|Steve Payne wearing #26 (1978-83)|
by Daniel Cote
The North Stars hit rock bottom in 1977-78, finishing dead last in the NHL with 45 points on the season. Two major offseason events would change their fortune. They merged with the collapsing Cleveland Barons franchise, infusing the North Stars roster with a true number one goalie in Gilles Meloche and a slew of quality players such as Al MacAdam, Mike Fidler, and Greg Smith.
Most important, though, was the 1978 draft, perhaps the best in North Stars history. (If it wasn't '78, it was the '79 draft that yielded Craig Hartsburg, Tom McCarthy, and Neal Broten with their first three picks.) Curt Giles and Steve Christoff would pay off in the future, but the first two North Stars draft picks that year paid immediate dividends. They drafted Bobby Smith with the first overall pick. Then, with the first pick in the second round (19th overall), the Stars selected Smith's Ottawa 67's teammate, a big sniper named Steve Payne.
Over his ten year career, Payne would become one of the most productive wings and top scorers in North Stars history. He scored 40 points as a rookie, but broke out for a 42 goal, 43 assist season and an All Star selection in his second year. In 1980-81, when the North Stars made an improbable run to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance, Payne led the charge. He scored 17 goals and added 12 assists in the playoffs alone. His 29 points in 19 playoff games is an all-time North Stars record (Brian Bellows scored 29 as well during the '91 Stanley Cup run, but in 21 games). Included in his 17 goals were four game-winning goals. In his book, Lou Nanne called Payne the best clutch goal scorer in North Stars history.
Payne surpassed the 20 goal mark in each of his first seven seasons, incuding four straight seasons over 30 goals, before spine and knee injuries prematurely ended his career. He spoke with us on the morning of the first ever North Stars Reunion weekend to talk about his career, the reunion, and what he's keeping busy with these days.
North Stars Preservation Society: Before we get into talking about when you played and about the North Stars reunion this weekend, my first question is something I’ve wanted to know the answer to since I was about 7 years old... why did you switch your number from 26 to 44?
Steve Payne: (laughs) Well, here’s the deal... growing up in Toronto, I had number 4 quite often. So number 4 is my favorite number, personally. When I first came to the North Stars, I couldn’t have number 4 because we had just merged with Cleveland and Jean Potvin, if you remember him, Denis Potvin’s older brother, he had number 4. I’m a rookie and he’s a very senior player, there was no way I was going to get my choice of having number 4 over him. My second choice would have been number 19 because that was the number I wore in junior hockey, but of course that was retired because of Bill Masterton. So, at that point, I really didn’t care what number they gave me. Doc Rose decided I should wear number 26, so that’s what I ended up with. So I started with 26 and I wore that number for five years. Then just over the summer I thought to myself, you know, I’d love to have number 4, but Craig Hartsburg wears it now... nobody’s really into these double digits yet in the NHL yet, so I thought why not have two 4s? I called Doc and told him I’d like to switch to 44 and they had my jersey ready when we got back to camp that year for my sixth season.
NSPS: 44 does seem like a cooler number. Those double digit number in sports seem to have a certain amount of status, at least now.
SP: Back then it was just in its infancy. I think I may have been the first guy in the NHL with 44. You’d have to look that up. But if I wasn’t, I was one of the first couple. I remember a guy who played for Winnipeg back then, Dave Babych, wore 44 as well, but I don’t remember who had it first. But it was either him or myself, I believe. Now it’s more common, now everybody has a 44.
NSPS: You started a trend!
SP: Yeah, maybe I did!
|Autographed 1979-80 Topps rookie card.|
NSPS: How excited are you for North Stars Reunion Weekend?
SP: This is way overdue. Long overdue, and I’ve been excited ever since Brad Maxwell announced that we were gonna do it. It couldn’t get here fast enough for me. I’m pretty pumped to have all the guys together and see a lot of the guys that I haven’t seen in over 20 years. Guys like Willi Plett and Dennis Maruk and Keith Acton... all these guys coming back. Shawn Chambers, I haven’t seen Shawn in forever. I think it’s just going to be wonderful to hang out with the guys for three days, catch up on all the BS, find out where our lives have taken us. There’s so many stories to share in the last 20 to 25 years that we haven’t been together.
