It's February in Los Angeles, and the Forum is packed with 16,000 fans eagerly anticipating the 1981 NHL All-Star Game. Don Beaupre, the Minnesota North Stars' 19-year-old goaltender, is downstairs in the Prince of Wales Conference locker room, ready to dress. It occurs to him that he might never have a moment like this again. He buttons up his shirt. And then what does he do? He goes around both locker rooms collecting autographs.
It's April in Buffalo and on the ice at the Memorial Auditorium the North Stars, who have just eliminated the Sabres in the Stanley Cup quarterfinals, are exchanging the traditional handshakes with their victims. Kevin Maxwell. Minnesota's 20-year-old center, inches up to Buffalo's Gil Perreault. "Gil," he says quietly, "may I have one of your sticks?"
"My kids are still basking in the thrill of playing NHL hockey," says North Star General Manager Lou Nanne, at 39 a kid himself by front-office standards. Nanne retired as a North Star player on Feb. 10, 1978 and became the team's G.M. and coach the same day. What he has concocted is a quick, deep and hungry team that is the youngest (average age: 22.6) and least experienced (1.2 NHL seasons) in the league. "We can skate with anybody," says Nanne. "But we're just starting to realize that those other NHL players aren't heroes but peers."
Nanne's boys no longer seem to be star-struck. Last Saturday night Minnesota advanced to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in its 14-year history with a 5-2 win over Calgary in Game 6 of their semifinal series. The North Stars took full advantage of the Flames' bump-and-grind style by first outskating them and then by outshooting and outhitting them. Ultimately what Minnesota did was utilize enough different combinations, strategies and tireless young legs to overwhelm the Flames. Minnesota's performance also overwhelmed the experts, who figured the club to go nowhere in postseason play. When Nanne took over three seasons ago, the North Stars were en route to the worst record in the NHL (18-53-9). The next year Nanne brought in Glen Sonmor as coach, and they were 28-40-12. Last season they finished 36-28-16 and upset Montreal in the playoffs before going under against Philadelphia in the semis. So big things were expected this season. And, indeed, in January Minnesota was 21-9-8 and third in the standings. But in February and March disaster struck. First, inexplicably, the club's top-scoring line of Al MacAdam, Bobby Smith and Steve Payne stopped putting the puck into the net. Then came injuries. All told, they cost Minnesota 322 man-games, the most by far in the NHL. Every North Star missed at least one game, and Minnesota finished the regular season three games under .500 and in ninth place.
May 17, 1981
But Minnesota's injuries were a blessing in disguise. Up from the minors came Maxwell and Dino Ciccarelli, a pesty right wing. From junior hockey came Brad Palmer, a left wing, and Ken Solheim, who has the hardest shot in the entire Minnesota organization. From the University of Minnesota came Neal Broten, a 1980 U.S. Olympian and winner of this year's Hobey Baker award as the nation's outstanding collegiate player. Counting Steve Christoff, 23, and Goal-tender Beaupre, who were already on the roster, by March Minnesota was playing seven rookies. About then, too, Sonmor shifted Smith to a new line and matched MacAdam and Payne with veteran Center Tim Young. All at once both lines exploded. Smith finished with a team-high 93 points, and the rookies started to mesh.
The timing was perfect, for awaiting the North Stars in the opening round of the playoffs were the Bruins, whom they had never beaten in Boston Garden. Minnesota defeated the Bruins three straight. The North Stars then stunned fourth-seeded Buffalo in five games. Still, Minnesota didn't appear to have much of a chance against Calgary, a club that seemed to be going places. In 22-year-old Pat Riggin, the Flames had an acrobatic goalie who was on a roll. They also had Kent Nilsson, the NHL's third-leading scorer this season with 49 goals and 82 assists. Most important, perhaps, since moving from Atlanta last May, the Flames had learned how to win. In each of their seven seasons in Atlanta they pulled an el foldo in the playoffs. But this year, after amassing the NHL's sixth-best record (39-17-14), they swept Chicago and upset Philadelphia in seven games. "The difference is character," says General Manager Cliff Fletcher. "This year we finally developed it. No team can embarrass us."
