Monday, March 15, 2010

Behind Enemy Lines

Word association time.

I say: "Met Center."
You say: "North Stars!"

I say: "Blackhawks."
You say: "SECORD SUCKS!"

It's the chant that every cold-blooded Minnesotan born before approximately 1980 still has tucked away in the dustiest corner of their soul. As I spend a few days visiting Blackhawk Territory, I am recalling some of my earliest and fondest North Stars memories. Willi Plett vs. Al Secord. Dino Ciccarelli vs. Al Secord. Basil McRae vs. Al Secord.

Secord was the goon that we North Stars fans loved to hate. Sure, there were enemies spread all across the old NHL, but Secord was special. He completed us.

The last time I was in Chicago for a significant amount of time was June of 2006. Granted, hockey season was over, but the Blackhawks were coming off a miserable 26-43-13 season, missing the playoffs for the seventh time in their past eight seasons. Meanwhile, baseball season was in full swing, with the White Sox as defending World Series champions and the Cubs still drawing like the Cubs. I don't know that I saw a Blackhawks logo in the city during the entire four-day visit.

This time, the feeling is much different. The Blackhawks, with their exciting nucleus of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, are fighting for the #1 seed in the Western Conference. Blackhawk paraphernalia is everywhere, from the guy wearing a Kane sweater in Chinatown to the dude in Hyde Park with the black and red parka and knit Blackhawk logo hat.

It's great for the NHL to have the Chicago Blackhawks relevant once again. They are one of the storied franchises in the league, and it is significant that one of the most important markets in North American hockey has a winner. I certainly enjoy watching the 2009-2010 model, and I have no disdain for them.

Therein lies the problem.

As a lifelong Minnesotan, and a lifelong North Stars fan, I should still feel the ire that burned at the sight of Al Secord, Dave Manson, Denis Savard, or Stu Grimson. I have become a big Minnesota Wild fan since their arrival, and I hate to be one of those sports curmudgeons ("Back in my day... "), but we have no natural rival. It almost felt like there was potential with Vancouver during the 2003 playoff run. Games with the Flames are always good for a couple of tussles. It's nowhere close to what we had in the old Norris Division. I fear that the Wild and their young generation of fans will never know a rivalry as intense and wonderful as what the North Stars and Blackhawks had.

Nor will they feel a hatred as beautiful and pure as what we felt for the great Al Secord.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sharing some memories

A few weeks ago Dan asked me to share some of my North Stars memories. It took me a while, but I finally got around to it today. He's hoping this gets the puck moving and more of you join in to share your memories of the North Stars. 

I wrote something new here, but you can also find another of my North Stars memories on my blog, Beneath This Dirty Hood. Just look for the entry about Bob Probert, but please have a look around. I hope you enjoy, and please do share your own stories and keep the North Stars legacy alive!

~ Paul LaTour
Growing up in Duluth in the 1970s, the North Stars seemed more a dream than a reality. We could watch their games on KMSP once in a while, and we could pick up their radio broadcasts, too. But for the most part they only existed in the morning's newspaper and my collection of tattered hockey cards. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I saw them in person at the Met Center for the first time.

One of my clearest early memories is listening to Al Shaver's voice drifting out of my small transistor radio when I was 13. I was supposed to be sleeping because it was a school night, but instead I listened as the North Stars pasted Winnipeg 15-2. Scoring 15 goals seemed so amazing to me that I couldn't turn it off even though the outcome was never in doubt.

That was during the '80s. The North Stars were making their ascension to NHL elite by heading to their first Stanley Cup finals appearance. Back then to watch the playoff games in Duluth that weren't on KMSP, we had to go somewhere with one of those huge metal saucers known as satellite dishes. Our place was Skyline Lanes, a bowling alley on Miller Trunk Highway in Hermantown.

The owners set up a big screen TV in the carpeted walkway in front of the lanes to accommodate all the people who poured into the place ready to cheer on the Stars. (We always called them the Stars, too. That was before the shortened nickname became a slap in our faces thanks to the Bastard Norm Green.) We cheered as the Stars finally beat the Bruins. We later laughed when we learned a Bruins fan had dumped a beer on Kevin McHale, who made the mistake of cheering for his homestate team at the Boston Garden, the same place where Bostonians cheered enthusiastically for him as a member of the Celtics.

