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. 

1 comment:

  1. Great read. Thanks for this.

    I grew up a North Stars fan in the mid-80s on, way up here in small town Alberta. Was real young when Hartsburg was playing so I don't recall too much, and of course we didn't get a lot of North Stars games up here either.

    I was extremely upset when the team located, but I knew how to cheer for nobody else, so my heart followed.

    Going to be pretty great seeing all these guys on the ice at once again. Wish I could be there in person. Planning on trying to meet Craig when he's in town (Edmonton) with the Jackets in a few weeks. Seems like a great guy, and of course, a North Stars legend.

    Thanks again for the interview.