Minnesotans were given 10,000 lakes and frosty winters, and they took the hint. There are an estimated 49,000 people registered to play organized hockey in the state, and the Minnesota high school championship last March drew 16,470 at the St. Paul Civic Center and had a television audience of 300,000. Youngsters dream of growing up to skate for the University of Minnesota, and adults return to their childhood by watching the Golden Gophers. Peer into a Minnesota resident's eyes and you see the reflection of his soul. His pupils are dilated to the size of a puck.
So how can it be that enthusiasm for professional hockey has thawed in the Twin Cities? Even though Gordon and George Gund, the owners of the NHL's Minnesota North Stars until last spring, left the freezer door open for nearly 10 years—in the process presenting a textbook example of how not to run a sports franchise—how could Minnesotans' affection for the pro game have so melted that opening night of the 1990-91 season drew only 5,730 fans to the 15,093-seat Metropolitan Sports Center? As if to prove that the attendance figure isn't a misprint, the second and third games at the Met Center drew 5,970 and 5,280, respectively. The fourth game brought out 9,129 to sec Norris Division rival Chicago. It also brought a brave declaration from Norman Green, the North Stars' new owner, of better times ahead. "I'm certain that within a year we'll turn this thing around and within two years we'll be sold out," he said before the game.
Minnesota played dismally that night and lost 4-1, yet the fans hardly bothered to boo. At this point in their seven-year attendance slide, the North Stars would prefer anger to apathy. The 11,354 average attendance last season, inflated by an estimated 3,000 discounted and free tickets, was almost 4,000 less than the league average. More daunting to Minnesota's hopes of recovery is a bizarre agreement the new owners signed with the Gunds. The deal kept the North Stars in Minnesota but will strip the team of a large number of its prospects, who will play for the expansion franchise that the Gunds will get in San Jose next season. Small wonder that the euphoria many Minnesotans felt when the Gunds sold the team to Howard Baldwin and Morris Belzberg has yet to be reflected at the box office.
Green—who has since bought the North Stars from Baldwin and Belzberg—put the home opener on local TV, a treat for Twin Cities fans since Minnesota's games are usually telecast only on cable, which is not available in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The game drew an estimated TV audience of 200,000. This reconfirmed the obvious—people in Minnesota like hockey—but failed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between enjoying the sport and paying to watch the North Stars play.
There was a time—the 1981-82 season, which followed the North Stars' lone appearance in the Stanley Cup finals—when 15,220 fans packed the Met Center for each game. Now the question is, Have the North Stars made too many mistakes to win those supporters back? The challenge is complicated by the fact that in addition to facing competition from college and high school hockey, the North Stars are going pucks-to-hoops against the novelty of the two-year-old NBA Timberwolves, who drew 26,160 a game last season in the Metrodome and will move this season to the newly opened Target Center in downtown Minneapolis.
Some fans, however, remain faithful. Despite the North Stars' poor draft choices over the years and a chaos of player and coaching changes, John Sullivan, an office supplies salesman from Bloomington, still goes to about 10 games a year. He describes friends who no longer attend as not necessarily disenchanted, merely suspicious. "I think most people are sitting on the fence, waiting to see if the North Stars get better," Sullivan says. One theory is that those fences run right to the Timberwolves' ticket windows. "Since I've come here," says right wing Brian Bellows, who has played for Minnesota since 1982, "I saw the Twins become the hot team, and now their attendance has cooled off. Basketball is new and exciting now, and downtown is the place to go. I think if we show some improvement, we can get the average up to 10,000 to 11,000 a game. I really wonder, though, if we'll ever get 15,000 regularly again."
Green insists that the North Stars will get crowds that large. He says the franchise, which the Gunds announced lost $6 million last season, needs to draw only 8,000 to break even, a number that seems low. Green has raised ticket prices $3 to $5 for most seats (the scale is now $9.50 to $28.50), fired 33 of the 60 people in the front office and moved 900 building operations people off his payroll. He wants an organization that is lean, mean and, eventually, green. He has established residence in the Twin Cities—he is a native of Calgary—to demonstrate that the North Stars are in Minnesota to stay.
Green, a shopping mall developer who formerly owned 18% of the Calgary Flames, comes from an organization that has never skimped on player development. The North Stars, who through Sunday are 1-6-2 after finishing 36-40-4 in 1989-90, obviously need an upgrade in personnel. Green says he has no intention of cutting corners there.
Money was never the problem with the Gunds. Judgment and distance were. After disbanding their failing Cleveland Barons franchise and buying the North Stars in 1978, the Gunds merged the two rosters. George, who lives in San Francisco, and Gordon, who's based in Princeton, N.J., were infrequent visitors to the Met Center. To rebuild a North Star franchise that was even less competitive than it is today, the Gunds put their faith in Lou Nanne, a charter player for the North Stars (the franchise began operation in '67-68). As general manager, Nanne parlayed the extra players from the combined rosters into additional draft choices, a move that appeared to set up Minnesota as a future powerhouse.
A trade with Detroit gave the North Stars the second pick in the 1982 draft, and a deal with Boston, which had the first pick that year, enabled Nanne to take Bellows, the most highly touted junior since Wayne Gretzky. Nanne then obtained from Pittsburgh what would become the first choice in the 1983 draft. But instead of selecting either Pat LaFontaine or Steve Yzerman, who turned out to be dominating NHL players, Nanne took Brian Lawton. Lawton, a center, never scored more than 44 points in five disappointing seasons with the North Stars and, after stints with four other NHL teams, is currently playing for Phoenix of the International Hockey League.
