There was nothing left to do but scream. The pictures of Minnesota North Star hockey players and the mementos of Minnesota North Star hockey past had been taken away for safekeeping. The furniture from the Minnesota North Star offices was on a United moving van, heading south. The team was on the ice, and a sellout crowd of 15,414 was in the Met Center, but already the process of dismantling the franchise had begun, and there was no way of stopping the inevitable and nothing to do. Except scream.
"Norm sucks," a group of fans at one part of the arena would begin chanting during a lull in the action as the North Stars worked toward a 4-3 win over the St. Louis Blues last Saturday night.
"Norm Green sucks," another group would begin during another lull.
Again and again and yet again the phrase would be repeated. Not pretty words, to be sure, not pretty at all, but direct from the hopeless heart and dipped with the appropriate amounts of vengeance. Norm sucks. The phrase would whirl around the building, picking up steam, only to die when the action began, and then start again at the next pause. During the intermissions, young men would shout the words again in the hallways. The words were printed on buttons, sold by volunteers to benefit Cerebral Palsy. They were printed on shirts, printed on signs. Norm sucks. Norm sucks. Norm...sucks.
"Norm Green is a money-hungry, egotistical, country-club-seeking lizard," a young woman from St. Paul, Wendi Rodewald, said, sitting there in her official North Star game jersey topped by her unofficial NORM SUCKS button. "Wait a minute. Did I say 'greedy'? He's a greedy, money-hungry, egotistical, country-club-seeking lizard. And he looks like Satan."
A love affair—an extreme love affair—was ending with extreme passion. This was the last regular-season Saturday night game in Minnesota North Star history, the next-to-last regular-season home game to be played. A string of bittersweet ceremonies was held before the opening face-off, opportunities to cheer and cry at the same time, and then it was time to return to base-level rage. Had there ever been a sports moment as bizarre as this? The team was moving, is moving, will be moving to Dallas, its offices scheduled to open at 9 a.m. on Monday in Dallas, yet the North Stars were still in the chase for the final Norris Division playoff spot, and the fans were still in their seats.
The perceived villain was clearly Green, the flamboyant 58-year-old millionaire owner who had announced on March 10 that he was taking the team to Dallas's Reunion Arena in search of a better economic situation. A former minority owner of the Calgary Flames, Green arrived on the Minnesota scene in June 1990, in time for the North Stars' late, daffy rush to the '91 Stanley Cup finals. He immediately established himself as a civic whirlwind, shaking hands, making demands, showing up at the Met Center in a black Rolls Royce with his wife and two dogs, leading cheers during the good times. Now he was seen as a carpet-bagging scoundrel, absent from the area since he announced the move to Dallas, living in his well-appointed house in Palm Springs, Calif. The only time he had appeared at a North Star game in recent weeks was on April 3 on the road at the Forum in Los Angeles, where a Minnesota fan found him in the press box and poured a full beer on his head. Not pretty.
"He used to sit up on that railing with his two mutts," Chuck Rogness of Stillwater, Minn., a season-ticket holder, said outside the Met Center. "He'd shake everybody's hand, pose for pictures. I posed for a picture with him. I can't believe I did that. What a hosing he gave us."
The idea that this guy, that anyone, for that matter, could move major league hockey from Minnesota, the American home of hockey, is hard to believe. How could that happen? How could anyone let that happen? This is the state that fills a 16,000-seat arena for the state high school tournament, the state that every four years fills out the roster of the U.S. Olympic team, the state that is the land of lakes, for goodness' sake, all of them frozen during the long winter, all with kids learning to skate. Dallas? A team from Minnesota would move, after 26 years of residence, to Dallas?
"I was just thinking, this is where I had my first date with my husband," Mary Anne Madden of Minneapolis said at the Met Center last Saturday. "A North Star exhibition game: Sept. 28, 1968. He asked me out. I didn't even like him. He didn't like me. He just had an extra ticket, and he said, 'I suppose you don't like hockey.' I love hockey. That's the only reason I went out with him. Now we've been married 24 years."
"The move is something that shouldn't have happened, something that should have been avoided," says North Star coach Bob Gainey. "You have a place with a grass-roots interest and suddenly.... I was thinking about historical precedents. Hockey started in western Canada, you know. All the little towns had teams. Then there was a team in New York, in the big cities in the U.S. The players from the little towns went to New York, and suddenly there were no teams in western Canada. Same thing in France. I played over there. Hockey started in the Alps. Then a guy in Paris started a team, and all the players went, and there was no hockey in the Alps. It all winds up where the money is."
The reasons for this modern sports move are wrapped in the usual Byzantine workings between a high-profile, out-of-town owner and local politicians. Green cited various plans that might have kept the North Stars in Minneapolis. He wanted to develop the land around the Met Center to take advantage of the one-year-old Mall of America, the country's largest shopping mall. He couldn't do it. He wanted to move the team to the downtown Target Center, home of the NBA Minnesota Timberwolves. The city wouldn't complete the deal by buying the Target Center. He would have moved to the Civic Center in St. Paul, but the deal never was good enough.
Green also cited various numbers to back up his contention that the Twin Cities couldn't support the team anyway. The market was too small, and it was already crowded with pro baseball, basketball and football and with the well-loved University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. North Star ticket prices were the lowest in the NHL, averaging slightly more than $21 each, not enough. The season-ticket base—only 6,400 were sold this season—was never good. The Met Center never had enough luxury boxes. All of this ignores the fact that even though the team has often stunk (one .500-plus season in the past eight), this season the average attendance has exceeded 13,000, despite the conflicting emotions. Green reported losing various amounts of money; the figures, which increase with each interview, have now reached $24 million.
