|Tom Younghans with the North Stars (1976-1981).|
Welcome to the rebirth of this blog and the very first in what will hopefully be a long-running series of interviews with former Minnesota North Stars. I wanted to get at least one interview in before the North Stars Reunion event on March 29-31. Hopefully there will be time for another, but I really don't think we could have started off any better than with this one.
We begin with Tom Younghans, and it doesn't get any more Minnesotan than "Youngy." The St. Paul native played under Herb Brooks for the Gophers, winning the NCAA Championship in 1976. By that fall, he was in the NHL with his hometown North Stars. He would play for the Stars for five full seasons, helping to transform them from NHL bottom-feeders when he arrived to Stanley Cup Finalists during his last full year here in 1981.
Younghans reunited with Herb Brooks and spent his sixth and final NHL season playing for the New York Rangers in 1981-82. Following his career, Younghans returned home to Minnesota, where he has remained a vital part of the hockey community. Through selling affordable sticks for his son's company (Trinity Hockey), teaching and coaching (he spent time as head varsity coach for Minneapolis West High School - a composite team made up of students from Washburn, Southwest, Henry and North High Schools - before that unit was disbanded and merged even further), and participating in various alumni and charity events.
Youngy took some time to talk to us while on his way to the Return of the Robin tournament in Rochester, and gave a wonderful, honest interview covering a myriad of hockey topics. Enjoy!
North Stars Preservation Society: You played for the Gophers but were not drafted, correct?
Tom Younghans: No, back then they had what they called a “negotiating window.” That thing is since gone. When I was at St. Mary’s in Winona in my draft year I was, you know, invisible. Scouts didn’t scout the Division III schools at the time. Back then there were only a few players worth a look and even then, they were bubble players anyway. Then, going to the University of Minnesota, obviously there’s a lot of scouts there and I got a little notoriety from that.
NSPS: So you’re a free agent then... did any other NHL teams show interest in you besides the North Stars?
TY: No other NHL teams did. When we won the NCAA title in ‘76, I was offered a contract from the Calgary Cowboys in the WHA. It was like $25,000 for the first year and a $5,000 signing bonus. What happened is that two guys had influence here, Bob Dill who was a St. Paul native and scout, and John Mariucci. John probably had a little more say since he was the assistant GM, but he says “Hey, let me talk to Jack Gordon.” And what I’ve heard is it went, “Hey, don’t let this kid go... bring him in. You can’t lose. He’s on a two-way deal.” So, they offered me the exact contract that the Calgary Cowboys had offered me. And of course, I didn’t want to go to Canada. I had the innocence of an 18 year old. Well... maybe I was older than that... I think I was about 21. So I stayed. But there were no other NHL teams that were really looking at me.
NSPS: It seemed like the North Stars had more of a tendency to sign the hometown guys and give them a chance. One of the big knocks that a lot of fans have had on the Wild over the years is that they’ve been pretty reluctant to do that. Did you feel any sort of advantage in being a hometown guy playing for the North Stars?
TY: You know, you can actually go all the way back to when I went to the Gophers. Back then we had such pride in the Minnesota-born player. Herbie (Brooks) wanted that. John Mariucci wanted the US players, and the focus back then was Minnesota guys. Now if you go to ‘76 when I entered the league, you had Lou Nanne, Mariucci, they looked at the U.S. and especially Minnesota because, you know, you had a pretty dynamic team there and a lot to pick from. And the guys who actually left to play, there were probably seven of us that played NHL hockey.
Now, fast forward to this day and age. I know that initially (the Wild) weren’t looking for... at least I heard they weren’t looking for Minnesota or USA players, they were looking more towards Canadians and French Canadians. But, you know, look at who was coaching. (Jacques) Lemaire. And (Doug) Risebrough was the GM, and that’s their background. They’re more comfortable with those types of players and it’s kind of like, “Well, who do you know?”
So there was a tendency so say, “Yeah, we’ll take a look.” And yet, are there quality players in Minnesota or the USA? And to me, yes there are. Are they good enough in Minnesota? Well, I think there are. It’s just whether they could work out in the draft, get them in the places you’d draft them. I think that had something to do with it as well. There’s some other moving parts. We as laymen and fans of the game, we don’t know this. We can only guess. Of course, at the end of the day, you see the product on the ice and say, “Hey, you’re not taking any Minnesota kids!” or “You’re not taking USA kids!” Well, now they are. I mean, you can see there’s about five players now that have US citizenship and I’m always certainly for that because, hey, I’m an American. I want Americans to play. The league is, as I think most people know, it’s like 50% Canadians. And there’s somewhere around 15% US players. And the rest, the other, is Czechs and Finns and Swedes...
