Heated signs of icy war

An interleague battle for the affections of hockey-mad Minnesotans has spilled out of the rinks and flowed into the streets of the Twin Cities
November 10, 1975

Entrenched as they are in different leagues, the Minnesota North Stars (National Hockey League) and the Minnesota Fighting Saints (World Hockey Association) have never met on the ice. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the intensity of their fight for the affections of hockey-mad Minnesota. Pretty soon one club will probably knock the other off, unless they sink beneath the icy surface of the Mississippi River hand in hand.

Suicidal tendencies are evident enough in the history of the North Stars, who joined the NHL nine years ago with dreams of developing into what another member of the expansion class of '67, the Philadelphia Flyers, ultimately became. The North Stars did just fine for a while, making it to Stanley Cup play five times in their first six years of existence and regularly selling out the 15,184-seat Metropolitan Center in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington. But bad trades and complacency have kept them out of the playoffs the last two seasons, and this year's young, relatively faceless team has a 3-7-0 record. This dismal start had Right Wing Bill Goldsworthy, the club's captain and alltime scoring leader, saying in frustration, "If we're ever going to have a full house again, we've got to start winning."

But then, the Fighting Saints, who play across the Mississippi from Minneapolis in the 15,705-seat St. Paul Civic Center, are not exactly free of self-destructive impulses, either. A charter member of the 3-year-old WHA, the Saints have been a fixture in the league's playoffs, but their attendance figures have risen barely enough to stave off financial collapse. This year the Saints failed in a much-publicized bid for the services of the Boston Bruins' Bobby Orr, but enterprisingly landed a couple of crowd-pleasing veterans in Dave Keon (from the Toronto Maple Leafs) and that scrappy, grizzled onetime Bruin, Johnny McKenzie. So what has happened? The Saints not only stumbled off to a 4-4-1 start but went into a swoon the first three times they appeared before the people they need so desperately to please. "It's strange," muses McKenzie. "We seem to get uptight whenever we play at home."

McKenzie has been through such struggles before. He was player-coach of the WHA's Philadelphia Blazers before that team was run out of town by the Flyers and was still on hand when the club, reincarnated as the Vancouver Blazers, suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Canucks. Philadelphia and Vancouver are among seven cities in which the NHL has ousted the WHA, which has yet to uproot the older league anywhere. The WHA's Toros are still challenging the Maple Leafs in Toronto, but that city, too, will probably be abandoned to the NHL. Toro players are already discussing apartment rentals in nearby Hamilton, Ontario, where the team is rumored to be heading.

All of which leaves Minnesota as the WHA's last hope for a morale-building knockout of an NHL club. But the Fighting Saints have lost $3.5 million so far, and last week Wayne Belisle, the sixth president in the club's brief history, was anxiously seeking new capital amid talk that some of the Saints' angels were having unholy thoughts about bailing out. North Star President Walter L. Bush Jr. was also complaining of "substantial losses." No wonder that Belisle has lately been proclaiming, "It's time to get this thing over with and find out who is boss."

It is in this spirit that the Saints, who mostly avoided such head-to-head battles in previous years, scheduled 19 home games this season on nights that the North Stars were playing across the river. The first two of these confrontations were standoffs, the Saints drawing a bigger crowd one time, the Stars the next. Another showdown occurred last Wednesday night. The Stars, before an oddly somnolent crowd of 8,335 in Bloomington, managed a rare win, shutting out one of the NHL's most recent expansion teams, the 2-year-old Kansas City Scouts, 2-0. In St. Paul, a somewhat livelier gathering of 12,210 watched the Saints lose 6-4 to the WHA expansionist Cincinnati Stingers. But the attendance figures were still inconclusive; the St. Paul numbers were swollen by a special promotion in which kids were given free Saints jackets.

The only sure thing is that 20,000-plus fans watched pro hockey in the Twin Cities on one night, a turnout that, wedged into one building, would have broken all of the sport's single-game attendance records. Chalk this up to an area hockey mania that keeps pucks flying on 40-odd rinks, the players ranging from eager-eyed Squirts to Minnesota Governor Wendell Anderson, a '56 Olympic defenseman who competes in an Oldtimers League. Then there is the University of Minnesota, which on another evening last week whipped St. Louis University 6-3 before 6,502 raucous fans. The Gophers, NCAA champions two years ago and runners-up last season, consist entirely of native Minnesotans.

