Kevin Leahy called it a dream week for a Minnesota hockey nut. His wife Judy had no comment, other than to suggest that her husband was indeed a nut. "Tell me," Leahy said, "what is better than going to three playoff games in three nights? What's better than seeing Bobby Hull back-to-back against the Fighting Saints and then watching Bobby Clarke play against the North Stars?" To placate Judy, Kevin even offered to take her to her first game of the season. "It has been a long, tough year for her," he said. "I see three or four games a week and play in a local hatchetman's hockey league another night, but she has to stay home all the time."
So the Leahys settled into their $6.50 seats at the St. Paul Civic Center last Tuesday night and waited for Hull's Winnipeg Jets to play the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the third game of their opening-round WHA playoff series that Hull's team already led 2-0. "There probably won't be too large a crowd in here tonight," Leahy predicted, "because the North Stars are televising their Stanley Cup game back from Philadelphia. Besides that, a lot of people around here still don't buy the argument that the WHA is major league."
Despite a variety of promotional tactics, the Fighting Saints have failed to dent the box-office popularity of the North Stars in their head-to-head battle for Minnesota's hockey dollar. The North Stars sold out all their 38 regular-season NHL games at the Met in Bloomington; the Saints averaged only 4,600 for 19 games in the old Civic Center and then a disappointing 7,500 for 19 games in the posh new 16,500-seat Civic Center, which has see-through glass boards around the rink. All season long the Saints attempted to provoke a revival of the old St. Paul-Minneapolis rivalry, which reached frenzied heights when both cities had teams in the same baseball and hockey minor leagues. However, the Minneapolis newspapers and the North Stars management thwarted such hopes by practically refusing to acknowledge the presence of the Saints.
The Minneapolis papers gave short shrift to WHA games in St. Paul but covered the North Stars with at least two stories a day. "We don't mind having the Minneapolis writers taking shots at us in print," said Lloyd Leirdahl, one of the owners of the Saints, "but we do wish they'd come over to see what they're shooting at." One Minneapolis radio station has a show called Sports Hero of the Day, and no Saint has ever been selected as the daily hero. "If one of our players scores 10 goals in the first five minutes of the game tonight," said a Saints official last week, "you can be sure that the hero tomorrow will be the infielder for the Twins who made four errors and struck out five times but never lost his poise."
The management war is even more onesided; North Stars feign ignorance of the very existence of the Saints. The Saints own four season tickets for North Star home games, and they always announce each new score of the North Star games when the teams happen to be playing on the same night. "They're competing with us, maybe, but we're not competing with them," said North Stars President Walter Bush, who has yet to see a Saints game in person.
During lunch one day last week Leirdahl was saying that he had never communicated in any way with any member of the North Stars organization. At that moment Wren Blair, general manager of the North Stars, stopped by the table. Eventually he was introduced to Leirdahl.
"Lloyd's one of the owners of the Fighting Saints," Blair was told.
"Oh," he said. "I almost went over to your game last night but I was tired and went to bed instead."
Then Leirdahl suggested to Blair that they meet for lunch privately someday and arrange for a charity softball game between the North Stars and the Fighting Saints. "I don't want anything to do with it," Blair said, "but if the players want such a game there's probably not too much we can do about preventing it. Drop me a line about it sometime."
"I will," Leirdahl said. "And by the way, someone else is using our tickets for your game with Philadelphia. Is there any way you can get two that I can buy?"
"Sorry," Blair said. "I never get involved with tickets."
On Tuesday night at the Civic Center, Leahy was ready. A 29-year-old plastic-bag manufacturer, he works in Minneapolis but lives in the town of Minnetonka. "It's 40 miles from Minnetonka to the Civic Center and 30 miles from Minnetonka to the Met," he said. "I probably put 10,000 miles a year on my car just driving to hockey games. The ecologists would say I'm driving too much, but they're not hockey people. Besides, I bought myself a little economy car that is good on gas." As usual, the bearded Leahy was wearing his Wallabee boots and his maroon windbreaker with a "Larry Dee's Liquors" patch over the left breast. "That's the team I play for in the hatchet league," he said.
As Leahy had predicted, most of Minnesota's hockey nuts had remained at home to watch the Philadelphia-North Star game instead of driving to the Civic Center. Only 5,151 persons, most of them teen-agers who idiotically kept calling Bobby Hull "marshmallow," watched the Saints tighten their playoff series by shutting Hull off and beating the Jets 6-4. Some of them cheered when the public-address announcer reported that the North Stars had lost to the Flyers in overtime. "I guess not everyone in town likes both teams," Leahy said with a grin.
Sitting near Leahy was Don Ferroni, a 27-year-old financial analyst in Minneapolis who has mixed emotions about his allegiances. "I have season tickets for both teams," he said. "My uncle, Johnny Mariucci, is an official for the North Stars, but I own stock in the Saints. In fact I just paid $293 for 200 shares. If the leagues ever merge, the team will definitely increase in value and I'll probably make a lot of money. I guess if it ever comes down to having to make a decision between the Saints and the Stars, I'd be with the Saints. But don't tell my uncle." Although the Saints expected a crowd of at least 10,000 for their game against the Jets on the following night, only 6,982, including three North Star players, turned out to see Hull lead the Jets to a 3-2 overtime victory. Midway through the third period the P.A. announcer said: "We extend a cordial welcome to Doug Mohns, Dennis Hextall and Barry Gibbs of the North Stars and wish them well tomorrow night against the Philadelphia Flyers." By that time, though, the three North Stars had left the building in order to make curfew. Leahy remained until the bitter end. "I'm afraid that we won't be seeing the Saints again until next year," he said. "No way they'll win in Winnipeg. I'll be calling them next week. My wife really liked the game last night and wants me to get her a season ticket."
Abandoning his favorite boots and jacket, Leahy was dressed like a junior ad executive Thursday night when he arrived at the Met for the North Stars game against the Flyers. The North Stars were trailing 3-2 in their best-of-seven series. "Do you realize that if the Stars lose tonight the hockey season ends until the summer hatchet league begins in June?" he asked. "What am I going to do?" Studying the pregame warmups, Leahy noticed that Philadelphia Goalie Doug Favell seemed to hurt his right knee while making a save. "He did the splits and smashed the knee against the post," Leahy said. "If he can't move too well maybe it won't be such a long spring after all."
Sure enough, Favell limped around his crease as the national anthem was played, and all during the first period he acted as though he would collapse any minute. Every time he went down to make a save one of his defensemen helped him back onto his feet. Spurred by the prospect of extending the series, the Stars pelted the disabled Favell with 13 shots in the first period but beat him only once. Then, in the second period, the North Stars' old legs began to tire, and the Flyers ripped three goals past Minnesota Goaltender Cesare Maniago. In the final period the North Stars assaulted Favell again, but he was impenetrable, and when Ross Lonsberry scored for the Flyers into an open net with just 12 seconds to play, Leahy finally resigned himself to the inevitability of defeat.
"I can't say much for the refereeing tonight," he said in a grumpy tone. "Favell was good, sure, but the problem with the North Stars was old age. And no muscle. I hope that Wren Blair spends the summer getting some guys with some muscles. We've been getting pushed around too much."
As he got up to leave, he said, "Oh, well, the summer hockey league begins soon, and I'll be playing softball four nights a week, too. And, hey, next year is only six months away."