

Yet, Wirtz' action was merely delaying the inevitable.  With the team now stripped of most of its marginal talent both with the big club and in development the North Stars were a shell of hockey franchise.  Baldwin and Belzberg were contacted by the owners of the Minnesota Timberwolves in Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner about moving the team to the new Target Center in Minneapolis.  After what looked like promising discussion; it would be derailed over an issue in advertisement.  As Lou Nanne recalled in his book Minnesota North Stars (by Bob Showers) it was due to a dispute over who could advertise on the boards since the sponsors of the Timberwolves and North Stars were competitors.  For instance, the Timberwolves were sponsored by Coca-Cola and Burger King and the North Stars by Pepsi and McDonald's respectively.  Harvey Ratner was ok with the idea but Marv Wolfenson ultimately shot down the idea and thus a potential opportunity that may have kept the North Stars in Minnesota fizzled.  It wasn't really the intention of the Timberwolves to keep the North Stars out of the Target Center, but the conflict of interest between the two franchises and their respective sponsorship made the deal fall through and indirectly you could say the Timberwolves helped close off a potential avenue of escape.  As much as I loathe the NBA and the Timberwolves, its a bit of a reach in my opinion to blame them for the North Stars departure. 

North Stars logo  to  Minnesota 'Stars' Logo  Did the logo change mean the writing was on the wall?

Just two weeks after the failure to move the North Stars to the Target Center, Howard Baldwin sold his controlling interest of the team to a name that would become infamous to Minnesota North Star fans; Norm Green.  Norm Green was a mall developer from Calgary, Alberta.  He was one of the six original owners of the Calgary Flames but sold his shares to pick up the controlling interest of the North Stars.  An abrasive manager who allegedly enjoyed having blonde haired and busty secretaries around his offices, his management style immediately clashed with minority owner Morris Belzberg who promptly asked to be bought out by Green just a few months later.  With Norm Green now in control he attempted to ask the Metropolitan Sports Commission for money for a new arena which of course had just finished the Target Center decided they did not want to spend more money on a new facility.  Green did spend some money in improving the arena which coincided with the team's last Stanley Cup run in 1990-91.  The success of the team on the ice did start to improve the attendance.  Unfortunately the team failed to win the Stanley Cup against the ridiculously talented Pittsburgh Penguins squad led by Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, Mark Recchi, Larry Murphy and Paul Coffey just to name a few.  After that magical season, Norm Green decided to change the logo; so he had Nanne contact local artist Bill Mack to create a new logo.  Green insisted that it simply say "Stars" instead of the classic North Stars "N".  Nanne believes the logo change was a sign that he wanted to make the team easier to relocate if need be. 

Link to KARE 11 Interview of Norm Green (1992)

The team made the playoffs the following year only to be beaten by the Detroit Red Wings in a brutal 7-game series where they squandered a 3-2 series lead.  During that time, attendance continued to improve gradually but Green seemed restless and tried one last time to push for a massive amount of improvements to the Met Center.  His final bid included the proposal of producing a massive skyway that would've connected the newly built Mall of America with the Met Center.  The skyway would've had a casino, with the proceeds going to Green; but with the Mall of America already over budget, they turned him down and it was at this point that he started to talk about relocation.  The skyway's projected cost was only slightly less than Green's proposal for a new arena so its not surprising the Mall of America people turned him down.  Just as this proposal crashed and burned, there were allegations of sexual harassment made by some of his secretaries who claimed that Green regularly demanded that they kiss him and that he would stand over them closely so they could look down their blouses as well as this article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  It was also claimed that Green's wife nearly left him and demanded that he move the team away to avoid the mounting media pressure.  By December of 1992, it was all over.  Green announced he was going to relocate the team at the end of the 1992-93 season to Dallas, Texas.  North Star fans were predictably angry, and began bringing in anti-Norm Green signs and chanting "Norm Sucks" at games.  However there was nothing that could be done and on April 15th, 1993 the North Stars ended their tenure in Minnesota on a 5-3 loss in Detroit.  Here was legendary North Stars broadcaster Al Shaver's final call,

"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 is Sports Illustrated's article as news was released that the team would be moving to Dallas at the conclusion of the 1993 season as well as another SI article here that talks about the fans angst over Norm Green as the last game is played in Minnesota. 

Fan recollections of when the team left:

From wild.com's 00Xtremeninja "i was not living up in MN at the time the Stars got moved, but even in the Milwaukee area when word came out the Stars were moving we were bummed out in our house. Now we may have been a bit biased because we have and still do have family up here that went to Stars games, but I know I was pissed because I knew I would never get a chance to see them live. I only got a few rare chances to see them on TV and that pretty much killed any chance of me being able to follow pro hockey (Hawks got pulled off of WGN too)."

From wild.com's Wildshutterbabe_9"I jumped in with both skates. Bought North Stars season tickets after only seeing a few (literally, I think it was three) NHL games. Joined the Booster Club and became the editor of The Starlighter News my first season. Missed not one game the whole time I held tickets. Blah blah blah.  When I said it was a nasty divorce I merely meant it was a rough time, it's over, we survived (quite nicely, thank you), the whole North Stars saga is in my rear view mirror. I have no desire to take on the ex's name. We have moved on."