"He says a lot of different things now," says Julie Hammond, president of the North Star booster club. "When he came here, he said, 'Only an idiot could lose money on hockey in Minnesota.' Well, I guess he proved that point."
The biggest impetus for the move came from the NHL Board of Governors in December, when it granted Green the right to switch cities within one year. He already had been talking with people in Anaheim about moving there, but when Disney became interested in that market, Green looked elsewhere.
"I never expected all this emotion, to be vilified the way I have been," Green said from Palm Springs. "I suppose I should have. My wife and I had bought a nice house on a lake in Minnesota, just beautiful, and I planned to spend summers there, no matter what happened. I said that to [broadcaster] Frank Gifford, who is a friend. He said it wouldn't be possible. He said, 'Have you ever heard of Walter O'Malley?' "
To make matters worse, last month Green was hit with a sexual harassment suit filed by Kari Dziedzic, his former executive assistant. She alleges that he often kissed female employees, including her, and required kisses in return, that he shook a female employee's shoulder to see if she was wearing a bra and that he wanted to hire a receptionist with "the right look," which he explained was blonde hair, large breasts and a pretty face. The suit followed stories in local newspapers about Green's behavior, including an allegation by a former North Star announcer, Dave Hodge, that all Green ever wanted on broadcasts were constant sales pitches for tickets and a barrage of good news, no matter what was taking place on the ice. A former female employee said she had been fired because Green told her she lacked "the right chemistry."
"He said, 'Before you were married, when you would meet men, sometimes there would be a chemistry,' " Patty Reid, formerly the North Stars' community-relations director, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. " 'You'd think, That's the kind of guy I'd like to date. That's what I mean by chemistry. You're not the kind of person I'd want to date.' "
Things began to deteriorate on the ice as well. Starting fast, the North Stars had the league's sixth-best record at the All-Star break, but they began to fall apart as speculation about the move developed. When the move was announced, things became even worse. "I was sent to cover the North Stars the day the announcement was made, to cover them as if they were a Dallas team," Ken Stephens, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, says. "I go with them for the first nine games, and their record is 0-8-1."
"You say that none of the outside stuff should distract you, and it shouldn't, but it had to have some effect," says North Star center Bobby Smith, a 15-year NHL veteran. "Everyone was talking about it, and if you weren't talking about it, someone was asking you about it. It was the only subject of conversation."
In the past week, though, a change has occurred, initiated, perhaps, by a group of players' wives who visited Dallas. The North Stars won two straight games, against the Los Angeles Kings and the Buffalo Sabres, after the wives were taken on a grand tour of their new city by Green, romanced by Dallas-area real estate agents and given $9,000 worth of cowboy boots by a Dallas businessman. They reported to their husbands that maybe there would be life after Minneapolis, after all. The report seemed to have a settling effect. The team suddenly was only one point from gaining the fourth and final playoff spot in the division, with four games remaining, when the Blues arrived last Saturday, and the Blues were the team with the one-point lead. The teams would play again the following night in St. Louis.
Wouldn't that be a kick? Beat out the Blues, get into the playoffs, win and win again, and keep the season going in Minnesota? Win one round in the playoffs, and then another and another and another, and end everything with the Stanley Cup being carried around the Met? Wouldn't that be the finish of finishes?
"If that ever happened, I have a hunch that Cup never would get out of Minneapolis," says Pat Forciea, a Minnesota native and senior vice-president of the North Stars. "They might want to see it in Dallas, but I don't think it'd get too far from 53rd and Dupont."
In one pregame ceremony on Saturday the banners bearing the retired numbers of Bill Goldsworthy and Bill Masterton, who died in 1968, were taken down from the rafters and donated to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn. ("What can I say?" Goldsworthy said. "It's only been retired for 14 months. I thought it would be there longer than that.") In another ceremony, Al Shaver, a North Star broadcaster for all 26 years, was honored. ("I think Norm was going to move the team from the beginning," Shaver said. "I think that was his idea when he bought the team. We all should have known when he changed the uniforms, taking away the N and leaving just the word STARS on the jersey. Stars? You can be Stars anywhere.") Finally, Minnesota native and 13-year North Star center Neal Broten was honored, given a silver hockey stick.
"It'll be different in Dallas," he said. "I won't need as many tickets, for sure."
In the first period Minnesota fell behind 2-0. Norm sucks. In the second period the North Stars outshot the Blues 21-5 and took a 3-2 lead on a goal by Gaetan Duchesne with 49 seconds left. Norm sucks. In the final period, Norm sucks, they hung on for a 4-3 win. Following this with a 5-1 loss on Sunday in St. Louis, they were one point behind the Blues with games to play against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday at the Met and against the Red Wings in Detroit on Thursday. The idea of a final, emotional run at the Cup in the final season was still alive.
"What would you do if the North Stars won the Cup?" a reporter said over the phone to Green, who was in Palm Springs. "I'd take it to Dallas," Green replied. "It'd be an interesting scenario, wouldn't it?"
A half-hour later the reporter's phone rang. Green corrected himself. A stroke of conscience? A bit of outside advice? "No," he said. "If the North Stars won the Cup, I'd let the people of Minnesota enjoy it."
The people of Minnesota were not holding their well-exercised breath.