The oversized checkerboard coat indicated the man was not from St. Paul or Minneapolis. He was, in fact, a citizen of Thief River Falls, a community in the frozen woods of northern Minnesota. He had spent most of that Sunday getting wood in for the fireplace, planning an ice-fishing expedition, watching one of his sons play a Bantam League hockey game and, naturally, shoveling snow. Now it was Sunday evening, and in his center-ice seat in the Metropolitan Sports Center out in Bloomington, Minn. he waited for the Minnesota North Stars to appear for their pregame skate.
"Whadya wanta know my name for?" he asked hesitantly. "Oh, no particular reason," said his interrogator. "Well, I ain't gonna tell ya, how dya like that? You people down here around Minneapolis and St. Paul are all alike. You think that we're from the backwoods or something, don't ya? Friend, we're just like you—howdya like that? We don't wear your fancy suits, maybe, but we're hockey nuts, too—and don't you forget it."
It was less than 20 minutes before the start of the game between the North Stars and the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the man in the checkerboard coat was one of only 75 or 100 people inside the Met—as folks in the upper Midwest like to call the indoor sports center and the outdoor stadium alongside Route 494. Then it happened. From White Bear Lake and Golden Valley, Eden Prairie and Mahtomedi, Roseau and Anoka, Mendota Heights and Mounds View, people in hooded parkas and heavy white sweaters with triangles on them, corduroy stay-press slacks over thermals and thick boots over woolen socks began to swarm past the ushers and rush for their seats, and before Referee Ron Wicks dropped the puck to start the game more than 12,000 hockey nuts were seated and obviously prepared to relish the next 2½ hours.
Since the North Stars were playing another expansion team that night, the crowd at the Met consisted mostly of 10¢ hockey fans—the fellow next door who has to get up for work at 5:45 a.m., the lady in the battered old station wagon who makes daily house calls to pick up 10-year-olds for their Pony League teams' practice on some frozen pond. The theater-and-symphony set (the tea-and-crumpet crowd) rarely appears for games against teams called Penguins and Seals, but always arrives in splendor—double-breasted blazers over turtlenecks for the men, sprightly tweeds for the women—whenever the North Stars play an established team, such as the Canadiens or the Black Hawks. "I saw the Los Angeles Dodgers, or Kings, or whatever they call themselves once this season already, but never again," said a man wearing a chesterfield coat. "I give those tickets to my friends now and go see a hockey game somewhere else around town."
The 10¢ fans and the tea-and-crumpet set—"If you ask me, they're really thousand-dollar millionaires with three or four mortgages and too many outstanding loans," says one backwoodsman—have made Minnesota the hockey capital of the U.S. during the last 10 years. Greater Boston used to have that title. However, hockey interest there has diminished during the last decade, because the majority of New England colleges now mostly recruit Canadian players for their teams, and New England youth consequently has switched to other sports. The University of Minnesota, though, recruits mostly Minnesotans. There are only two Canadians on this season's roster. The Gophers, nevertheless, almost always are championship contenders in the strong Western College Hockey Association, a league dominated by Canadian imports.
The Minnesota mood explains exactly why the North Stars are the most successful franchise in the expansion division of the National Hockey League. While the five other new teams had to lure and educate people who may not have known a hockey puck from a jai alai ball, the North Stars were blessed with a hockey-mad populace that simultaneously learned to walk and skate and believed that basketball was played by giraffes. The North Stars never have been in the lead, but they have made a strong thrust up to second place. (The Minnesota Muskies of the new American Basketball Association, on the other hand, have been in and out of first place—but attracted only 946 people for a recent game at the Met, and their average crowd is only 2,500.) As they have all season long, the North Stars lead the West in attendance, averaging 11,208. Their season-ticket core of 6,000 fans is nearly 1,000 higher than the average attendance for Oakland—the only team with a serious attendance problem. (Pittsburgh and St. Louis, two clubs lacking strong fan support in the first half of the season, have seen their average-attendance figures rise to 7,100 and 8,000.)
Hockey interest in Minnesota is not confined to the North Stars. On any weekend from late November through the middle of March the hockey nut—someone like Dutch Del Monte, an old minor-leaguer who runs a saloon in the north end of St. Paul—is likely to see the North Stars play Thursday night, catch the University of Minnesota at home Friday night, scout the Bantams and Midgets Saturday morning, drive 200 miles Saturday afternoon to see St. Paul's Johnson High School play at Roseau that night (even though the game is broadcast back to St. Paul), return to see a Peewee game Sunday afternoon and then dash to the Met for the North Stars' night game.
Dutch also runs a chartered bus service to the Met for the North Star games—$3.60 for the ride and a seat—and a few times this year he has needed five 72-passenger buses to accommodate the mob.
Among the more dedicated hockey enthusiasts are Bruce Telander, an insurance man, and George Lyon, a stockbroker. Between them they recruited nearly every player on the University of Minnesota varsity hockey team this year. "I use the Sylvia Porter approach," said Telander, who never played hockey himself. "I tell a boy that during his lifetime a college education will mean $270,000 more to him than a high school diploma, remind him that he will be representing the state of Minnesota and then—a year or so later—watch him play for the Gophers every weekend."
Just about everyone connected with the Minnesota Amateur Hockey Association is some type of hockey fanatic. The MAHA starts a 7-year-old boy in the Pony League, graduates him to the Peewees at 11, moves him to the Bantams at 13, then up to the Midgets at 15. Tommy Williams of Duluth, now with the Boston Bruins, is the MAHA's most illustrious graduate. The MAHA was organized in 1948 by, among others, Bob Ridder, one of the nine owners of the North Stars. Ridder attended Harvard, is a resident of St. Paul and manages his family's broadcasting interests when he is not coaching his own Bantam team, scouting the Peewees for next year's prospects and watching his 7-year-old son Chris play left wing for the Red and White team in the West St. Paul Pony League.
