Friday, January 22, 2016


by Daniel Cote

Reid Simpson as a member of the Minnesota North Stars in 1992.
Here at the North Stars Preservation Society, we don't simply celebrate the "stars" of the franchise.  We celebrate ALL who wore the North Star.  Sure, we've been lucky to talk to some of the legendary players in franchise history, such as Steve Payne, Craig Hartsburg, and Brad Maxwell.  But we strive to tell the stories of anyone and everyone who suited up for the team we loved.  Today we talked to Reid Simpson, who appeared in one game for the North Stars.

Simpson's Minnesota hockey connections run deep, as does his love for the game.  He returns to the Twin Cities on February 20 for the NHL Stadium Series North Stars/Wild vs. Blackhawks Alumni Game -- as a member of the
Blackhawks, for whom he suited up for the most in his NHL career.

Simpson was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the fourth round of the 1989 NHL draft.  He made his NHL debut for the Flyers during the 1991-92 season, appearing in one game.  Following that season, he signed as a free agent with the North Stars.  Once again, he appeared in one game for his new club.  On December 20, 1992 (ironically against the Blackhawks), Simpson made his North Stars debut.  His highlight was a heavyweight bout with Bryan Marchment.

Two more seasons would pass before Simpson appeared in another NHL game.  When he did resurface, it was with the Jacques Lemaire-led New Jersey Devils, during their Stanley Cup winning season of 1994-95.  Simpson shuttled back and forth between New Jersey and Albany for four seasons before finally becoming a full-time NHL player with the Blackhawks in 1997-98.  He would go on to play for the Lightning, Blues, Canadiens, Predators, and Penguins before hanging up his skates.

Simpson now resides in Chicago where he coaches and owns the Illiana Blackbirds junior hockey club, based in northwest Indiana.

North Stars Preservation Society (NSPS):  Hi, Reid, thank you so much for talking to me today.  This is North Stars blog, and I thought it would be a lot of fun to talk to you since you are playing against them in the alumni game.  But you were actually, for one game, a North Stars player.  What brought you to the organization, and what do you remember about your game with the North Stars?

Reid Simpson (RS):  Sure!  I grew up in northern Manitoba and obviously the Minnesota North Stars were one of the clubs that I knew a lot about.  When I signed with the team in Minnesota, back in '92-'93, I hadn't really played in the NHL much.  My experiences were with the Philadelphia Flyers, who drafted me.  I felt at that time I was just breaking through to potentially get a chance to play at that level.

In that first year I signed with them, it was one of those unexpected things where everything happened really fast and I got an opportunity to play.  The first game I played with them was against Chicago, in the old (Chicago) Stadium.  Obviously, you can't get much more of an enthusiastic building to play in or game to play in.  It was one of those games that made me look at the whole thing differently, as far as playing in the NHL.  Whether it was with the North Stars or not, it was like, "Oh my god, this is a much different setting than anything I've ever seen before."

So it had a big impact on me.  Unfortunately, at the time I got called up, I had some injuries with my groin and stuff.  I wasn't able to spend much more than two or three weeks there.  But it still had an impact.  It gave me the opportunity to realize that I was good enough to play at that level.  To practice with the team, like I said, for two or three weeks, I realized that I just needed an opportunity.  Unfortunately, it didn't come with that organization. But I think it was a springboard, in that short period of time, for myself to realize that I was capable of playing with them.

NSPS:  And when you finally did get an extended look, it was with Jacques Lemaire in New Jersey.  So I guess in a roundabout way, that's another Minnesota connection.

RS:  Yeah, you know the hockey world is a small world.  And you don't really realize it at the time you're going through it.  The most important thing a player has to do is show his work ethic.  Show his perseverance.  Show that he's willing to do whatever it takes to play at that level.  Sometimes that's just shutting your mouth and doing what you have to do, day in day out.  And that's kind of what I did.

