Tinker, tinker with the Stars,
Till they wonder what they are.
In a way, Lou Nanne's breakfast the morning of the day before the NHL All-Star game in Calgary was symbolic. The Minnesota North Stars' general manager put a fork through an egg yolk, and it collapsed and leaked away—just as Minnesota's once-bright hockey hopes had.
Four years ago Nanne's North Stars were sunny-side up and sizzling, a young, fast, high-scoring team that played good defense and upset Boston, Buffalo and Calgary in an inspiring march to the 1981 Stanley Cup finals, in which they lost to the Islanders. Those North Stars shone like a beacon for teams like the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, New York Rangers—teams that wanted to believe a freewheeling style of hockey could succeed in the otherwise rock 'em, sock 'em, mug 'em NHL. "So close we can taste it" was the team's slogan for 1981-82, but the North Stars quaffed no champagne from the Cup that season, and today they're in a sorry state.
"Seriously, I'm beginning to worry about making the playoffs," says Nanne, normally an unrelenting optimist. But he should be worried.
At week's end Minnesota had won only one of its previous 10 games, was 17-33-11, 20 points behind last season's pace, and sat in fourth place in the weak Norris Division, just eight points ahead of last-place Toronto, the worst team in the NHL. The Stars are apparently headed for their worst season since 1977-78, when the aptly named No Stars finished 18-53-9—worst in the league.
Look at the stat sheet and Minnesota's problem appears to be one of fading stars. Supposed scorers Neal Broten, Brian Bellows and Dennis Maruk are all having bad seasons, and Tom McCarthy and Dino Ciccarelli have missed 17 and 27 games, respectively, because of injuries. "History says they should score, but history lies to us," says North Stars coach Glen Sonmor.
No, it doesn't. Minnesota's current predicament seems to be more a case of a falling star disintegrating as it tumbles through an atmosphere of instability created by frequent trades, questionable drafts, two abrupt shifts in coaching philosophy (with perhaps a third in the offing now that Herb Brooks, a native and lifelong resident of the Twin Cities, is out of work after being fired by the Rangers Jan. 21) and, to be fair, an incredible plague of injuries.
Between the time they lost to the Islanders four games to one in the '81 finals and November 1982, the North Stars made more than a dozen different deals. Only 10 players, two of them goalies, remain from the team that made it to the '81 Cup finals. Nanne had built that team in 3½ seasons after retiring as a player to become general manager (and, for 29 games, coach) on Feb. 10, 1978. Now, 3½ seasons after his finest hour, the congenial wheeler-dealer—nicknamed Sweet Lou from the Soo after his birthplace, Sault Sainte Marie, Ont.—appears to have dismantled a contender in precisely the time it took for him to create one. Around the league the question is whispered: What is Louie doing? On this morning, as Nanne picks at his breakfast, other hockey men stop by or call over, clucking their condolences or making with the needle. Detroit G.M. Jimmy Devellano mentions "the injuries to very, very important people."
"And they're not hangnails," Nanne says. He's right. Only the Rangers have lost more man-games to injury (366) than have the North Stars (256). The club's captain and best offensive defenseman, Craig Hartsburg, was lost for the season Jan. 29 when he fractured a hip. Tough, if penalty-prone, forward Paul Holmgren was lost for the season after undergoing surgery Jan. 3 on his left shoulder. Tony McKegney, the team's hottest scorer after he was acquired in a December trade with Quebec, suffered a shoulder separation Feb. 9 and probably won't be back until April.
But player-agent Alan Eagleson isn't letting Nanne off that easily. From a nearby table he calls, "Hey, Louie. You see in the paper where [Brent] Ashton scored his 20th and [Warren] Young got his 31st?"
Nanne doesn't need to be reminded. Ashton was a fourth-line defensive forward who had only four goals for Minnesota but came up with a hot stick (19 goals in 31 games) after he was traded to Quebec in the McKegney deal. Young played only five games in two seasons with Minnesota and was released in 1983, but he has since become a Rookie of the Year candidate on the strength of his brilliant current season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. And those are not the only transactions that have left Nanne open to second-guessing.
After the North Stars were eliminated in the first round of the 1981-82 playoffs by the Chicago Black Hawks, Nanne overreacted. His team had coasted to the division title, only to be shoved around by the Hawks in a bruising series, so he moved to alter its style. Nanne sent U.S. Olympic hero Mark Johnson, whom he had acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh just seven months earlier, to Hartford with forward Kent-Erik Andersson in exchange for forward Jordy Douglas and a fifth-round draft choice, who turned out to be Jiri Poner, a Czech. Johnson's 19 goals and 27 assists made him Hartford's second-leading scorer this season until he was traded to St. Louis Feb. 22. Meanwhile Douglas, who scored only 16 goals in 82 games for Minnesota, has since been dealt to Winnipeg for Tim Trimper. Trimper has spent most of this season with Minnesota's American Hockey League farm club in Springfield, Mass. Poner has not cracked the North Stars' lineup.
Nanne defends the trading of Johnson on the grounds that Minnesota already had too many small centers (Johnson is 5'9") and that he could not have protected him in the waiver draft. Yet, in October 1983, Nanne traded his biggest center—and perhaps his best player—6'4" Bobby Smith, the No. 1 choice overall in the 1978 draft and a key man in Minnesota's rise, to Montreal for center Keith Acton (who, at 5'8", is so physically imposing he is nicknamed after his lookalike—Woody Allen), right wing Mark Napier (5'10") and a third-round draft choice. Smith, who had asked to be traded, is one of the main reasons why Montreal has spent most of this season leading the tough Adams Division. Napier, after scoring 13 goals in 58 games for the Stars last season, was traded in January to Edmonton for defensive forwards Gord Sherven and Terry Martin, the latter a minor-leaguer who's now injured.
