Lou Nanne didn't come riding in on a white horse to save the Minnesota North Stars. He was part of the whole disaster from the start. Nanne joined the team at the tail end of its very first season, 1967-68, and for the next 10 years he was back there on defense, game but plodding, or filling in at right wing when needed. During that period the North Stars had the worst record in the NHL (274 wins, 436 defeats, 149 ties). Every year Nanne would come to camp, and every year the coach (whoever he happened to be; the North Stars went through seven those 11 seasons) would hint that Nanne probably wouldn't make the team—a sad thing, for Nanne was popular with the fans. But lo and behold, when the final roster was named, Nanne would be on it—also a sad thing because it was a dead giveaway that North Star fans were in for another long winter.
Which is what makes the whole thing so savory now. The awkward defenseman—Sweet Lou from the Soo—is the general manager and prime mover of the best young team in the NHL. In 3½ seasons Nanne turned the North Stars from the worst team in the league into a Stanley Cup finalist. He has wheeled and dealed more than 30 players, accumulating draft choices in return. Minnesota's season-ticket sales have climbed from 4,428 to nearly 10,000 since Nanne took charge, and enthusiasm for the pro game has never been higher in the Twin Cities, an area with a proud hockey heritage but one that has long viewed the NHL as a polluting influence on the amateur version of its sport. That is, until Nanne came along. Some maintain that what's good for the river is good for the sea. "The NHL would be better off with Nanne promoting the whole league instead of just one team," says John Gilbert of the Minneapolis Tribune. An informal poll of Nanne's rival G.M.s produces the same conclusion: If hockey's version of Pete Rozelle is out there somewhere, poised to lead the NHL through the '80s, it is....
Sweet Lou from the Sooooooo! Smile when you say that. He does. The guy is a hockey executive with a sense of humor, which is a contradiction in terms. Raised in the Italian hotbed of hockey, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, home of Phil and Tony Esposito among others, Nanne became a U.S. citizen in 1967, four years after graduating from the University of Minnesota. He tirelessly sells his sport, his team, his players, his ideas, American hockey and, unapologetically, himself, all in an engaging, self-parodying style.
And is he ever slick. Last month Nanne, who was G.M. of Team U.S.A. for the Canada Cup, was watching his club practice when someone peddling a pinkish quick-energy drink asked him to try a cup. He took a sip and nodded.
"Pretty good, eh?" the salesman asked.
"Yup," said Nanne. Suddenly his face brightened. "Can I sell you a cup?"
The salesman almost fell over laughing. He took back his drink and jiggled it all over his shoes, wagging his head in admiration. Sweet Lou had outhustled the hustler. And it never stops.
Nanne's charm and wit are most often displayed during between-period TV interviews, and if he picks up another Seiko digital watch or Sony clock radio in the bargain, well, who can blame him? "I don't make much money," Nanne lies, "so I'm opening a watch shop." He is un-repentantly vain about his looks (he once was balding and has had a nose job), is progressive in his thinking ("I don't get ideas, I steal them") and works, if not lives, like a devout Calvinist. He has even inspired verse, courtesy of William A. Torrey, noted poetaster, fashion plate and G.M. of the New York Islanders:
Player, Coach, G.M., and also TV star,
Sweet Lou from the Soo has truly come far,
He has taken a loser and made it a winner,
Which proves beyond doubt the Good Lord loves a sinner.
It all goes back to Feb. 9, 1978, when Nanne was a bench-riding, bent-nosed 36-year-old fringe player for the hapless North Stars. The next day he was their coach and general manager. It was preposterous! One day an overly superstitious defenseman, who spent more time in the broadcast booth than on the ice, and the next...Mr. Nanne's office, please hold. He had coached the University of Minnesota freshmen for five years, and although his skills as a spokesman and a negotiator for the NHL Players Association were well known, his experience in the front office consisted of selling ads for the North Stars' game program. Yet he persuaded the club's owners he could turn around their franchise. It seemed the sort of thing the Chicago Cubs would have done—hire some loyal Joe who had been with the organization for years and then watch him make the same mistakes his predecessors had.