There are a lot of real small connections that I had.  Part of maybe getting there at the time might have been that Bobby Clarke had a little to do with the organization, and he's from my hometown.  And Jacques Lemaire -- I met him before he was in Minnesota obviously -- but I think that once you're coached by a guy like that, and you do good things for them, it comes around.  They always have good things to say about you behind the scenes, and it allows you to continue playing.  I truly believe that Jacques is one of those guys.  I have great things to say about him as a coach.  And pretty much everyone, you know?  Rick Wilson was my coach in juniors, and he's coached for years now with (the Wild) organization.  There are a lot of connections that you form over the years.  As long as you do people right, and you give them your best every day, it's hard for anyone to say anything negative about you.

NSPS:  In yet another Minnesota coaching connection, you went to Chicago and played for (former North Stars captain) Craig Hartsburg.

RS:  Yeah, I did!  He was my first coach there.  That's another guy that I have a tremendous amount of respect for.  I only played for him for a short period of time, but I really had a lot of respect for him as a coach and for the things that he taught.  I certainly feel like he should have stayed a little longer than he did.  At the time, he was doing all the right things and it was unfortunate when he left because I really liked what he was doing with the club at the time.

NSPS:  I actually just talked to him earlier this week.  He was the most recent interview that I conducted before talking to you.  And now you get to play against him in this game!  So how excited are you to play outdoors in Minnesota in the middle of February?

RS:  Well, it's always exciting to get to play against guys who you played against and with in the past.  And the setting that this game has, to be played in at a national level... I think that everyone that I know who's playing in this game is doing everything they can to not show their age.  We do a lot of alumni stuff here in Chicago, and when you play with professionals, it's just a different game.  Everybody's still very competitive.  They just want to be the best that they can be.

So I've played in a lot of alumni games.  Maybe none at this level, where it's nationally televised.  And with the weather, nobody really knows what it's going to be like.  It could be sunny and 30 degrees.  It could be snowing and minus 20.  So you don't know what you're going to get there, but you deal with it.  It's more about seeing the guys that you played with, and having the opportunity to meet some of the fans that you've never met before.  There's a lot of people in the Minnesota area who have been die-hard hockey fans for a long time, and it'll be fun to give them an opportunity to see a lot of guys on the ice who they haven't seen for a while.

NSPS:  As far as the game itself, with this old rivalry, what do you think the chances are that some gloves get dropped?

RS:  No, that's not an issue.  There's a different compete level at the NHL level, you know?  You're competing for a job.  There's a different motivation for anyone who has ever fought.  You look back at guys who did that job for a living, and they're not guys that wanted to go out and get in a fight.  That's not their personality.  They did it for the team.  They did it for the wins.  They did it for the organization.  They did it because that's what was needed to be done at the time.  Whether you call it sacrificing yourself or just getting the job done, that's why the guys did it.  But it's not an issue in a game like this.  It never has been.  There might be some guys who get a little too aggressive, but a fight is not going to solve that.  Maybe the fans, from their perspective, want to remember the days that Basil McRae or Shane Churla fought Hawks players.  But these are great guys.  There's nobody really looking to do that in this situation.  Someone would have to take it way too far for that to happen, as far as I'm concerned.  I can't foresee anything like that.

Simpson with the Chicago Blackhawks
NSPS:  Right.  And I guess I asked that a little bit tongue-in-cheek, because of the rivalry.  But I agree with you.  I've met guys like Jack Carlson and Willi Plett, and they're great guys.  Absolutely some of the nicest players who I've met.  Let me ask you this, though... as someone who did make his living as a very physical player, how do you feel personally about the way that fighting has been phased out of today's NHL?

RS:  Well, I think that sports evolve and rules dictate certain behaviors out on the ice.  From a league perspective, they have adjusted the rules to the point where there really is no forum for that to happen.  If two guys decide they want to get in a fight that's born out of the action of the game, under the current rules, that's still an acceptable practice.  But the strategy of how players inject that into the game has dramatically changed over the last five to ten years.  If I was to watch a game now and try to put the Reid Simpson of 2005 onto a team, there would not be a lot of opportunity for those kind of things to happen.  I have friends that started in the early 2000s who had that job, when it was still a big part of the game.  But if you don't evolve, the game leaves you behind.