NSPS: Well, that kind of leads into my next question. I know you played a lot of international hockey with the US team. Did playing against Europeans help you develop as an NHL player?
TY: Well, the one thing it did do was open your eyes to how much talent was over there that didn’t get out until the ‘90s. That really was the big thing. We’d go play the Russians and the Czechs, all the Communist countries, and there were some great players there. Certainly when you look at the Russians and Czechs, they had teams that were playing for eleven months out of the year. Or probably a little bit more, they were training. They were professional players. And when we would go over there, you would get a blend of college players and some professionals whose seasons had ended. We took a backseat to their talent pool and certainly their training, and of course they did a lot better than we did. And when the Canadians put their team together, they had All Star teams. And we had a few, we just didn’t have a full boat back from ‘76 to ‘81 or ‘82 when I was there.
But we learned there were these guys who were really talented and in great shape, and then when you put them on an Olympic sized rink it really changed the complexion of the game. Some of our skaters, the US guys and even the Canadians weren’t as quick from A to B on that big rink because there’s just so much more space. So that did change how the game was played. It opened our eyes up, that there was another way to do it and if we’re gonna play these guys we’ve got to play a certain way. But we learned. You just have to be a great skater to play on those European rinks.
NSPS: There were a couple of European guys on the North Stars when you played, too, which leads us to the first Facebook fan question. One of our fans, Tarik, wants to know, “Who was a better offensive player: Roland Eriksson or Per-Olov Brasar?”
TY: Well, I look back on Roland and I think he was probably a little bit better of a player. Bigger... I don’t know if he was as tough as (Brasar). And again, coming over in those early times, everybody beat them up. If you were coming over from Sweden, or anybody from Europe then, you must really be SOME player. Which is, you know, totally the wrong way to think of that. So, in their own right, playing when they did play, especially during the ‘70s where we’re talking Broad Street Bullies kind of stuff... you know, they were tough. They were tough. But I’d say Roland was more talented, a little more well-rounded player. Olov Brasar, he was pretty good, too, but he was smaller so he might have taken a bigger beating. But you have to give those guys a lot of credit. They came over to play in the NHL, and after what they had been doing it was a totally different world. I have to say that in the early ‘76-’77, maybe ‘78, our team was considered to be a big... you know, a big wussy team. Other teams didn’t respect us. They took advantage of us. And we didn’t have the players and mainly the wherewithal to stand up where we should have.
NSPS: What do you think changed that? Was it the merger with Cleveland, or Lou Nanne coming in as GM, drafting guys like Brad Maxwell, or what?
TY: Well, a couple things. One was the merger. There was usually around 70 guys in training camp? Well, with the merger, now there’s 140. And out of that we got guys who were talented players. And then Jack Carlson came in. And Maxie, he was a pretty tough kid, too, except he didn’t have anybody to kind of stand with him. Then you get Billy Butters coming in. Then, all of the sudden, Paul Shmyr arrives and he really was the catalyst to bring everything together which culminated in the ‘79-’80 season and the ‘80-’81 season. We were just getting better. But Paul, he was another guy who wasn’t gonna take any crap either, so, you know, all of the sudden the team swarmed up this whole “Hey, we’re not taking crap” attitude.
Of course, probably what was the ultimate was when we went into Boston that one year and had that Boston Brawl. That solidified that we weren’t taking any crap anymore. And we were tough enough then that we could do that. We got some respect back and that was really a big issue.
NSPS: That brawl was legendary. Fans still talk about that all the time on the North Stars facebook page, and ask if there’s a link to any video footage of it. Classic. Completely switching gears now, do you remember your initial reaction when you heard the Stars were moving to Dallas. Were you shocked?