And last November, Nanne did something he had never done before, trading away a No. 1 draft pick to the Islanders for goalie Rollie Melanson. "I did it because I saw a chance to get a quality goalie," says Nanne. But Melanson has played unspectacularly for the Stars (he has a 4.17 average and a 3-7-3 record) and, given Minnesota's projected low finish, the traded draft choice should fall in the top six.
The North Stars of 1980-81 and '81-82 had an identity. They appeared to be on the same road that has since led the high-scoring Oilers to a Stanley Cup. But lately, Nanne's trades and drafts have become twin pities in the Twin Cities.
In effect, Minnesota has had the first overall draft choice in three of the last seven years. Yet only one of the players picked, 1982 choice Bellows (actually claimed second but a de facto first pick because Nanne had swung a deal with the Bruins, who were drafting first, that guaranteed Bellows for Minnesota), has won a permanent place on the Stars. Smith was traded and Brian Lawton, the top pick in the 1983 draft, had a mediocre (10 goals, 31 points) injury-plagued rookie year. He has been sent down to the minors three separate times this season. "You don't keep a guy up just so you don't look bad," says Nanne, who doesn't look good after choosing Lawton over such stars-to-be as Tom Barrasso of Buffalo, Sylvain Turgeon of Hartford and Steve Yzerman of Detroit. "If I had it to do over again, I'd take Barrasso. I'm not an idiot," says Nanne, who rarely second-guesses himself.
After the questionable pick came questionable handling. Nanne and Bill Mahoney, the coach at the time, stood by silently while young Lawton chose to wear jersey No. 98 (Wayne Gretzky, of course, wears 99) thus putting unnecessary pressure on himself with the implicit comparison. Lawton was able to make the switch to No. 8 this season.
The North Stars may also have retarded Lawton's development by not pushing him to play in the 1984 Olympics—a valuable crash course in topflight hockey. Stars draftees Scott Bjugstad, Tom Hirsch and David H. Jensen were encouraged to do so, and they did. Lawton says the decision to turn pro in the summer of '83 was his, but Lawton's attorney, Neil Abbott of Boston, says that in the negotiations "Louie made it obvious he wanted Brian." Some observers believe Nanne wanted his top pick on the ice as the season began because he had little else to show that he had improved the team.
Yet Lawton had less impact on the Stars than they had on Lawton. Though he is back with Minnesota now, Lawton seemed confused after a recent practice with Springfield, a team the North Stars stock jointly with the Islanders. "The Islander players know if they do well they'll move up," says Lawton. "But Dirk [Graham], Tim [Trimper] and I were called up for one game [Jan. 23]. We played well, and I had a goal, but the next day we were sent back down. The Islander players laugh at us."
There is also a feeling on the part of some NHL insiders that Nanne, while assembling scoring talent, has overlooked the need for a blend. "Minnesota has the scorers, but what it doesn't have are guys able and content to accept positions as role players," says the general manager of one of the league's best teams. Two former Stars agree. "We had the right blend of players in '81," says ex-Stars defenseman Brad Maxwell, who was traded to Quebec three months ago. "We had scorers but we also had grinders like Jack Carlson. Look at the Oilers. They have two lines that score, and two that work like hell." Says defenseman Greg Smith, who was traded to Detroit after the '81 season, "We had more character players in '81, not more talented players."
Nanne bristles at suggestions that his team's character is suspect. It is an understandable reaction from a man who, as a player, survived 11 years in the NHL on the strength of a good head and a big heart. Nanne was a gutsy, if not gifted, player, a fact that may explain his admiration of pure talent. Nanne once told Bobby Orr, "It's guys like me who made you what you are."
"I'd like to have had [superior ability] just one time" Nanne says, "just to see what it's like."
It may be that reverence for talent which causes Nanne to confuse potential with performance. Or as the general manager of another NHL team, one that will probably double Minnesota's point total by season's end, puts it, "Louie thinks everybody on his team could make mine and nobody on my team could make his."
Minnesota does have talented players, but instead of supporting its scorers with more foot soldiers like big Willi Plett (Minnesota's only heavyweight enforcer), Nanne last season tried, unsuccessfully, to bend his players to a new system.
When Sonmor stepped down in 1983, Nanne hired Mahoney, a former Washington assistant, as coach with the idea that he'd turn the Stars into a tight-checking two-way team a la the Islanders. But you can't turn racehorses into plow horses, and, when the players rebelled this season—they complained that Mahoney wasn't "relating" to them—and the team got off to a 3-8-2 start, Nanne fired Mahoney and put Sonmor back behind the bench.
Several players say the team is struggling with the transition from checking back to Sonmor's freewheeling game. "We're a team that should give up a two on one to get a two on one," says Broten, "but right now it seems like the puck's always going one way while we're going the other."
Sonmor may soon be going one way (to another job with the North Star organization) while the team goes another. Brooks is, according to the grapevine, signed and sealed as coach of the Stars for next season. Brooks and Nanne co-captained the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, and in 1978 Nanne offered the Minnesota coaching job to Brooks, who preferred to coach the '80 Olympic squad. How Nanne and Brooks will deal with each other's ego and fiery temperament is another matter entirely.
As coach of the North Stars, Brooks would have the scorers and need only the role players and a moratorium by Nanne on wholesale personnel changes to get the team back to where it can once again "taste it."
But until then the North Stars,
Once above the league so high,
Will reel with instability.