When I watch games now, do I say to myself, "That guy needs a beating right now?"  Well, yeah, maybe.  But the rules of the game don't allow for that to be a part of it anymore.  So if you're one of those guys, and you want to stay in the game and be around the current game, then you have to adjust.  Whether that means you can still fight five to seven times a year, or whether that means you have to be relevant in other ways of the game, then you have to (adjust).  The game evolved in my time and it's going to evolve again.  If you look ahead to 2025 or 2030, you'll see differences in how the game is played then, too.  You've got a window of 12-20 years to play and you've just got to make the most of it.  If I was born fifteen years later and made the National Hockey League at the age I did, I would have probably figured out what I needed to do.  I didn't grow up as a hockey player thinking, "I want to fight every game."  I did what I had to do to stay in the game and be relevant every night.

That's the thing people don't realize about these guys who play as so-called enforcers.  They were helluva hockey players.  They were the best of the best from the teams they played on in juniors.  They were the best players in the American Hockey League at the time.  And they just figured out how to be relevant at the NHL level.  It's about finding your way and figuring out what you can do to help your team win.  I own a junior hockey team in Chicago now, and that's what you look for in kids.  Not everybody has the exact same skill set.  Not everybody has the physical attributes to do the same things.  You look for players who realize how they can help the team every day.  I guess I figured that out.  Mike Modano figured it out when we played in juniors together.  He figured out what he could be, and he became one of the best American born players in the world.

NSPS:  You mentioned your junior team, and I think it's awesome that you're still involved in the game in that capacity.  How did you get involved with the Illiana Blackbirds?

RS:  I wanted to give back to junior hockey players and help them realize their dreams.  I had a lot of great people around me to help me do that.  I put up some money financially for the team and, as time went on, I realized that I had to be the person to step in to get it off the ground.  I don't know how long I'll continue to be involved at that level (as owner, general manager, and coach), but it's been great so far.  Each year I have to decide where I am with the hockey side of things.  So I commit to it by the year.  We've had some great kids come through the organization.  We've had great teams who have had a lot of success.  That's the fun thing about having teams and great kids.  You can have hockey be a big part of their lives and they use that for whatever they can in life. 

Monday, January 18, 2016


by Daniel Cote

Hartsburg was the longest serving captain in North Stars history.
The North Stars drafted Craig Hartsburg with the sixth overall pick in 1979.  He was their first selection in a draft class that also netted Tom McCarthy and Neal Broten.  Following a 1978 draft that featured Bobby Smith, Steve Payne, Steve Christoff, and Curt Giles, the foundation was built for the team's highly-entertaining early '80s glory years and their run to the 1981 Stanley Cup Finals.

After a terrific junior hockey career for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Hartsburg made his professional debut for the Birmingham Bulls of the WHA.  He was drafted by the North Stars the following season and made an immediate impact.  He was named to the All-Star Game in his rookie NHL season.  In fact, he was an All-Star in three of his first four NHL seasons.  He was the longest-serving captain in North Stars history, wearing the "C" for seven of his ten seasons.  His 60 assists and 77 points in 1981-82 are single-season records for a North Stars defender.

In the book Minnesota North Stars: History and Memories With Lou Nanne, the former North Stars general manager says, "The best defenseman who ever played for the North Stars was Craig Hartsburg.  He would have been an All Star for years and years had he not had a career-ending injury.  Craig was unbelievably talented."

Unfortunately, injuries did derail Hartsburg's career.  He missed over 100 games in the 1983-84 and 1984-85 seasons with knee injuries.  After returning for two relatively healthy years, he went through two more injury plagued seasons in 1987-88 and 1988-89 before retiring around his 30th birthday.

Hartsburg immediately transitioned into coaching as a North Stars assistant.  He has held head coaching gigs for the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, and Ottawa Senators.  He is currently in his fourth season as associate coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Hartsburg will once again wear the North Stars sweater on Saturday, February 20 in the North Stars/Wild vs. Blackhawks outdoor alumni game at TCF Bank Stadium, as part of the NHL Stadium Series.

North Stars Preservation Society (NSPS):  Hi, Craig.  Thanks for taking the time to do this interview.  It's a real privilege to talk to you.  It's about twelve below zero here right now and I'm hoping it's a little bit warmer than that for the Stadium Series Alumni Game next month.

Craig Hartsburg (CH): (laughter)  Oh boy...