We jeered the hated Blackhawks and their TV announcer, Pat Foley. His description of Denis Savard and his spin-a-rama moves set us to yelling at the screen (because of the satellite we were forced to watch the Blackhawks' broadcast). We had a special place for where Foley could stick Savard's "magic wand." And don't even get me started on what things were being said when Al Secord appeared on screen.

Steadily, the North Stars were weaving themselves into our hockey quilt that stretched from Bloomington to Duluth and covered the entire state. During their heydays, the North Stars went from dream to reality almost overnight in Duluth. I'm sure it had a lot to do with my getting older and being more aware of things. But it seems to me the North Stars became more important to us at this point.

We all know what happened as the '80s became the '90s and the Bastard Norm Green bought the team. I've since moved to Chicago and even cheer for the Blackhawks now. I reconcile that traitorous switch by saying it isn't really the same franchise since Bill Wirtz died. I grit my teeth when they honor punks like Bob Probert and anyone from the 1980s, but enjoy watching Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews.

This wouldn't have happened if the North Stars still existed in Minnesota. The bitterness of their departure remains all these years later. But as I write this, I prefer to think of the good times. I want to think of Dino Ciccarrelli getting under Secord's skin. Of Gilles Meloche or Don Beaupre coming up with the key save. Of Bobby Smith using his long arms to stickhandle around hapless defenders.

These are my North Stars memories.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

We are the North Star Green Preservation Society...

In the fall of 2008, I decided to type "Minnesota North Stars" into the search box on Facebook. The results yielded a few groups, but no official "fan page."

So I made one.

It was pretty bare bones. I lifted the cleanest North Stars logo I could find from a Google image search. I dressed it up with stolen internet photos of an assortment of North Stars greats and fan favorites. I invited a few of my friends to become fans. And, in due time, forgot about the page.

When I checked in a few weeks later, I was surprised to see the page had accrued well over 100 fans, many eager to share nostalgia. From this point on, I kept tabs on the page periodically, always impressed at its rate of growth.

Fast forwarding to last week... I checked in for the first time in months. I noticed there were well over 13,000 fans and people were adding comments, photos, and videos daily. Knocked me flat on my ass! A couple fans had plugged an upcoming promotional appearance at the Ridgedale mall by North Stars legend Brian Bellows. I decided to help out by making an official announcement to all the fans of the page. The comments sections of those posted exploded with enthusiasm. I was hooked again.

In the week since I checked up, the page has gained another 1,000+ fans. Like a proud father, I set about trying to find new ways to add to the page and to spark more conversation about our beloved, departed Stars. I searched Facebook for official (and unofficial) fan pages for as many former North Stars as I could think of, and linked the results to my page.

Mike Modano was the biggest and easiest page to find. As the NHL's lone remaining North Star - and perhaps the greatest American-born player of all time - it would have been shocking to not find a Modano page. Almost equally shocking, though, was not finding pages for the other great names in North Stars history. No Neal Broten. No Bill Goldsworthy. No Dino Ciccarelli or Brian Bellows. No Basil McRae or Shane Churla. No Cesare Maniago. No Bobby Smith.

After Modano, the greatest ex-North Star I found a page for was goalie Don Beaupre. I also found pages for Hall of Famers Mike Gartner and Larry Murphy, who came here from the Washington Capitals in the Ciccarelli trade (although their best years came in other uniforms). I found pages for former coaches Bob Gainey and Herb Brooks (the Brooks page actually being for his foundation, but that's just as good). I found a page for 1980 Team USA goalie Jim Craig, who briefly played for the Stars in the early '80s. And I found pages for tail-end era North Stars Richard Matvichuk, Todd Elik, and Mike McPhee, all better known for their contributions to other teams.

So, last night I set about creating my first fan page for an individual player. The first choice was my favorite player, iconic goon Basil McRae. I posted it to the North Stars page and by the time I woke up this morning there were over 100 Basil fans. I asked (as if I even needed to) who should be the next player honored with his own page. Ok... stupid question. Clearly, it's Mr. Neal Broten. So, I made that page this morning. Again, there are already over 100 fans as I write this tonight.

So, this is real. Clearly, memories of the North Stars run deep throughout the upper Midwest. Sure, we have been partially healed in the ten years since the Minnesota Wild debuted - and I am as big of a Wild fan as anyone. But there is something about the North Stars... from the uniforms and logo, to the personalities, to the green, gold, and white seats at the Met Center... that the Wild can never replace.

This is us. We are the North Star Green Preservation Society.

We will never forget. We will share our stories. We will reminisce. And, of course, we will create unofficial fan pages on Facebook for as long as we can.