NSPS: Do you think you guys will get enough time to yourselves? I ask because one awesome thing about this weekend is that it’s very fan oriented and the fans are getting a lot of access to the players. Do you think you’ll get enough time to just be with your teammates?
SP: Yeah, I think so. I think a bunch of us will probably do some off-site things once we get together and figure out what’s going on. But even in and around the events, there’s the two games we’ll be at, the Thursday and Saturday games, we’ll have time to share with each other between periods and before the game up in our alumni lounge. Then Friday night’s event, we have an hour before the fans come in and some time after that we can spend together. So we’ll have some time together where some us can just sit around and privately catch up.
NSPS: You arrived in 1978, same draft as Bobby Smith. That same year, the North Stars had an infusion of new talent from the merger with the Cleveland Barons, but before that they had been one of the worst teams in the NHL for a few seasons. In retrospect, that offseason was a huge turning point in North Stars history. When you got here, did it feel like a new beginning for the organization, or did it just feel like you were coming to one of the more downtrodden teams in the league?
SP: Well, to be honest with you, I didn’t really think of that. I mean, I knew they had finished the year before in last place, and that’s why they had the first pick every round which is how they ended up getting me and Bob from the same team. But at that point, I’m just a young kid. I was 19 years old when they drafted me and my main concern was just having an opportunity to get a shot at the NHL. I watched the North Stars growing up. I watched them play and was familiar with them. I always thought they had a cool uniform, and they had some pretty good teams, you know, in the ‘60s and into the early ‘70s with Cesare Maniago, J.P. Parise, and Bill Goldsworthy. They were a pretty good squad, I thought. But to be honest with you, I didn’t watch a lot of NHL hockey during my last couple of years in junior hockey, mainly because we played a schedule that was pretty similar to the NHL. All the time when there were NHL games on, we were playing, so I didn’t get to watch a lot of NHL hockey because of that.
So I didn’t get a chance to watch the Stars and see how poorly they had dropped off. I knew they were a last place team, but that meant to me it was probably the best opportunity to crack into the NHL lineup as well. You know, as opposed to going to a place like Montreal that year, where they were coming off four Stanley Cups and the odds were pretty slim that a rookie could step in and claim a spot on a team like that. So I looked at it as an opportunity. A very good opportunity, in fact. The fact that I got to go there with Bob only helped. And it was exciting, two teams merged like that. We weren’t quite sure what it was going to look like once we’d come through training camp. It was a very busy training camp. There were a lot of bodies there. It was crazy. There were four sessions a day because there were so many players that the coaches and scouts had to evaluate.
It was exciting and anxious, all at the same time, and it wasn’t without its drama at the beginning, either. We had Harry Howell starting out, he was going to be the head coach after the merger, but then he ran into health issues with his heart. So very early on, he ended up getting replaced by Glen Sonmor, then just decided to stay in a scouting role rather than come back behind the bench. So it was a very interesting first year, let’s put it that way. But things eventually settled down and fell into place, and although we didn’t make the playoffs that first year... I believe we missed it by a point, maybe three points... but it really gave us a good turnaround year. When we came back to camp the next year, everybody was pretty confident that we would be able to build on that. And of course we went right to the semi-finals the very next year. It proved we did have the pieces from the merge year, and everything kind of settled in, and we came out of the chute in training camp the next season, just flying. We had a really good season.
NSPS: And then the year after that, you made the Stanley Cup Finals. You, in particular, had an amazing individual season in the 1981 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Your had 29 points in 19 games. A lot of people will say that’s the best individual post-season in North Stars history. Was that the highlight of your career?