NSPS: So how excited are you for this alumni game?

CH: Really excited!  It'll be fun to see a lot of people who I haven't seen for a long time.  It'll be great for the fans to get to see some of us old-timers.  Obviously our game is going to be a lot slower than the (Wild vs. Blackhawks) game the next day, but it's pretty exciting.

NSPS:  It seems from my perspective, a lot of people here are more excited for the alumni game than for the actual Wild game the next day.  

CH:  Well, it's going to be a real neat couple of days for me.  I don't see a lot of the ex-teammates.  I know there are quite a few of the guys who still live in the Minneapolis area, who probably still see each other.  But I certainly haven't been able, over the years, to see as many guys as I would have liked.  I know my wife is looking forward as well, to seeing some of the wives who she hasn't seen in a while.

NSPS:  That should be really cool.  You'll be playing, of course, against a lot of your old Blackhawks foes.  But you'll also be playing against some guys that you coached in Chicago.

CH:  Ha ha!  Yeah, I've been on both sides.  A little bit more on the North Stars side, of course.  But it's going to be a fun weekend.  I'm hoping the game's not real quick because my legs aren't very good.  But I am certainly looking forward to playing against some of the guys I coached in Chicago, like Jeremy (Roenick) and (Chris) Chelios.
Autographed 1981-82 Topps hockey card

NSPS:  Have (Lou) Nanne or (Tom) Reid hit you up for any scouting reports on those guys?

CH:  Ha!  I saw Tommy here a couple weeks ago when the Wild were here, and talked to him a little bit about the game.  And I've been e-mailing back and forth with Brad Maxwell, who's in charge of the alumni there.  Every time you get an e-mail or talk to somebody from there, it just adds to the excitement.

NSPS:  Have you played in an outdoor setting like this before?

CH:  No, not in an official game.  They have an outdoor rink here in Columbus that we're supposed to practice at, coming up here.  When I was a kid, I played a lot of outdoor games, for sure.  But, no, I've never really played a real game like this outdoors. 

NSPS:  Let's go back to your time with the North Stars.  Or even before... I know in juniors you played with some guy named Gretzky.  Did you have any idea back then that he was going to become WAYNE GRETZKY?

CH:  Well, it's hard to predict that anybody would have done what he did in his career.  But certainly in the year that I played with Wayne in Sault Ste. Marie, you could tell that he was something special.  We were all in awe, right from the first day that we saw him in camp.  He was this skinny, scrawny little guy and we wondered how in the heck he was going to be able to survive this.  But after the first scrimmages and exhibition games, it was obvious that he was just head and shoulders above everybody else.  As far as how smart he was, his vision on the ice, and his ability to think the game, he was better than anybody that I've ever seen.  That was real obvious early.  But to predict that he'd have that kind of career?  I don't think anybody could.  It was real obvious, though, that he was going to be something special.

NSPS:  Then after that, you went to Birmingham.  I don't know if a lot of North Stars fans realize that technically your first pro season was in the WHA.  When you signed there did you think you were going to be a Birmingham Bull for your career?

CH:  No, no... there were five or six of us 19 year olds that had played three years of junior hockey in Canada and had one year left.  We had an agent at that time named Bill Watters.  He was the agent for all of us, and he felt it would be a great opportunity for us to spend a year in the WHA, which would really help our development on and off the ice and get us ready for the National Hockey League.  And it was.  It was a great year for us.  We got to play a pro game against men.  And we were only 19 years old, so we learned a lot about the game and about living on our own and those type of things, which we didn't have to spend our first year in the NHL trying to figure out.  It was a big help for us.  It certainly helped me going into the NHL draft.  And then I was pretty excited when Minnesota drafted me.  I felt that after that year in the WHA, I was much more ready to play in the NHL, as a 20 year old.

NSPS:  For a few years before you got drafted, the North Stars were near the bottom of the NHL standings.  But the year before you arrived, they had the merger with Cleveland and drafted Bobby Smith and Steve Payne. So you were part of that talented young nucleus that turned the team around.  Were there any of the older guys on the team that took you under their wing a bit, and showed you the NHL game when you first got here?