For all the hockey fever, though, it is questionable whether the Twin Cities can support two big-league clubs. The estimated break-even point for the Fighting Saints is an average crowd of 10,500 for their 40 home games this season, while the North Stars need 14,000 spectators at an equal number of home games to keep their debts from piling up further. In the fight for survival, the North Stars come off as the Establishment team, both as the NHL entry and because a lot of their devotees are from such leafy Minneapolis suburbs as Edina and Wayzata. Fighting Saints fans tend to come from the blue-collar sections of St. Paul, a city that has long nursed an inferiority complex in its relations with Minneapolis. It was with suitable nose-thumbing brashness, then, that the WHA club last year put up billboards practically in the shadow of the North Stars' arena, one of them reading, WE'RE NOT THE OTHER TEAM ANYMORE. The NHL club loftily ignored this for a while, only recently responding with its own sign: IT'S NOT THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN...JUST THE BEST.

"We don't like to knock somebody else's product," says Walter Bush, plainly ruing the need for his North Stars to resort to such tactics. "We'd rather just talk about our team."

"Know why the North Stars are in trouble?" says the Saints' Belisle. "Some of their fans find it socially unacceptable to lose."

The contrast between the two clubs also is reflected in their styles of hockey. Mention the near-anonymity of the North Stars—only Goldsworthy and Center Dennis Hextall are of All-Star caliber—and all hands soberly insist the club is eschewing publicity stunts and building for the future. Retired Defense-man Ted Harris, a onetime North Star captain who toiled more recently for the Philadelphia Flyers, is the new coach and he is emphasizing deliberate, hard-checking textbook hockey with stress on shoring up the team's defense. The Stars' record would be better but for some bad luck. In the home opener against Vancouver, for example, Goalie Cesare Maniago's stick snapped in two late in the game, allowing the winning goal to slip by in a 3-2 loss. "We're still optimistic," insists Harris. "We really haven't been out of any games so far." Harris was saying the same thing the other day to the man from KMSP-TV when the audio failed and left him soundlessly moving his gums, the sort of catastrophe usually associated with another Minneapolis television personality, Ted Baxter. Harris grieved, "That's the way things have been going lately."

By design, the Fighting Saints are much more flamboyant. The leading scorer, with 48 goals last season, is Mike Walton, whose idea of loosening up the team during the playoffs was to appear at a workout wearing only his skates. The addition of Keon and McKenzie gives the Saints the makings of a wide-open offense. But the suspicion lingers that the Saints have made brawling a major selling point, thanks in large part to this season's reunion of the three Carlson brothers (Jeff, Jack and Steve) who, though wearing glasses while they play, accumulated 663 penalty minutes in various leagues last year. Such a notion is scarcely refuted by Belisle's admission that "Fans do like physical hockey. And besides, there was a feeling we weren't doing enough intimidating last year."

Maybe this facet of the Saints' game was inevitable. After all, St. Paul has always been a good fight town, as press box historians duly noted after a season-opening loss to the Cleveland Crusaders marred by seven brawls and a WHA record 46 penalties. Still, the whole subject is a bit embarrassing in light of Bobby Hull's recent one-game sitdown to protest the WHA's growing violence, and all the more so considering the presence in the Saints' lineup of Henry Boucha, who last season, while playing for the North Stars, was the loser in the notorious Dave Forbes fight (SI, Jan. 27).

The Minnesota-born Boucha is the latest of a string of North Stars wooed away by the Saints, but recent surgery on the eye damage by Forbes—Boucha's third such operation—delayed his debut until last week's Cincinnati game. He scored two goals, talking afterward not of fighting but of his old team across the river. "If we played the North Stars in a seven-game series, we'd beat them in five," he crowed.

In lieu of such a series, the competition continues at the box office. In another head-to-header Saturday night, the North Stars came alive to trounce the Pittsburgh Penguins 7-3 before 9,059 rooters, while the Fighting Saints, playing in front of 8,102, gained their first home victory by beating Phoenix 3-2 in a game enlivened by a Walton goal and two fights in the first 58 seconds. Like politicians poring over the latest opinion poll, the two clubs tried to divine the portents from the new figures. Will the Stars be extinguished? Will the Saints go marching out?

If only because of recent history, the betting has to be on the NHL club to hang on. Given his painful experiences at Philadelphia and Vancouver, it is not surprising to find Johnny McKenzie making conciliatory noises. Puffing a cigarette in the Saints' dressing room after the Cincinnati game, he said, "Minnesota's a great hockey state, and if they start winning, I think both teams can survive here." The part about the state, at least, makes sense.