Few people could tell for sure if the puck had gone into the goal or not. What most of the 12,000 fans in Minnesota's Metropolitan Sports Center saw were bodies sprawling and sticks flying in front of the Oakland Seals' net and then, as the Seals and North Stars wheeled and swept toward the other end of the ice, Wren Blair standing on the dasher and brandishing a fist at the goal judge. "The button, you bum!" screamed the coach and general manager of the North Stars. "The button in your hand! All you have to do is press it! Turn on the light!"
But the light did not go on, and the North Stars eventually lost the game 4-2, which meant their leader went a little higher up a wall he is trying frantically to get down from. Blair, known as The Bird for that name Wren, has to be the only coach in hockey who is lucky if his team misses the playoffs, for no coach punishes himself like Blair. Seventy-six nights a year The Bird is a 5'9" package of fury behind the Minnesota bench—pacing, swearing, exhorting, berating. He buries his face in his hands, pounds the wall with his fists, kicks the bench with his feet and turns ears red with his mouth. When a game is finally over Blair can't even sleep.
"I gotta get out of coaching, I got no choice," he rasps. "I love it, but it doesn't love me back. But I can't get anybody to take over. Guys are smarter these days. They see what hockey does to a coach, and they say to hell with it, I don't need that."
In the brief three years of the North Star franchise Blair has offered the coaching job to such well-known hockey men as Punch Imlach, former general manager and coach of Toronto, and Boom Boom Geoffrion, former coach of the New York Rangers. Both turned it down. Last year Blair brought up John Muckler, who had been coaching the Stars' Memphis farm team, for 31 games. But he won only five of them, and the owners persuaded Blair to go behind the bench again.
Last Wednesday, as he awaited the Oakland game, Blair sat at the bar in the paneled recreation room of his handsome split-level in suburban Edina and poured a vodka martini. His face was pale and heavy shadows encircled his eyes. A one-two punch lay ahead. Following that night's game there would be a midnight charter flight to St. Louis, where the North Stars were to meet the first-place Blues on Thursday (and lose again). Blair took a sip of his drink. "Seventy-six days a year it's are we gonna or aren't we," he said. "Are we gonna win or are we gonna lose? And waiting for it to happen is almost as bad as the games. You can't enjoy your home, your family."
Blair isn't the first man to find coaching a hockey team rough duty, and he won't be the last. Two years ago Montreal's Toe Blake, probably the best hockey coach who ever lived, finally kicked the tension by quitting, and only last year Geoffrion had to retire because of an ulcer (and the front-office presence of a superior coach, Emile Francis, who did not want to go back to the job but did). For years rumor had it that Gordie Howe would someday wind up coaching the Detroit Red Wings, but after seeing what one year did to his good friend Bill Gadsby, Howe doesn't like those rumors anymore. Not surprisingly, there has been a trend toward coaches 35 and under.
"This game," said Blair, "is every bit as violent and emotional as football. But just look at the coaching staff of the Minnesota Vikings. They've got so many assistants I can't count 'em all. Here, it's me and me alone. And pressure. Why, when we go into Montreal on Saturday night and New York on Sunday night it's just as tough as the Vikings playing the Packers one day, the Rams the next."
An outstanding amateur coach in Canada during the 1950s, Blair took the Whitby (Ontario) Dunlops to the world championship in Oslo in 1958. Before coming to Minnesota, however, his biggest achievement was that, as a scout for the Boston Bruins, he was the man who signed Bobby Orr. (Boston Owner Weston Adams still refers to Blair as DOBO—Discoverer of Bobby Orr.) While one can get an argument on how good an NHL coach Blair has been, few will deny his gifts as a general manager. Blair is a proud man, but when expansion came along he wasn't too proud to go into Boston and Montreal and literally beg for players. "The day the expansion draft was over," he recalled, "my scouts and I came back to my hotel suite together. I tossed our list onto the table and told them we had to get rid of those players as fast as we could."
Since the Canadiens and Bruins had so many good players, they were certain to lose a number of them in drafts to come. Blair—in true NHL fashion—made a number of deals, promising not to draft this player if he could trade for that one. In this manner young stars like Danny Grant, Danny O'Shea and Claude Larose—all previously Montreal property—started turning up in the Minnesota green and yellow. Last year the Grant-O'Shea-Larose line clicked for 74 goals, and Grant won the Rookie of the Year award. Just last summer Defenseman Barry Gibbs—who has given the North Stars some much-needed muscle—came over from Boston, as did Duluth-born Tommy Williams. Defenseman Lou Nanne, captain of the U.S. Olympic Team in 1968, had been a hero at the University of Minnesota.
"Our situation was entirely different from the one in St. Louis," said Blair. "We had a good hockey town to start with, the Blues didn't. We knew we could take our time and build with young players, while the Blues had to start winning right away. Right now Scotty Bowman is throwing more talent over the boards than we are, but in the long run we're going to be right up there with St. Louis. No doubt about it."
Blair even jazzed up the Minnesota fans. Early in the North Stars' first season the Minnesota following was as quiet as it was knowledgeable; it cheered little, and, when it did, applauded the good play of opponents as well as the home team's. A few nights of this and Blair lectured the fans in the papers. Why, he wanted to know, should the North Stars run into rough crowds in places like Boston and Chicago and New York and Montreal—and suffer for it—while visiting teams didn't get a dime's worth of riding in the Met? By the end of the year things had started to change.
When Blair has a little time in which to wear his general manager's hat, he likes to plot hockey's future. Among other things, he believes Europe should be dealt into the NHL. "Right now," he says, "the best we can ever be is No. 3. We can't put people in the seats like football and baseball, because we'll never have that many seats. The only way the NHL can become No. 1 is by going to Europe, by becoming a true international sport. Put teams in places like Moscow, Prague, Stockholm and London and hockey is going to become the most prestigious game in the world. I can see it now: the two big Ms—Minnesota and Moscow—going at each other before a sellout crowd at the Met."
For the time being, however, the crowds at the Met will have to be content with the North Stars going at the present NHL teams—which already include that other rather big M. Montreal. And the fans, whether they come out to watch the Stars or that nut behind the bench, could not be more faithful. Already Minnesota has drawn 128,207 in nine games for an average of 14,235. Meanwhile, Blair will keep up the hunt for a new coach. "I won't leave before I have the right guy, but I have to get somebody," he says. "Handling both jobs is too much for one man. A general manager is like a movie producer, a coach like the director. I'm just worn out from hollering cut, cut, cut!"
"When it happens everybody will miss watching The Bird suffer," says Lynn Patrick, managing director of the Blues and one of Blair's closest friends. "I'll never forget a night last year when we pounded them here in St. Louis 6-0. Glenn Hall even got an assist, and he's a goalie. Wren was sitting on a trunk by himself outside the Minnesota dressing room when our organist came walking down the hall. You know how he plays that song, When the Saints Go Marching In, after each St. Louis goal? Well, he doesn't recognize The Bird, and as he walks by he mops his forehead and says, 'I sure got sick of playing that damn song tonight.'
"For the first time in his life Wren couldn't think of anything to say."