CH:  Oh yeah, for sure, we had some great people.  There were a lot of young players, like you said.  We were a young team, but we had some great people helping us.  Freddie Barrett was outstanding for us young players, not just on the ice, but off the ice.  He taught us a lot about being a pro and a family man.  Paul Shmyr was another one.  He came in as an older player, from the WHA as well, and he really helped us young players.  So you look at those two guys as two older defensemen who really lent a helping and teaching hand to all of us.  And Brad Maxwell, too, who was still a young player, but he had been in Minnesota for a few years. He reached out and was a big help for me.

NSPS:  Barrett is coming back for this, too.  I think he and Meloche are probably the oldest guys on the North Stars roster for this game.

CH:  Yeah, when you look the roster and the guys who are playing... look at the defensemen.  I know Brad Bombardir is playing from his days with the Wild, but other than that it's a lot of guys from our group there in the '80s.  Gordie Roberts, Curt Giles, Maxy, Freddie.  It's going to be fun to get back with those guys, maybe have a couple cold ones, and talk about old times for sure.

NSPS:  I think most North Stars fans would probably consider you to be the best defenseman in North Stars history, or at least in the top two or three.  I know I've heard Lou Nanne and some of the older local media say you could have been a Norris Trophy winner or Hall of Famer.  Do you feel that without the injuries you could have been that great?

Hartsburg was a three-time NHL All-Star.
CH:  I think that certainly the injuries obviously shortened my career, which was real hard to go through.  I think in the last three or four years that I played, there were certainly issues with my mobility.  That was one of my strengths as a defenseman, my ability to skate and play the game at a pretty good pace.  So I did get slowed down.  Whether I could have played at that level for my career, I'm not sure.  As a Norris Trophy candidate?  I don't know about that.  But looking back, you can't have any regrets.  The game was great to me.  I'm still in the game.  Would I have liked to have stayed healthy for fifteen years?  For sure.  But it is what it is.  I've had a hip replacement.  The knee is getting close, probably, to having that, too.  But that's part of signing your name on the dotted line to play professional sports.  You know you're apt to get injured.  I went through it and I wouldn't trade any of it for anything.  But, sure, I would have liked to have seen what could have happened if I played fifteen years healthy.

NSPS:  Would you consider the 1981 run to the Finals to be the highlight of your time with the North Stars?  Or does anything else stick out?

CH:  No, that's obviously the highlight.  I think we were all obviously on the right track.  The year before we lost to Philly in the semifinals, then came back and were right there in '81.  And the Islanders were such a powerful team.  They were well-rounded and deep.  They could play any kind of team.  I don't know if we really played our best hockey in that series.  The Islanders won four Stanley Cups in a row, so I don't know that anybody was going to beat them, to tell you the truth.  But it was a great run.  We were a good team and we had so much fun getting to that point.  The camaraderie with the fans...  the whole state, for that matter, was excited about it and was behind us.  Thinking about it brings back great memories of walking into the old Met Center.  As the playoffs would go on, the tailgate parties were getting bigger and louder.  It was so much fun.  I don't know if players nowadays will ever get to experience that.  With the way buildings are now, there's not many of those things that go on, with the tailgating and the big parking lot.  You know, it was a great, great time in all of our lives as players.

NSPS:  It seems to me that that team really seemed close.  Even now so many of those guys from that team, like Maxy, Gordie Roberts, Steve Payne, Jack Carlson, Don Beaupre, Tom Younghans, Tim Young... they're still in town and always participating in alumni events and making public appearances.

CH:  It was a great group.  The majority of those guys were all drafted by the North Stars, and they really became the team, you know?  That team was built over the course of three or four years of drafting.  We kind of grew up together.  And we grew up quick, obviously, because we were still very young when all of that went on.  I'm not there, like I said, so I don't spend as much time with the guys as I'd like to, but still... when you run into somebody once in a while, or when you talk to people, there's great, fond memories of it all.  It was a lot of fun.  Obviously we wish we could have done more with it, but it was a great run for a couple of years there, for sure.

NSPS:  You were the captain for most of your career here, seven out of ten years.  What did it mean to you to wear the "C" on your sweater?