"Things were so bad," Nanne recalls, "that whenever anyone asked, 'Want to go to the North Star game?' the answer was, 'Only if you take me to dinner.' " Season-ticket sales were at an alltime low and regard for the quality of NHL play was at such a level that when Nanne called a press conference for local high school reporters—a marketing strategy aimed at attracting youth interest—one of the questions he fielded was whether he thought the North Stars could beat Hill-Murray, a top high school team in the state.
Nationally it was just as bad—the Minnesota No-Stars! When Sportscaster Len Berman interviewed Nanne on an NHL TV Game of the Week in 1978, he asked what sort of timetable Nanne had for making Minnesota a contender.
"Two years," Nanne replied.
Berman could hardly contain himself. "Two years?" he said. "Two years! You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen! The North Stars are going to be a contender in two years!" It sounded like a carnival, with some huckster shouting about a two-headed baby—You've got to see it to believe it! Nanne got so mad that he almost gave back the gift watch. Almost.
Two years later the North Stars were a contender. In the 1979-80 playoffs they knocked off the Montreal Canadiens, who had won the Stanley Cup four straight seasons, en route to the semifinals. Last spring Nanne's North Stars went all the way to the finals before losing to Torrey's Islanders, four games to one. Only five players remain from the 1977-78 team that Nanne played for. He didn't inherit a budding giant; he built one.
"What impresses me most about Lou is that when he made the switch from player to management, he made the real tough decisions involving his old teammates," says Herb Brooks, the new coach of the New York Rangers, who co-captained the 1968 U.S. Olympic team with Nanne. "People say he's callous and indifferent, but those weren't things he did lightly. They hurt him."
In Nanne's first trade he sent his former roommate, Defenseman Doug Hicks, to Chicago for a player to be named later. Here was one of the North Stars' most experienced defensemen, and Nanne didn't even get a body for him. It seemed pretty odd. But what Nanne was doing was carefully keeping Minnesota on track to a last-place finish, so he could have first choice in the forthcoming amateur draft. That pick, everyone knew, would be Bobby Smith, a center for the Ottawa 67s. Nanne also started to play some of the North Stars' young Americans—native Minnesotans—more regularly, which was great for local interest. And if they made mistakes that cost a few games, well, who would be the worse for it? Not Nanne. At least they were trying. He should have been named Coach of the Year for keeping that team in the cellar.
Per his game plan, Nanne coached only the last 29 games of that 1977-78 season—"I wanted to see how the players reacted to me," he says—and then became general manager full time. He wanted to build a team through the draft, the way the great football and hockey teams had always done it. Nanne's duties as G.M. became frenzied when, in the summer of 1978, the Cleveland Barons merged with the North Stars, a situation he likens to taking one bag of manure and mixing it with another bag of manure. Suddenly Nanne had 63 players under contract. He released or traded 23, in most cases for a draft choice or future considerations, which leads Torrey to observe dryly, "You know what happens when you spread manure around and get back draft choices—the grass grows greener." Nanne then had to find a coach and sign his top draft pick, who was, indeed, Smith.
This is where Nanne's local business contacts helped him. As a player, Nanne was always the guy who "knew this fella who could get you a deal...." Want a fur coat? Talk to Louie. There are stories of Nanne hopping off a team bus in, say, Czechoslovakia to make a call to some guy about a deal on blue jeans or watches or something. Well, one night at a dinner party Nanne was complaining about how the World Hockey Association was trying to lure away Smith—The Franchise—and if only the North Stars had a little more money.... Bill Ramsay was there. Ramsay is a neighbor of Nanne's in fashionable Edina, a Twin Cities suburb, and was Nanne's teammate at the University of Minnesota. His father also happens to be chairman of Marigold Foods. Ramsay is president. Bingo! Maybe, Nanne suggested, Marigold could pick up part of Smith's contract; maybe Smith could be a company spokesman or something. He's gonna be a big star, Bill ol' buddy, ol' pal. It sounded pretty good to Ramsay, but nothing was definite. Food for thought, so to speak.