Some of Nanne's deals worked, but in the long term the North Stars declined because he drafted terribly. From 1980 to '85, Nanne selected just six players who are still playing regularly in the NHL. Nanne, now Minnesota's vice-president of marketing and public relations, points out that five players—including former All-Star defenseman Craig Hartsburg—had their careers ended prematurely by injuries. That was bad luck, but not having replacements for them was bad planning.
For a few years Minnesota maintained respectable point totals in what had become a bad Norris Division. But the team was deteriorating, and Nanne now admits that it took him too long to realize which of his scouts had the best judgment.
He also went through six coaches. When Herb Brooks, a local hero at the University of Minnesota before he coached the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1980, was fired by the New York Rangers in 1985, Nanne tried but could not reach an agreement with Brooks.
Nanne finally landed Brooks for the 1987-88 season, but Brooks couldn't turn Minnesota around. When Nanne, his nerves as frayed as his reputation, quit for health reasons halfway through that 19-48-13 season, Brooks asked Gordon Gund to make him G.M. Gund, who didn't want to combine both jobs, hired Jack Ferreira, the Rangers' chief scout. Brooks then stepped down and went public with his hurt. Season tickets, which had peaked at 10,400 in '81-82 and were more than 6,000 when Brooks became coach, plummeted to fewer than 4,000.
Still, Nanne's last two drafts did yield some prospects, and Ferreira's choice for coach, Pierre Page, turned out to be a good one. The North Stars improved by 19 points in 1988-89 and attendance was rising. Then came the Jan. 30, 1990, announcement by the Gunds that unless the Metropolitan Sports and Facilities Commission came up with $15 million for improvements to the Met Center and fans bought an additional 6,000 season tickets within three weeks, the franchise would move. The Gunds made no attempt to sell those tickets. As prospective buyers interested in keeping the North Stars in the Twin Cities emerged, it became obvious that the Gunds didn't want to sell them. They wanted to move the team to the Bay Area before the NHL expanded there. The league, meanwhile, wanted to keep the franchise in Minnesota and bowed to the Gunds' demands for an expansion franchise on the West Coast.
On May 9, Baldwin, the former managing partner of the Hartford Whalers, and Belzberg, a retired rental-car executive, bought the North Stars for $31 million. The Gunds, in essence, traded the North Stars plus $19 million—the NHL had established a price of $50 million for an expansion team—for a new franchise in San Jose. The solution appeared to satisfy all parties, but the NHL gave the Gunds more than just a new territory. Unconscionably, the league allowed them to strip the rebuilding North Stars of their farm system.
At the end of this season, Minnesota can protect only 14 skaters and two goalies, all of whom must have played at least 50 NHL games by the end of 1989-90. The Sharks, as the new San Jose team has been aptly named, then will also claim 14 players and two goalies from the North Star system, not including any draft picks from 1990 and '91. Finally, each team will alternately select from among the remaining 60-plus players that Minnesota has under contract or holds the rights to. The North Stars will also get to pick 10 of the players made available from the rosters of the other existing NHL clubs in the expansion draft, but these players are likely to be marginal veterans rather than prospects. Minnesota has reportedly cut a deal with San Jose that will send left wing Ulf Dahlen to the Sharks in exchange for the North Stars' being allowed to retain its most promising young defenseman, Neil Wilkinson. Still, Minnesota figures to lose four or five of its best prospects. At least two of them, right wing Mike Craig and defenseman Dean Kolstad, are now playing for the North Stars.
"Mike is going to help us this year, and then he's going to be gone," says Bellows. "We're developing him for somebody else.
"I was looking at some team pictures the other day, and it reminded me that my first few years here we had a helluva team. Now I'm on my ninth coaching change in nine years. We were just getting used to Pierre [who left in May to become general manager for the Quebec Nordiques and was replaced by former Montreal Canadien Bob Gainey]. It looked like we were making progress, and now we're back to square one again."
Lacking a superior offensive defense-man, another hard-driving scorer to match Bellows and a feisty center, the North Stars are average in almost every aspect of the game. They do, however, have a potential superstar in Mike Modano, their prize for finishing last in the NHL three seasons ago. Modano, a speedy center, had 29 goals and 75 points in his rookie season last year.
Meanwhile, Minnesota is beginning to act more professionally off the ice. Green has eliminated all freebie tickets, and ushers at the Met Center no longer look the other way when fans move down from the cheap seats. The only discounts Green has offered so far are family plans. "We want to promote the idea that if you want the best seats you have to buy season tickets," he says. "The ultimate marketing tool is scarcity. The best thing we had going for us in Calgary is that it was hard to get into the Saddledome."
It couldn't be easier getting into the Met Center these days. Nor is it tough to tell the owner what you think. Green shakes every hand he can reach as he walks the corridors between periods. The customers thank him for saving the team, for eliminating smoking in the corridors and for recently re-signing Bellows. They also confront him about the ticket prices.
"Norm, wouldn't you rather have cheaper tickets and fill the place?" asks one man.
Green smiles and says, "I'd rather fill it up with higher-priced tickets."
Green, who has already put $2 million in improvements into the 25-year-old Met Center, plans to add more seats. The North Stars' generous lease makes it astounding that the Gunds could lose as much money as they claim they did last season. Minnesota pays only $200,000 a year to rent the Met Center, collects favorable shares of the parking and concession revenues and has control of the building to promote other events. Not so favorable is the deal that pillages the farm system, but Green is trying to renegotiate with the Gunds and seems confident that at least some prospects can be saved.
"We're asking the people to be patient and we're going to earn their support," says Green. "We'll get them back. This is hockey in Minnesota. It's not Tampa."
His theory is based on the obvious. You have to give a person in Minnesota a reason not to come to a hockey game. For too long the North Stars have been providing just that.