CH:  It was a great honor.  I think that when you're asked to lead, you have to take it very seriously.  You have to try to do what's right on and off the ice and try to be a leader more by your actions than what you say.  I still look at that in the National Hockey League now.  Your leadership is how you approach every day, how you practice, how you play, and your professionalism off the ice.  That's what I tried to do.  I tried to do my best to show up every night ready to play.  I may not have played great every night, but I wanted to make sure I was prepared to play every night.

NSPS:  Speaking of leadership, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Glen Sonmor, who just passed away last month.

CH:  Yeah.  That was a sad day for all of us.  He was a big part of all of our lives.  There were days where you'd have to go to him as a father figure, and Glen treated us all the same.  He wanted to get the best from us. He wanted us to be the best players we could be, and he cared about us.  He had some issues in his life, but he battled so hard to get through 'em.  He had a great life and he touched a lot of people.  He was a great mentor for a lot of us and we really learned a lot from him.  There wasn't a man who had more passion for the game of hockey than Glen Sonmor.

NSPS:  Do you ever notice things in your own coaching style that you may have picked up from him?

CH:  (laughs)  Well, I don't know that my personality is quite the game as Glen's.  But there are some things that, when you look back.  Some of the practices, and maybe the demands he put on us as far as being ready to work.  I think his demeanor and how he approached things are probably a little different than what I do, but that doesn't mean that his were right or mine were right.   He was such a fiery guy.  It's hard to duplicate that.

NSPS:  You're working with another pretty fiery coach now in John Tortorella...

CH:  You know what?  There are actually similarities there between he and Glen.  He's very intense, very fiery, and he cares about his team and his players so much.  John is a very intelligent man.  I know what you sometimes see in the media or on TV, but it's really not what Torts is all about.  He's a good person and he's a very intelligent person.

NSPS:  It's been a pretty tough year, though, for you guys in Columbus.

CH:  Oh, it's been very tough.  It's been a very... it's been hard to describe, to tell you the truth.  We had such high expectations and it's been frustrating.  It's been bizarre.  You can use a lot of words to describe what's happened here, and none of it was expected.  We had a great training camp.  Todd Richards did a great job of preparing the team.  In the first game, we had a great game against the Rangers and in the last three minutes we just completely fell apart.  We let in some bad goals and it just seems like we never recovered.  It's been a tough pill to swallow.  There have been changes obviously, with trading (Ryan) Johansen the other day.  I really like the defenseman we added, Seth Jones.  I just think he's a great kid and he's going to be a great player.  He's a good young player right now, but he's got the potential to be a great player for a long time in this league.  It's pretty exciting to work with him and Ryan Murray, who's another real good young defenseman.  And then we have Zach Werenski coming from Michigan, who's really a top-ranked young player, too.  So we have some good young d-men and that's fun to work with.

1984 GOAL Magazine
NSPS:  I wish you the best.  I remember a couple of North Stars seasons and even some Wild seasons where things got off to a rocky start, or didn't go as planned, and that's always disappointing.

CH:  Well, that's the game of hockey.  You never know what's going to happen.  I've been in it for 38 years now as a player and a coach.  I've seen lots of good, lots of bad, and lots of surprising things.  But it's been a great time in the game and I appreciate every moment that I have in it.

NSPS:  Last question.  With the North Stars-Blackhawks rivalry, do you think any fights are going to break out in the alumni game?

CH:  Ha ha!  I don't know about that.  If there is, it's going to have to be some of the younger guys doing it.  I'm not sure the older guys are really going into that.  We're there to have some fun and, you know, we want to win.  We want to play as well as we can for the fans that are going to be there to support us.  But I don't know about the fighting part.  I'd be surprised if that happens.

NSPS:  Well, I saw Al Secord was not on the final Blackhawks roster, which is a little disappointing.  I would have liked to have seen Dino and Secord or Plett and Secord get into it again for old time's sake.  

CH:  Well, I won't say that it couldn't happen, but I'd be really surprised.  Obviously there was a great, hard rivalry when we played each other.  But over the years I feel like you just end up respecting each other more than you did when you played against them.  But it's going to be fun for a lot of reasons.  Just to compete in an old alumni game against them will be great.   Playing them was always fun, with great players on both teams.  It'll be fun to see how we've all aged.