TY: Well, yeah, shocked. I was pretty disappointed. I think there were a lot of things that were pointing in that direction before they made the deal. I would start to hear, from talking to a lot of guys that worked in the building, you’d hear the cleaning crew are on a 30-day contract, and some of the catering, some of the other suppliers, it was just 30 days. Then, of course, when they dropped “North” and put “Stars” on their jerseys, that was really the first clue. And no one really thought about that, I don’t believe, but that was the first clue that said, “Norm, you’re going somewhere if you don’t get your way.” And when it all happened, of course, it was all “Norm Green sucks!”
So when they decided to leave, yeah, I was really disappointed. And even today, even though the Wild have been really gracious and helpful and want to include us in their plans... but we’re the North Stars. We’re not the Wild. My hat is off to the Wild for allowing us to be a part of their plans, promoting hockey in Minnesota. But it would have been nice for a lot of us older guys who were part of the North Stars to have the North Stars here. Maybe that’s a selfish kind of a way to look at things, but hey, I’m a little selfish in that way. When the building went down over at Mall of America, and they imploded that thing and three walls dropped and the one didn’t, and you know, you second guess. Don’t drop, don’t move. Of course the old saying was that John Mariucci was there holding it up. Anyway, the disappointment was there.
|Autographed 1979-80 Topps card.|
TY: Well, you know, I haven’t seen a lot of these guys for over twenty years. So it’ll be interesting just to see what they look like. Since we’re all getting old, you know? It’s kind of frightful, but that’s the way it is. And then find out what they’re up to. It’s like any reunion. We all had a special time with the North Stars and not many people get to do that. To be able to sit back and talk with Greg Smith, who’s coming to town... we’re buds. You know, just trading stories. The one thing we can’t do is lie to each other because we all know the truth! But we might try to embellish it a little!
So I’m looking forward to that. And back to more of a selfish thing, I’m in the hockey business. I’d like to promote what I’m doing. It helps me since I coach and I teach and I sell hockey sticks, and it’s always good to be able to promote my business. That's my world and I want to be in it. I like it! So I’m happy to be a part of anything they’ve got going.
NSPS: Absolutely. And that leads right into the next thing I wanted to do here, which is to give you the opportunity to tell North Stars fans about Trinity Hockey.
TY: Trinity Hockey came about from my son, who is 31 years old and had the vision of starting his own company. I’ve been in the sporting goods business for over 20 years, being a rep for CCM, Christian, and a number of other lines. And of course my son saw me with all the samples and all that kind of stuff.
Well, go down the line, he gets a job with Polaroid, becomes a product development guy for TVs and cameras. When he decides to leave there, he has contacts and he comes to me about two and a half years ago and says, “Dad, I want to import hockey sticks, but they’re too expensive. We can make sticks that are less expensive, and good products, and make sure the sport keeps going.” It’s just so expensive.
And I said, “Uh, no, I don’t want to do it.” Because I didn’t want to be a rep in the sporting goods business, working under the same constraints that I worked under before. And that was being a rep, working the dealers. The dealers kind of tie your hands. And now you’ve got a new product here, it could be the best thing since ice cubes, but you gotta get it out there. You gotta promote it. And we didn’t have a lot of money to do that. So what he did, in his business plan he said, “No, Dad, we’re not going to do it that way. We’re going to go from grassroots up. We’re gonna do tournaments. We’ll do demos. We’ll be at practices. We’ll do these kinds of things to connect with associations. And then we’ll offer them special pricing.”
Because we’re not in the retailers, first look, we’re at least 35% less cost for a similar product that those name brands like Reebok, CCM, Warrior, etc. are on the retail side. Because we don’t go to retail. That’s one price you’ve always got to pay, is the retail. Well, we’re not paying the retail. We basically are the retail. And I know there’s a down side to that, because you’ve got to get your name out, but actually this last year went pretty well. There are mistakes we made, but we know what we need to do.
So, anyway, I’m on board. We’ve got a whole year under our belt. We’ve sold quite a bit of our product. We had three models of hockey sticks, composites. But, we learned. Now we’re going to have about 14 models. We’ll take care of the youth, the intermediate, and the adults. Our market is really going to be the Bantams and girls and we’ll start to reach out to the seniors as well. But we’ll be able to cover the whole sphere instead of just one or two spots. All the other manufacturers are doing that as well, it’s just that we’ll have similar product in a lot of ways, with the curves and the texture and the flex.