Minnesota didn't get the word. The North Stars withstood Calgary's efforts to outmuscle them, just as Nanne knew they would. After scouting a game in the Calgary-Philadelphia series, he said, "They're big but not too physical. And there's no way they can skate with us."
Minnesota deprived Calgary of the home-ice advantage by winning the opener 4-1. The turning point came when the North Stars scored two goals 24 seconds apart while Calgary had a power play. Though the Flames won Game 2, 3-2, on a third-period blast by rookie Kevin Levallee, a few patterns already had been set.
First, the North Stars were shifting so quickly from defense to offense that the Flames frequently found themselves on the opposite side of the ice from the puck. They would be in Minnesota's end while the puck was in Calgary's. As a result, poor Riggin faced an onslaught of 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 breakaways. Second, Minnesota's power play and penalty-killing units were thriving against the Flames' special teams. The North Stars scored five goals on their first 13 power plays. Meanwhile, in 11 man-advantage situations, Calgary gave up two goals and scored none. Most ominous of all, Minnesota's centers—usually Maxwell or Broten—were popping Nilsson at the blue line, leaving him no room to zoom. To be fair, Nilsson had a badly bruised left thigh. And he would miss Game 4 with a strained tendon in his right shoulder. His final series stats: no goals, no assists and just two shots on goal.
In Game 3 in Minnesota, the Flames put together their best attack of the series. They led 3-2 midway through the second period, but then Riggin revealed he was human after all. He gave up two soft goals, and Minnesota won again, 6-4. Naturally, a rookie, this time Christoff, drilled home the game-winner.
By Game 4 the Flames were running scared, so Coach Al MacNeil elected not to run at all. Instead, he ordered up some heavy hitting. He also replaced Riggin in goal with veteran Rejean Lemelin. Neither ploy was particularly effective. Hitting away, the Flames were whistled for eight penalties, and Minnesota's power play connected on its first two tries to give the North Stars a 2-1 advantage. Ciccarelli had a hat trick, which upped his playoff total to 10 goals, an NHL record for rookies. His third goal gave the North Stars a 5-2 lead. From there they cruised to a 7-4 win.
Before the start of Game 5, Calgary owner Nelson Skalbania visited his team's dressing room. He wrote on a blackboard that each Flame had earned two plane tickets to Hawaii. Taped on a wall was a telegram from Boston Celtics Coach Bill Fitch. It read: TRADITION COMES FROM THE HEART AND A WILLINGNESS TO WORK HARD. THE CELTICS ARE SUCH A TEAM, AND WE REBOUNDED FROM A 3-1 DEFICIT AGAINST PHILADELPHIA. IN THE FLAMES I SEE THE SAME TYPE OF CHARACTER. I SEE NO REASON WHY YOU CAN'T DO THE SAME. Thus inspired, Riggin turned away 33 of 34 shots and Calgary stayed alive with a 3-1 home-ice victory.
"This was our best effort," MacNeil said. "We chased them. We checked them. We've never considered them a dominant hockey club. As long as we hit them early, we're not going home."
For omen fans, the first hit Saturday night in Minnesota came while the teams were warming up. Maxwell greeted Riggin as he came onto the ice by flipping a puck at his face. Maxwell's little psych job nearly led to a brawl. "I thought it might get him off his game," Maxwell said later. "I didn't really shoot it at him." He paused. "Well, I guess I did. I figured he'd want to see some rubber."
Midway through the first period Calgary's Bobby Gould got an interference penalty. Seventeen seconds later MacAdam scored to put Minnesota up 1-0. Calgary tied the game on a deflection by Russell, but then Ciccarelli slid a rebound between Riggin's legs. The score was still 2-1 when the third period began, but at 5:05 the Flames were penalized again, their sixth infraction of the game. Just 54 seconds later Smith fed Payne, who scored from deep in the slot. "That one broke our backs," said Riggin.
MacNeil blamed "fate." He was wrong, though, because Calgary did hit early but was still going home. For their part, the young North Stars were off to face the Islanders in the championship series—without stars in their eyes.