A few days later the papers reported that Nanne had signed Smith to a four-year, $750,000 contract, and Nanne credited Marigold Foods with tipping the balance. "My father came into my office shaking mad," Bill Ramsay recalls. " 'What's this?' he asked. I told him I didn't know. Well, I didn't. He looked at me and said, 'You see those trucks out there? You hang around that Nanne much longer, and he'll be sitting in this office and you'll be driving those trucks.' " Fortunately for all concerned, Smith's relationship with Marigold Foods has been mutually profitable.
At first Nanne offered the North Stars' coaching job to Brooks, a native son, who had guided the University of Minnesota to three national championships but was a virtual unknown in the NHL, which usually picks its coaches from among former players, often with disastrous results. It was an innovative idea on Nanne's part, but Brooks turned him down when Nanne offered him only a one-year contract. After looking at several other candidates, Nanne settled on team scout Glen Sonmor, who had coached the Minnesota Fighting Saints and the Birmingham Bulls of the WHA and, before that, the University of Minnesota. The Bulls had been monstrous collections of thugs, and there was concern he would turn the North Stars into a similar goon squad.
But the team Nanne and Sonmor have put together plays the type of hockey they love in Minnesota: a skating game. Yet the North Stars cannot be intimidated. The same cannot be said of past North Star clubs, which were pathetically defined the night of Dec. 1, 1977, when John Wensink, then of the Boston Bruins, challenged the entire Minnesota bench to fight him and then mocked the North Stars when they declined. It was a sad spectacle, but it wasn't coincidence that in 35 games over 14 years, Minnesota had never won in Boston Garden.
That streak ended in last April's playoffs. The stage was set on Feb. 26 when, guessing that Minnesota might meet Boston in the first round, Nanne and Sonmor ordered the North Stars to retaliate if the Bruins tried to intimidate them, something that always happened in Boston. It took seven seconds. Steve Kasper of the Bruins gave Smith a little chop, and when the sticks and gloves were collected at the end of the game, a record 406 minutes in penalties had been handed out, 12 players had been ejected and $16,000 in fines were on the way to John Ziegler at Violence Control. As always, Minnesota lost the game.
When Ziegler and his associates treated the melee as just one of those things that happens—the usual reaction, in other words—Nanne called a press conference and declared that fighting should be eliminated from pro hockey. Most of his NHL colleagues found the idea repugnant. "It was as if I had leprosy," says Nanne. "A few owners called me and said they agreed. People say it's a part of the game, but hockey players are very disciplined. We tell them to be in by midnight and they do it. We tell them to do 15 sprints between the blue lines and they do it. Are you trying to tell me we can't get them to stop fighting on the ice?"
Sure enough, the North Stars, who finished the regular season in ninth place, and the Bruins, who ended up in eighth, were paired against each other in the opening round of the playoffs. Boston would have the home-ice advantage.
Torrey sent Nanne a poem wishing him luck:
They said your team's chicken and the Bruins are tough,
But we both know Cheezy's all bluff.
So come on, Sweet Lou, start cooking a Sinden Stew,
This is but one step toward the inevitable duel
Me again' You.
Cheezy, of course, is Bruins Coach Gerry Cheevers, and Sinden Stew refers to Harry Sinden, Boston's general manager. But never had a duel appeared more evitable than the one Torrey referred to so cavalierly. Me again' You. Minnesota still hadn't won in Boston. So Nanne grimly donned every lucky item of clothing he owned—on the road, he wears only browns, tans and maroons—and to everyone's astonishment, the young North Stars swept the Bruins in three clean, hard-hitting games.