You know, people want to buy something less. There’s always the player that’s going to go after the name brand, and hey, go ahead. If you come our way, great! There is at least 80% of the market out there that says, “Geez, I just spent $200. My kind broke his stick in two weeks. I can’t afford this.” So now we’re selling a stick that they really like for a hundred dollars, and it changes the way they look at how they buy. Our big deal is just getting out there. And we’re making our way. My son started it and we work really well together and now I’ve decided to come on full time and really get myself into the business.
NSPS: That’s really cool. Great that you get to work with your son, too. I know we’re running short on time, but is there time for one or two more fan questions?
NSPS: Jessica from Detroit Lakes wants to know, “Who was your sports hero growing up?”
TY: Well, Bobby Orr. Of course, who can’t name him? I grew up in St. Paul, over at Blair & Snelling, and I would always sit with my buddy Pat Dill. His dad Bob Dill, was Shorty Dill who played for the Rangers, played for Chicago, and was a scout for the North Stars. So I’d always go down to the basement, it’d be 2:00 in the afternoon, and would be watching the Blackhawks play somebody. Bobby Hull was my favorite. And then I had a chance to play against him a few games when I first jumped on. So he’s one of my favorites. Bryan Trottier as well, just being a fan of the game while I was playing the game. He was a guy who was probably about 180 pounds and he could do everything. He was a leader, he was a goal scorer. He could do it all and I always thought he was just fabulous. So those are the two guys I kind of looked at and thought, you know, it would be cool to be them. Of course we all sit in front of TV set thinking, “Oh, I’m Bobby Somebody... Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr.” We all do it. And it’s funny, some of the people I’ve run into actually in the last couple of weeks at the state high school hockey tournament. One guy came up to me and said, “Yeah, we always fought about who could be you.” So I thought that was real interesting. Here I’ve come full circle.
NSPS: Justin from Minneapolis asks, “You played your last NHL season with the New York Rangers. What was it like playing home games at Madison Square Garden as opposed to the Met Center?”
|Younghans with the Rangers (1981-82).|
TY: When I played with the Rangers it was totally different. Playing there was pretty cool. But I would walk into Madison Square Garden as a North Star and I’d always wonder, “Why do you want to play in New York?” The fans were really bad. They were bad to the (Rangers) team we played because they were horse... you know... crap.
But then by the time I got there, Herbie Brooks was the coach and he got them going in the right direction. So now you’ve got 18,000+ fans just going crazy for the Rangers! It was really cool walking onto the ice. You look up and it was an enormous building. It seemed so much bigger than the Met. I always reflect back to the Frank Sinatra song, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere,” and I thought that was pretty special. Here I am, in New York, playing in Madison Square Garden with some really great players. It was very exciting. It was a little sad that it had to come to an end. Herbie brought me in, they had a lot of injuries, and I was a third-line utility player. I was cool with that. He brought me in to fill gaps and once people got healthy again... you know, I was at the end of my career anyway, so I was okay.
I would have loved to have stayed a little longer because what a great place it was. My wife and I didn’t really get a full chance to experience New York as we’d all like to. We had a nine month old son, and it’s just tough to get around with a baby and a car. And we lived out in Greenwich, Connecticut. But it was cool. I’d love to go back to visit New York, and I love Chicago, too.
NSPS: Chicago’s a great town. I think a lot of fans are just craving a rivalry like the Blackhawks and North Stars had. Hopefully they can get this realignment figured out so that we can start to see that developing with the Wild a little bit.
TY: Well it sounds like it’s going to happen. It just sounds like there are some other things going on with the players association, but when that happens, it’ll really help the Wild. We all want rivalries. And you develop those over time, and we already have those with the Blackhawks, and now with Winnipeg.
NSPS: Yes, it’s amazing how fast that one has heated up. Two games against the Jets, and they’ve been unbelievable.
TY: And I hope to God they keep sending fans down here. Because you know what? It was very exciting. To have that, at least 25% of the stadium was for the Jets. It was cool.
Thanks to Tom Younghans for his time. Thanks to Brad & Lori Maxwell and the Minnesota NHL Alumni Association for facilitating the interview and for putting together the Reunion. Hopefully readers of this can join us for some of the awesome events taking place next week.
Tom Younghans fan page on Facebook
Minnesota NHL Alumni Association
North Stars Reunion