When a boy completes his MAHA program he generally plays for his local high school hockey team. For some reason the State High School League prevents schools from scheduling more than 20 games—12 minutes to a period—each season. This, of course, restricts player development. So, to circumvent the rules, high school teams regularly play "controlled scrimmages" against other schools. According to Webster, scrimmages are not really games.
The eventual beneficiaries of all this hockey are the North Stars. They get an interested, educated fan, one who knows an offside from icing and that a puck hitting the post is not a goal, as some people at Madison Square Garden seem to believe. The spectator at the Met appreciates hockey more than the person who attends a game in Boston or Chicago or, for that matter, any other city in the U.S. Like fans at the Forum in Montreal or the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, he inspects a game intelligently, applauding a good defensive play, persistent and efficient fore-checking and accurate passing. He does not live merely to see a fight, as they do in Chicago and New York. A well-played 1-0 game with few penalties is as exciting to him as a 5-4 contest filled with fisticuffs.
This unemotional attitude has drawn criticism from Wren Blair, the excitable general manager and coach of the North Stars (and the man who discovered Bobby Orr for the Bruins). One night Stan Mikita of the Black Hawks scored three goals to beat the North Stars at the Met, and the fans showered the ice with coins and hats and noisily cheered for five minutes. This adulation for an opposing player infuriated Blair, whose team was losing the game because Mikita had scored three goals. "The fans here may be hockey-oriented," said Blair, "but they need direction, and I'm going to give it to them. You don't go cheering the guy who's beating you. These people usually just sit up there in the stands, look at the game and say to each other, 'Gee, what a nice play.' That's not right. This game's got to be blood and thunder for the fans. Medical people will tell you it's not good to sit on your hands all the time and say nothing. You've got to let out once in a while. That's why I act like I do on the bench, jumping up on the dasher and shouting at the referees and waving my arms around. I don't like the word showmanship, but I guess that's what it is. These people are so quiet the place is like a morgue. So I've got to get the players up, or else the place will be like a public skating show."
When the league decided to expand, a few members of the Twin Cities' Establishment—Bob Ridder; Walter Bush, a top amateur hockey official who had been active in some minor league ventures in the area; Gordon Ritz, who owns a few television stations; and Bob McNulty, a contractor—met and agreed to apply for a franchise. Believing they needed a stronger organization, they recruited five more prominent and wealthy men from the Twin Cities. The nine were mostly Ivy Leaguers—Ridder from Harvard, Bush from Dartmouth, Ritz and four others from Yale. "We are not in this for a living," said Ridder. "The main thing about our group is that we all had hockey backgrounds—and we knew hockey would draw."
They spent $6 million to build a 14,400-seat arena, one that lacks the pizazz of Jack Kent Cooke's Forum near Los Angeles but is, nevertheless, completely functional. There are more parking spaces than seats and no poles obstructing the view. The owners then presented the Sports Center to the Stadium Commission, and the North Stars signed a 35-year lease to play in the Met. Assured a franchise, the owners hired Blair from the Boston organization in May 1966 to be their general manager. For a year he scouted hockey games nearly every night. "I would have to live with my draft decisions," he said, "so I had to do my homework pretty well."
Blair, 42, prepared himself for the job during 22 years spent as a hockey administrator. "There are some people in hockey who just dedicate themselves to coaching and administration," he said. "People like the Selkes and like Scotty Bowman in St. Louis. We study the game, the players. Gordie Howe is a great hockey player, but you cannot assume he knows as much about the game as we do. We are in show business. The general manager is the producer, the coach is the director and the players are the cast. People come up to us and say, 'Gee, you've never played up here. What do you know.' Well, you've never seen a Zanuck on the screen, either."
Blair drafted shrewdly, balancing experienced players with young, untested kids. He also made a number of deals with the Canadiens, who always have had the best minor league talent in hockey. These brought to the North Stars regulars Andre Boudrias, Mike McMahon and Dave Balon and also the rights to seven players on the Canadian Olympic team that played in Grenoble. At least three of those players are expected to turn professional almost immediately.
After the draft Wren hired John Muckler, a veteran minor league coach and general manager who had been working in the New York Rangers system, and it was expected that Muckler would coach the North Stars this year. But Blair decided to take the responsibility for the first year himself, having hired the players. He dispatched Muckler to Memphis, where he is coaching the Stars' top affiliate, the South Stars. Next year he probably will take over the coaching for Blair, who will continue to be general manager.
Under Blair the North Stars have become a fairly solid team, although with a weakness at center. Their strength is on the wings and on defense. The goal-tending has been inconsistent.
The players have discovered that the upper Midwest is one of the better places to play hockey. "If it weren't for your military draft," said Bill Goldsworth, a 22-year-old wing selected from Boston, "I'd probably move down here for good. The wife and I were talking the other day about how nice everyone is around here. In Boston they used to boo and boo all the time, and once they got on you they never let up. They were on me all the time. Here they're quiet and let you alone most of the time."
When Dave Balon played for the Rangers he commuted almost three hours a day for practice sessions and paid high Long Island rents. When he played in Montreal he lived in a one-bedroom apartment that cost $160 a month. "Here I. live five minutes from the rink in a two-bedroom apartment for $165 a month, and we save about $100 a month in groceries," he said. "I'd like to stay here until I quit."
Then he could move to Thief River Falls and become a hockey nut.