Nanne is, perhaps, the most superstitious animal to ever prowl a press box. If he happens to have his arm around you when Minnesota scores a goal—beware! His arm will be around you for weeks. If the other team scores, he'll tell you to move. As a player he used to follow Bill Goldsworthy onto the ice before every game, until one year Goldsworthy went into a slump. "Quit following me, you little bleep," Goldy snarled. "You're the reason I'm not scoring." The next game Goldsworthy hid in the shower room until he thought everyone had left the locker room. Then he made his move. Nanne was hiding in the training room, and he slipped out right behind Goldsworthy, ducking his expletives.
Poetry became Nanne's good-luck charm in last season's playoffs as the North Stars continued to play winning hockey, eliminating Buffalo and Calgary, both of which had finished ahead of them in the regular season. Rhymed Nanne to pal Torrey:
I still marvel at the ease with which the Isles roll,
Standing proud and erect like a telephone pole;
But give me one chance to stick my spurs in you,
And I'll be at the top of that pole, and you'll be through.
So here's to the meeting we both want to see,
Something I've dreamed—you against me.
When Torrey and Nanne did, indeed, meet in the finals, the dream ended; the Islanders were far superior. Still, just to be sure, the cagey Torrey refused to exchange any more poems with Nanne.
"I'd gotten him that far, and I wasn't going to carry him anymore," says Torrey. New York won the first three games of the series and clinched the Cup in the fifth. The loss in Game 4 came after Torrey's resolve weakened. The producers of Hockey Night in Canada cajoled Torrey into one last session of versifying, which would be aired before the game. Torrey, who dresses like a prep school Latin teacher (he's called Billy Bow Tie), got roasted. Wrote Nanne:
Here you are on Hockey Night in Canada and the USA Network, too
At least you could dress up like Sweet Lou,
Go to your clothier and tell him you'd like to buy
A new blazer and slacks and especially a full tie.
Torrey, assuming an above-the-fray air, doesn't feel compelled to defend his wardrobe. "Louie's a TV personality," he says. "I'm not. I don't have that nice Italian profile, and I haven't had a nose job."
Nanne claims the operation was to improve a deviated septum so he could breathe properly, but Brooks's wife, Patti, for one, doesn't buy his story. "I told him he couldn't fool me," she says. "Somebody else would do these things and you'd retch, but Louie can get away with them."
The hair transplants—three of them—were all tax deductible because Nanne was doing TV commercials for a local savings and loan. He also gives motivational speeches to Honeywell recruits. "I tell my players it's important to have identification with the fans so they know you as a person," he says. "Players have no idea how many opportunities are waiting out there for them."
Nanne also believes that you create your own opportunities, which is just what he did this summer. He traded the North Stars' first-round draft choice, a so-so defenseman named Greg Smith, and rights to Don Murdoch, a one-way wing who has had a troublesome off-ice lifestyle, to Detroit for the Red Wings' No. 1 draft choice in 1982. Since Detroit promises to maintain its position as one of the worst teams in hockey, the trade put Nanne in the Brian Bellows Derby (page 42). At the very least it would seem to assure Nanne one of the top five or six players in what promises to be an exceptional year in the draft. He gave up two players who likely wouldn't help his club for a shot at a superstar. Unlike most hockey G.M.s, Nanne knows you don't build around so-so players and head cases. You build around stars and then find team players to fill supporting roles. "It ruined my weekend when I heard what Louie did," says Torrey.
In spite of their almost daily conversations by phone, Nanne and Torrey have never struck a deal. Says Torrey, "If you get your pocket picked by someone with a nice personality or a gorilla, it doesn't really matter. You still lose your wallet. When Louie first became a G.M. a lot of people thought, 'He's a nice guy, I'll talk to him.' Well, now that he's fleeced a few G.M.s, he's going to find it a lot harder to deal the second time around."
Says Brooks, "If Louie wants to deal with the Rangers, I'm going to keep my hands in my back pockets and say, 'O.K., Louie, start talking.' "
Which is exactly what Nanne does when the subject of marketing the NHL comes up. Nanne denies having an interest in Ziegler's job as president, but he's a salesman, and he can't hide the fact that he knows the president's job has been handled all wrong. This is a man whose first jobs out of college were selling chemicals and envelopes. You know how many envelopes you have to sell to make a living? The North Stars paid him far more than he was worth as a player because he agreed to sell ads for their game programs. He was so good at it that the Minnesota Vikings got him to sell ads for their programs. Nanne can flat peddle, and hockey hasn't been able to sell itself to television, the print media or large reaches of the American public since the days of Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.