SP: Yeah, I would say so. Just to be a part of what we did. It was the first time we went to the Stanley Cup as a franchise. We accomplished a lot of things that year. We had a great season, finished ninth overall. But everybody we beat in the playoffs finished ahead of us. We were the underdog that whole playoff, starting with Boston, then moving on to Buffalo and to Calgary, and ultimately to the Islanders in the Finals. I had a great individual playoff, but it’s because the team was playing awesome as well. You know, I’m not Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. I need a supporting cast and I made the most of the opportunities I had, but my teammates gave me plenty of opportunities. It just all clicked really well. Individually, yes, it was very satisfying. But as a team, and being a part of that squad of guys, for the whole time I played for the North Stars I was never prouder than the core of that group of guys that went through the playoffs and made the championship. I remember sitting there after the Islanders beat us in the fifth game, we’re back in the dressing room and of course everybody is disappointed, and we’re all exhausted, but we also realized we accomplished something that nobody gave us a chance to do. And I looked around at everybody in the room and I remember thinking, “You know what? I’d rather be sitting in this room than in the room down the hall right now with the Stanley Cup. I’m so proud of these guys and what we accomplished.”
NSPS: That’s very cool. We have a couple of fan questions now that we solicited on Facebook page and through the North Stars Preservation Society blog. First, Gary Hanson asks: “Given that you played 30 some years ago, and that professional athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster today, how do you think you would fare against today's crop of NHL players?“
SP: Good question. Well, probably half of the league would be my size now as opposed to when I played. Maybe only 10% of the guys were my size, you know, I played at 6’3”, 220. Teams usually had one guy or, at most, two guys my size back then. My size certainly helped me. You know, I wasn’t a fancy kind of player, but more of a bang the corners and own the front of the net type. So now it would be a heck of a lot more difficult for me to dominate those areas as I did when I played. I think I could still compete, but it would be a lot tougher. Every other guy that I’d be up against, tussling with and dealing with, would be my size. I probably would have to adjust the way I played a little bit accordingly. I probably would’ve had to look at trying to get even bigger as far as muscle mass and get a little more weight just to get me some leverage against some of these guys these days. And, they’re fast! I was a fairly fast skater, but on average I think these guys are much faster than they were back when I played.
But I’ll tell you, the one difference I think, where they still can not hold a candle to us, is our ability to score. If you look at the statistics for, say, the last 15 years in the NHL compared to my era, you’ll see maybe one guy with a point-per-game average or more, and that’s about it. And half the teams don’t have that. When I played, it was quite common -- even with the worst team in the league -- to have three to five or six guys with scoring averages like that.
NSPS: That’s right, and the same for goalie stats. I was looking at that the other day and noticed that Don Beaupre didn’t have a shutout until his fifth year in the league. Now you’ll see very mediocre goalies get three shutouts a year.
SP: Yeah. And I think a lot of those goaltenders were as good as the goalies now, it’s just...
NSPS: They didn’t have all the pads!
|Wearing #44 (1983-88)|
SP: Well, yeah, and they were facing better snipers. It was quite common to have multiple 50 goal, even 60 goal scorers. Now, it’s an anomaly.
NSPS: My dad wants me to ask, “Who was the best locker room leader during your time with the North Stars?”
SP: Well, that’s a tough one because there were a lot of guys who were great locker room leaders for different reasons, and leaders in different ways. There’s guys that lead by example, there’s guys who lead by cheering and verbally, and guys who can do it both ways. If I had to pick one, I’d probably go with Craig Hartsburg. Craig was our captain for a reason. He was a leader. He was very verbal, very emotional, trying to get the guys up. He also set a great example. You very rarely saw Craig Hartsburg have a bad game. So I’d give him the nod overall as our best locker room leader during the years I played there.
NSPS: Sadly, like you, we saw his career cut short due to injuries. Was it a tough decision for you to retire?
NSPS: Because it wasn’t just one injury, but a series of pretty nasty injuries at the end of your career, right?
SP: Yeah. It was the beginning of my eighth season that I had a cervical spine injury that I had been playing with during my seventh year. When I got to training camp for my eighth season it had not healed at all. It was as bad as ever. I came to the realization that I was going to have to have something done. I couldn’t just keep getting by with it. That’s when we took a hard look at what the issues were, and it turned out that I needed to have surgery. I had to have what they call a laminectomy. I had been dealing with a herniated disc in my neck, but what ultimately happened is that the disc ruptured and I had disc material and stuff right on my spine. They had to go in and surgically remove that to get rid of basically the paralysis I was dealing with. My left arm was down to about 20% strength and I was in a lot of pain, too. Almost constant pain. I didn’t have a choice at that point. I wasn’t going to be able to play in that condition anyway, so we decided to have the surgery.
