It's not that they don't appreciate the attention. But some of the Minnesota North Stars aren't so sure they like their team's new nickname, Cinderfellas. Doesn't exactly ooze masculinity, does it? On the other hand, if the shoe fits....
Having gone just 27-39-14 in the regular season, as of Sunday the North Stars were inexplicably 8-4 in the postseason ball and were the newly crowned champions of the Norris Division. They gained that distinction by knocking off the NHL's No. 1 (the Chicago Blackhawks) and No. 2 (the St. Louis Blues) regular-season teams as easily as powdering their noses. "The Twins' ['87] march to the World Series was improbable," wrote the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Patrick Reusse. "What is happening to the North Stars is approaching the mystical."
Minnesota fans, who had taken pains to avoid the Met Center in recent seasons, have returned by the thousands, tailgating in the parking lot before games and chanting the name of the North Stars' new owner, shopping-mall mogul Norm Green, during them. Phlegmatic first-year head coach Bob Gainey, as animated as a Bud Grant bust, is being celebrated in the Twin Cities for his dullness. How hot is Minnesota? Even its goons are scoring.
In Game 2 of the Norris semifinals, on April 6, North Star enforcer Basil McRae was as surprised as anyone to find himself skating in alone on Blackhawk goalie Ed Belfour. Perhaps mistaking McRae for one of Minnesota's more gifted players, Steve Konroyd pulled down the burly winger from behind, and McRae was awarded a penalty shot. McRae, who in 10 NHL seasons has scored 43 goals and logged 1,816 penalty minutes, deked twice—woodenly—and scored. The North Stars, who finished 38 points behind Chicago in the regular season, lost that game 5-2 but won the series, four games to two.
In Game 1 of the Norris finals, on April 18, a slapstick giveaway of the puck resulted when Blues center Dan Quinn and defenseman Jeff Brown collided at the North Stars' blue line. More slapstick seemed assured when McRae, who pulled in the loose puck, and right wing Shane Churla (six goals and 879 penalty minutes in four seasons) found themselves leading a three-on-one breakout. Churla took McRae's seeing-eye pass and flipped the puck past netminder Vincent Riendeau for the game-winning goal. Minnesota went on to win the series, which ended with a thrilling 3-2 North Star victory on Sunday night, four games to two.
It has become a rite of spring: An underdog squeezes its way into the NHL playoffs, catches fire and wins a round or two, illustrating once again the near irrelevance of the regular season. Yet these North Stars rate special mention on the roll of postseason upstarts. No one had knocked off the No. 1 team in the first round since 1971, when the Bobby Orr-led Boston Bruins ran into the Montreal Canadiens and a rookie goalie named Ken Dryden. No team had upset both No. 1 and No. 2 since the NHL first expanded, in 1967-68.
Two seasons after that epic upset of the Bruins, Dryden was joined in the Canadiens lineup by Gainey, a barrel-chested, 19-year-old left wing from Peterborough, Ont. Sixteen seasons, 1,342 games and five Stanley Cups later, Gainey retired to become a coach—though former teammates suggest he had in essence become one years before his playing career ended. Says Bobby Smith, who played with Gainey for six seasons in Montreal and now plays for him, "He was always taking home those pieces of paper with the little rinks printed on them to figure out new power-play schemes, new breakouts. I know he's a first-year coach, but calling him a rookie is unrealistic."
It is said that teams take on attributes of their coaches. In The Game, his book on those formidable Montreal teams of the 1970s, Dryden wrote of Gainey's "insistent passion, enormous will to win. and a powerful style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo."
The North Stars were only too pleased to let the Blackhawks outmacho them. While Chicago's tough guys baited them and cheap-shotted them, Gainey's players, for the most part, turned the other cheek—and scored 15 power-play goals, which tied an NHL record for one series. That discipline, and the Blackhawks' lack of it, was the difference.
Minnesota's most valuable players in the St. Louis series were defensive forwards Stew Gavin and Gaetan Duchesne, who tag-teamed the Blues' 86-goal scorer Brett Hull, and goaltender Jon Casey, who stopped Hull whenever he was able to wriggle free. With the dueling shadows hooking and bumping him and lifting his stick, Hull had to settle for a pair of meaningless power-play goals in the Blues' 8-4 loss in Game 3 and an even-strength goal in the series finale.
"I scored four goals this season," said Gavin from behind his dense playoff beard before Game 6. "He scored 86. So neither of us score when we're on together. I'll take that tradeoff."
All the attention got under the Great Brettzky's skin. Frustrated after tallying only one assist in the first two games, he wondered aloud: Where were his teammates to pick up the slack? His main set-up man, center Adam Oates, joined the squawking by publicly questioning the quality of St. Louis's goaltending.
Taking their example from behind the bench, the North Stars presented a more unified front. Gainey will talk privately to players who err, or send a nonverbal message—like holding them out of a game for one period. His methods are in distinct contrast to those of his predecessor, Pierre Page, now the general manager of the Quebec Nordiques. Some North Stars say it was not uncommon for Page to unload on players. "You stunk out there tonight," he once screamed at his goaltender. "You let the whole team down!"
If a guy has stunk up the ice and let his teammates down, Gainey figures, he'll probably be down in the dumps without prompting from a coach. "We're less likely now to get tight and make another mistake," says center Neal Broten. "Pierre had guys so nervous they'd squeeze the sap out of their sticks."