"Hockey is lower in popularity than it should be in the U.S.," Nanne says. "We've got two things to build on: cable TV, which will enable us to reach whole new markets, and the success of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team."
Millions of Americans who wept over the gold medal winners wouldn't dream of attending an NHL game. There simply is no connection between the two in their minds, and the NHL has made little effort to make a connection. The players, general managers, coaches and officials of the NHL are still overwhelmingly Canadian, or Canadian influenced, and they take a strongly nationalistic attitude toward their game. "These people think because they don't need help marketing the sport in Canada, we don't need it in the States," says Nanne. "It's like England and cricket. They don't want to change it because it's a great game the way it is. I always feel like the ghost of Howie Morenz must be walking around at NHL Rules Committee meetings.
"Americans love scoring—touchdowns, home runs, the three-point play. The most exciting play in hockey is the penalty shot, but it's hardly ever called. I'd even like to penalize the goalie for smothering the puck. People ask, 'What is he going to do when it gets trapped between his pads?' Let him figure it out!"
Nanne points out that hockey is still the only sport—besides, fittingly, boxing—that doesn't have some sort of overtime in the regular season. He'd like to see it, despite the fact that one of the most frequent complaints about the game is how long it takes to play. To speed things up, Nanne advocates that all line changes be made while the puck is in play, thus eliminating the tiresome "juggling" of lines that often occurs after a whistle. He'd like the league to try two 30-minute periods instead of three 20-minute periods. Last year Nanne scheduled an exhibition game with two 30-minute periods to see how the players and the ice would hold up, and they both did fine. Eliminating fighting and the pointless pushing and jersey-tugging that accompany it also would speed things.
Let's face facts: The NHL doesn't think of itself as a sleeping giant. Burned by overexpansion, criticized for violence, mocked for a schedule that permits 76% of its teams to advance into the playoffs, the league has circled the wagons. If television doesn't want us, we don't want television. If the press won't write nice things about us, we won't talk nicely to the press. The league doesn't have a spokesman or an intelligible direction; it is 21 separate fiefdoms, each battling for its own piece of the public pie. And the players make up a 22nd fiefdom.
But the man for everyone is Nanne, who is Canadian-born, American-naturalized and a former vice-president of the Players Association. Nanne was a driving force behind the NHL merger with the WHA. He is a mediator, a negotiator; he gets things done quickly, and without selling his soul to special-interest factions. "Louie could talk himself out of a shoebox," says his wife, Sweet Francine from the Soo.
"We're competing with baseball and football," says Nanne. "What makes us unique is that we're an international sport. We're in a position to have the most important international competition of any sport."
Nanne would like to see a Stanley Cup final between the European champion and the NHL champion. It would be like soccer's World Cup. Because the season is already too long, Nanne would eliminate the opening round of the playoffs. That, in turn, would make the 80-game regular season more meaningful—21 teams vying for eight playoff berths—quarters, semis, finals and then off to Moscow or wherever.
Ask yourself: Would you have watched the New York Islanders play the Soviet major league's champions last May? A four-out-of-seven series for the Stanley Cup? Nanne's eyes do pinwheels at the thought of the cable possibilities of that matchup. Naturally, he sees it as the North Stars vs. the Central Army Club of Moscow. Can you imagine Viktor Tikhonov, the Soviet coach, getting a bit of verse from Nanne on the eve of the first game? Just a little something to bring the North Stars luck?
Roses, like your team, are red, violets are blue,
Want to buy a Seiko, Vik? Just come and see Sweet Loo;
All I've ever dreamed of in my impoverished life so far
Is to match my team with yours on ice—Eating beluga caviar.