The almost-glorious North Stars hockey run of ’91

With the 2011 NHL season nearing its final act (and the Minnesota Wild season a distant memory) MPR News editor Bill Wareham offers this remembrance of a time 20 years ago when professional hockey in Minnesota might have reached its peak.

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I don’t pay much attention to NHL hockey anymore, but I did as a kid. My brother Pete and I were allowed to watch North Stars games past our bedtime on a tiny black-and-white TV with the sound turned down so we could listen to Al Shaver’s play-by-play on the radio. But the appeal diminished after I gave up playing the game in 9th grade (I played park board league, not traveling hockey like Pete and my other brothers.) And it’s never really returned.

Except for the spring of 1991.

I was reminded of that almost-glorious season by Rachel Blount’s recap of the North Stars’ improbable trip to the Stanley Cup finals in today’s Star Tribune.

As the closest thing MPR had to a sports reporter, the task of covering that post-season run fell to me. Twenty years later I realize how poorly I executed my duties, mostly providing straight ahead game coverage of what was truly a remarkable human interest story. In an attempt to partially rectify that oversight, here are some of the random thoughts that came flooding back while reading that story:

– “Cinderella story” is such an overused cliche, especially on the sports page, that I favor amending the 1st Amendment to forever ban its use. But the shoe fits the ’91 North Stars like few others. For crying out loud, their regular season record was 27 wins, 39 losses and 14 ties. Let that sink in for a sec, because it’s truly horrible. But by the end of the season they were playing really well and that carried into the post-season. They didn’t seem lucky, they seemed well-coached, moderately talented and confident. By the time the finals rolled around, it seemed natural that they were there.

– I realized by then that NHL hockey was a second-tier professional sport, but covering the North Stars really brought it home. Aside from owner Norm Green’s Rolls Royce parked inside the lower concourse, everything about the Met Center and the franchise seemed cheaper than the other sports I had covered. When the Penguins won and I was in their locker room trying to get interviews, I remember two distinct thoughts: 1) ‘I am in a champagne-soaked locker room with the freakin’ Stanley Cup;” and 2) ‘This place is really tiny and shabby. I’ve been in high school locker rooms much nicer than this.’ The home team’s locker room was better, but hardly luxurious.

– As if to confirm my sense that pro hockey was not on the same level with, say, pro football, baseball and basketball, or even college basketball and football, a certain longtime sports columnist who seemingly knows every athlete in the state turned to me in that Penguins locker room to ask the identity of a player a couple of feet from us. It was Larry Murphy, who had been traded from the North Stars earlier that season after a couple years on the squad. Apparently, not worthy of close personal friendship.

– The North Stars people were great. Pro sports teams are typically ambivalent or worse to media outlets that don’t cover them regularly. I found the North Stars to be an exception to that rule. From PR director Joanie St. Peter to coach Bob Gainey to the players, they treated me well. There was little of the arrogance I found in other locker rooms. I recall a player striking up a conversation with me (was it Stewart Gavin? Basil McRae?) about Elvis Costello after one practice. He was just a guy who wanted to talk music, who happened to be in the middle of the Stanley Cup finals.

– There are a handful of moments that will always stick with me as a reporter, and one of them is standing over Neal Broten, slumped in his locker cubicle after Game 4, staring at an invisible point somewhere beyond the handful of reporters waiting for him to say something about a missed breakaway opportunity earlier that night. Broten was one of the finest puck handlers I’ve ever seen, a member of the 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympic team and, on top of everything, seemed to be a nice guy.

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Neal Broten

The Penguins had jumped out to a lead in Game 4, but the Stars clawed back. When Broten missed that opportunity, though, you could feel the barometric pressure change in the building. The fancy coach had turned back into a pumpkin and everyone in Met Center seemed to realize it. So, waiting for Broten to acknowledge that moment and say something profound about it was one of the most painful things I’ve endured. Yes, in a week when people have died and families been scattered by a tornado I am painfully aware of how inconsequential a hockey game is, even if it’s a Stanley Cup final game. So, I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but my still stomach knots up just thinking about that missed goal and Broten’s distant stare.

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