From wild.com's WoodSmoke "Even for the older folks that were die-hard North Stars fans, 1993 is getting to be a long time ago.  In September of 1992 I moved into a place where I could finally get the North Stars games AND it had a room I could DEDICATE to a chair and TV. It was great while it lasted.  My memory is tested here, but wasn't the playoff run in 1981 the same year Dino joined the North Stars? He came towards the end of the season? I remember going to a bar in Minneapolis to watch those games. The beer flowed and the crowd went NUTS!! Those Dino dinosaurs were all over. You'd see them in front of the cameras. The Met crowd was out of this world. The Calgary series was especially great. If you remember Randy Moss's rookie year in Minnesota, that was what it was like when Dino burst on the scene for the North Stars."

From wild.com's MK-9"My best friend and I went to the Sabre's game at the end of the year. The 3rd to the last home game of the season. I remember trying to immerse myself in the game itself. Just so I'd make sure I never, ever forgot the memory. We actually had a great time. They won 3-1. We grabbed the pom poms & were dancing around with the "Electric Stars" chicks when they came down by us. But, reality slammed it's hammer down the last few minutes of the game and when it was over a lot of us just sat there. It was really, really hard to even get up and walk out. It almost felt like if you didn't get up they wouldn't have to leave. It was truly devastating. I know I speak to a lot of customers while I'm at my job and a lot more than you'd think still won't follow the Wild just because they're still so hurt over the North Stars loss."

From wild.com's FairbaultGopherGuy"I jumped back aboard the North Stars bandwagon in Dec. of 1990 when they were still drawing 4,000-5,000 a night and empty seats were the winners of Starstakes most nights at Met Center. It was fun to easily get the best seats in the house on a nightly basis. I had my North Stars jersey on that I had bought the summer before thinking that a move to San Jose was inevitable and it was going to be a collectors item.  Something magical happened in the spring of 1991. I was seeing alot of wins and had a bit of optimism going into the playoffs that year. I don't need to rehash that on here though. Before I knew it, I was in an empty Met Center in June of 1991 with Bob Hanson picking out my new season ticket location with the buy 2 get 1 free offer.  The next 2 years saw better crowds and a bit of optimism in the fall of 1992 until the black cloud of rumors started hovering over the franchise (Dan Quinn must have been an omen). As the rumor was becoming an inevitable reality, I found myself not caring about the team anymore, especially on my drive home from the State High School hockey tournament on a snowy Wed. evening when the announcement became official. I still loved hockey and on a Sat. night I found myself going to the WCHA Final 5 championship game. This was my first time at the tournament and was entertained by a Gopher victory (hmmm, I wonder if I could get into this?).  As it hit me the last few North Star games I'd ever see were coming up, I decided I'd support them to the end. I got as many people to games as I could for one last time. Somewhere on video tape I still have the ESPN broadcast of the next to last home game. A victory over St. Louis in front of a loud Met Center. Of course the one last game vs. Chicago was looming a few nights later. Took as many pictures as I could of Met Center and stood there after the game not wanting to leave, in shock and denial that all this was allowed to happen."

This provides a fairly good summary of the feelings of those who experienced the North Stars departure from the State of Hockey.  Many believe it is the experience of the North Stars departure that compels many fans to stick by the Minnesota Wild so closely for fear of being like Atlanta and losing yet another NHL team.  The interim between the North Stars departure and the arrival of the Wild was rough in someways but many fans found themselves taking more time to watch the lower levels of hockey.  I think most fans have moved on rather well from the North Stars and while they'll hold a special place in the hearts of many across the State of Hockey the game continues as it always has for a 100 years and Minnesota's first NHL franchise is just another part of our rich hockey history.  Perhaps this last little quote from wild.com's fairbaultgopherguy says it best, "When the Wild came, the Gophers were reestablishing theirselves as a National Power and though I enjoyed the Wild, I was pretty whateverish with them. Times have changed, the Gophers have gone in the tank, my girlfriend got me more into the Wild and my friends have got me into UMD Bulldogs hockey. Even after all of that, as I drive to Mall of America, I can't help but to look directly to the North and think about what once was at Met Center. Matter of fact, I still have a piece of marble like concrete from Met Center in my front yard as a reminder of the good ol' days."  Hopefully this answers those questions once and for all, and if you have a North Stars memory you'd like to share please do so in the comments section below. 
       

About Derek Felska

I am a lifelong hockey fan from Minnesota who loves and appreciates the game at all levels. I have been blogging about the Minnesota Wild since 2005. I cover just about every aspect of the organization from the team itself, its coaches, its management, its broadcast as well as its AHL affiliate the Iowa Wild and the club's pool of prospects. In addition to the NHL I occasionally time time to cover college and high school hockey as well. We are the State of Hockey and I want to make this blog informative and objective from the eyes of a fan. I am a fan of the Minnesota Wild, but I am no homer. I hope what you read reflects this approach!

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