So I did that, and I got back from the surgery and played maybe another four or five weeks. Then we were in Philadelphia and, unfortunately, I blew my ACL out in my right knee. That ended my season there and I didn’t get back on the ice until almost halfway through the following year. And when I did, I still had more problems with the knee. I ended up having a total of five surgeries on the knee to fix all the problems. So I was in and out of the lineup for my last three seasons with surgery, rehab, surgery, playing, surgery, rehab, playing... and then when I finally got the knee going to where I could actually get my stride back and actually start to play in my tenth season, my cervical spine went again on me.
At that point, the writing was on the wall. I went down to the Mayo Clinic and spent the day down there with their top orthopedic surgeons. They all had their turn at poking and prodding me, trying to determine the best course of action, and they unanimously told me that I should probably retire. I was only one hit away from losing the use of my left arm. If I got hit in the wrong way, it would damage the nerve so bad that I’d basically have a dead arm. And I had two young children at the time. I had a son who was not quite four and a daughter who was only about eight months old and I wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice because of the family. It wasn’t an easy decision but I made that decision based on what was best for my family.
NSPS: Would you like to tell North Stars fans what you’re up to these days?
SP: Sure. On the professional side of things, I work for a software company in Minneapolis called Appmosphere. I’m a business development manager for them. We’re a software company and what we do is make mobile apps for smart phones and smart devices. One of our customers that fans around here would recognize is the Toro Corporation. So I do that.
I’m going into my fifth year of my hockey camp that I run out in Stillwater called North Star Hockey. I’ve got a partner and we run a camp out there for kids ages 7 to 14. We run that in the summertime at the Lumberyard practice facility out in Stillwater.
And I’m also very involved with a couple of military based charities. One of them a lot of the fans would know because it’s based here, started in Hastings, and it’s called Defending the Blue Line. Shane Hudella, who’s a National Guard member, started it and runs it. I sit on the advisory board for that organization and donate a lot of slots at my hockey school every summer for their kids to come and participate. I help out in a lot of other areas, wherever I can, but I’m very involved with those guys. I have been for three years now.
Then the other military based charity that I’m involved with is called Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. That’s a national organization based out of Washington, D.C. What we do with that group is we get recovering military out on the water, fly fishing, to help with their rehabilitation. Basically to get their minds off of the trauma they’re dealing with emotionally, mentally, and physically. A lot of them are damaged in many ways. They’ve been in the theater and have come back, thankfully, alive. So I’m going into my second year with them. Last year I organized an event at a friend of mine’s ranch in Colorado, about an hour outside of Denver, called Boxwood Gulch. The event is called the Battle at Boxwood. What we do there is have a weekend competition, a friendly competition, fly fishing for trout. Each team consists of a guide, a paid participant, a recovering troop member that we bring up from Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, and an NHL player. I have a lot of my alumni buddies that fly out there on their own time and their own dime to help support that event for me. So we get the troops on the water and we also raise money for the organization at the same time over that weekend. We hold that in the middle of August. Then there’s a television show called Fly Rod Chronicles on the Outdoor Channel, they come up and cover the event as an episode for their series. That helps give the event and the organization more national exposure. In fact it was just on television last weekend.
So that’s what I do as far as charity and professional and things like that. That’s what I’m up to.
NSPS: Sounds busy! That’s really great, though. Thank you so much for your time, Steve. I really appreciate you chatting today. I’ll be sure to re-introduce myself at the various Reunion events this weekend.
SP: Excellent! It should be a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to it.
NSPS: Yeah, it’ll be a blast.
SP: It’s gonna be a great deal. It’s long overdue. And it’s going to be interesting, I’ll bet you we’re going to see a sea of kelly green in the stands. It’s really cool, at every Wild game I go to... I go to about six or seven a year... there’s always a lot of North Stars jerseys out there. And hats and stuff. And I’m anxious to see how much that gets amped up today.