Amazingly, Gainey did not permit himself the luxury of a crack in his demeanor all season, though no North Star would have blamed him if he had. Gainey has been his usual serious, soft-spoken self, despite bearing a cruel, personal burden for the past five months.
Early on the morning of Dec. 1, as Gainey deplaned from a charter flight from Winnipeg, where Minnesota had won 4-2, he was met by general manager Bob Clarke. "When I saw Bob, I thought it was kind of strange," Gainey recently told Jay Weiner of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Bob said to me, 'Cathy is sick, and it's serious.' I knew what it was."
Cathy Gainey, Bob's wife of 15 years and the mother of their four children, had collapsed at home. Doctors diagnosed a brain tumor. Bob had immediately guessed what was wrong because Cathy's father and a brother had died of brain tumors. On Dec. 5, she had surgery. Shortly after the operation, she underwent 35 days of radiation treatment. The news so far is good: Though Cathy has suffered the loss of some memory, her doctors have been sufficiently encouraged by recent CAT scans to allow her to attend home playoff games. The doctors tell her it will be a year before she fully recovers.
And Gainey's off-ice troubles were only exacerbated by his team's on-ice failings. The new-look North Stars won just 11 games from October through December. "We were a good team—on paper," says Minnesota center Dave Gagner. "It just took time for Bob to get to know our strengths." Fortunately for the Stars, the six-month regular season allows plenty of time for fine-tuning. Being in the Norris Division didn't hurt Minnesota either. Four of the division's five teams make the playoffs, and one of the Norris teams is the woeful Toronto Maple Leafs.
Even as the North Stars improved in the closing months of the season, attendance remained embarrassingly low. By serving up mediocre hockey and chaos-six coaching changes from 1980 to '90—the North Stars' previous owners, George and Gordon Gund, had thoroughly alienated Minnesota's hockey fans, which is no small accomplishment in a state that is transformed, every winter, into the land of 10,000 frozen lakes.
In January 1990, the Gunds ensured they would live in infamy in the minds of Minnesotans. That's when they appeared before the state's Metropolitan Sports and Facilities Commission and said, in effect: Give us $15 million to renovate the Met Center, and sell 6,000 additional season tickets in the next three weeks, or we'll relocate the team. The response from the citizenry was overwhelming: Don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.
In a tumultuous off-season, the franchise was purchased by Green, a former minority owner of the Calgary Flames. Desperately seeking to fill the arena, Green tried one tacky promotion after the next: cash giveaways, gear-bag night, stick night, Moonwear Sports Pants night. In the end, the promotions did as much harm to attendance as good. Says Pat Forciea, Minnesota's vice-president of communications and operations, "It was getting to where people said, 'If they're not giving something away, why go?' "
Would-be fans had a larger reason for boycotting the North Stars: Why bother forming an allegiance to a club that was just going to be dismembered after the season? Originally, that's what the Gunds intended to do. In exchange for agreeing to sell the Stars and leave them in Minnesota, they extracted from the NHL the rights to an expansion franchise in San Jose, which will begin play next season. To stock the new team—the aptly named Sharks—the NHL approved the Gunds' plan to fleece the North Stars of many of their top young players.
When he realized what a raw deal he had gotten, Green appealed to the league, and the Sharks' rights to swim in Minnesota's talent pool have been amended considerably. The new deal reportedly leaves the North Stars with their nucleus of experienced players and their nucleus of experienced players and their future—young players like Shawn Chambers, Mike Craig, Rob Zettler and Neil Wilkinson, who had been destined for San Jose—intact.
In January, Green finally gave up on cheesy promotions, figuring his money would be better spent in advertising. Minnesota has since come out with a print and TV ad that harnesses Gainey's legendary stoicism. Gainey appears in three different pictures. In each, he is as tight-lipped and lugubrious as an undertaker. Under each is a caption: "Coach Gainey after a penalty"; "Coach Gainey after a goal"; "Coach Gainey after kicking Chicago's butt in the playoffs."
Coach Gainey does have a sense of humor. "Sometimes, when he's talking to us, you'll see him smile for about a half second," says Gagner. "That's when you know he's made a joke." At practice the day after a particularly dispiriting loss in November, Gainey gathered the North Stars around him. "We will be going through a series of extremely complicated drills," he said. "If you become confused, do not hesitate to ask for help."
"For the next 20 minutes we skated our butts off in one big circle," Smith says. "I don't think we saw a puck all morning."
The period of losing ugly ended in mid-November, giving way to a stretch of close games, most of which Minnesota lost. Throughout, Gainey remained resolutely upbeat. The tinkering continued.
In mid-January, a funny thing happened: The North Stars started winning. From Jan. 17 to March 17, Minnesota went on a 14-6-6 surge that ensured them both a spot in the playoffs and a near-doubling (from 3,500 this season to 5,800 next season) of their season-ticket base. "Now," says Forciea, "a chimpanzee could do my job."
As the North Stars speed through the playoffs, pinching themselves, none will admit the seemingly obvious: They are playing over their heads. Logic insists that midnight is nigh for the Cinderfellas, that against the defending champion Edmonton Oilers in the Campbell Conference finals, which begin Thursday, Minnesota's carriage will become a pumpkin.
Then again, the Cinderfellas may live happily ever after.