Entrenched as they are in different leagues, the Minnesota North Stars ( National Hockey League) and the Minnesota Fighting Saints ( World Hockey Association) have never met on the ice. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the intensity of their fight for the affections of hockey-mad Minnesota. Pretty soon one club will probably knock the other off, unless they sink beneath the icy surface of the Mississippi River hand in hand.
Suicidal tendencies are evident enough in the history of the North Stars, who joined the NHL nine years ago with dreams of developing into what another member of the expansion class of '67, the Philadelphia Flyers, ultimately became. The North Stars did just fine for a while, making it to Stanley Cup play five times in their first six years of existence and regularly selling out the 15,184-seat Metropolitan Center in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington. But bad trades and complacency have kept them out of the playoffs the last two seasons, and this year's young, relatively faceless team has a 3-7-0 record. This dismal start had Right Wing Bill Goldsworthy, the club's captain and alltime scoring leader, saying in frustration, "If we're ever going to have a full house again, we've got to start winning."
But then, the Fighting Saints, who play across the Mississippi from Minneapolis in the 15,705-seat St. Paul Civic Center, are not exactly free of self-destructive impulses, either. A charter member of the 3-year-old WHA, the Saints have been a fixture in the league's playoffs, but their attendance figures have risen barely enough to stave off financial collapse. This year the Saints failed in a much-publicized bid for the services of the Boston Bruins' Bobby Orr, but enterprisingly landed a couple of crowd-pleasing veterans in Dave Keon (from the Toronto Maple Leafs) and that scrappy, grizzled onetime Bruin, Johnny McKenzie. So what has happened? The Saints not only stumbled off to a 4-4-1 start but went into a swoon the first three times they appeared before the people they need so desperately to please. "It's strange," muses McKenzie. "We seem to get uptight whenever we play at home."
McKenzie has been through such struggles before. He was player-coach of the WHA's Philadelphia Blazers before that team was run out of town by the Flyers and was still on hand when the club, reincarnated as the Vancouver Blazers, suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Canucks. Philadelphia and Vancouver are among seven cities in which the NHL has ousted the WHA, which has yet to uproot the older league anywhere. The WHA's Toros are still challenging the Maple Leafs in Toronto, but that city, too, will probably be abandoned to the NHL. Toro players are already discussing apartment rentals in nearby Hamilton, Ontario, where the team is rumored to be heading.
All of which leaves Minnesota as the WHA's last hope for a morale-building knockout of an NHL club. But the Fighting Saints have lost $3.5 million so far, and last week Wayne Belisle, the sixth president in the club's brief history, was anxiously seeking new capital amid talk that some of the Saints' angels were having unholy thoughts about bailing out. North Star President Walter L. Bush Jr. was also complaining of "substantial losses." No wonder that Belisle has lately been proclaiming, "It's time to get this thing over with and find out who is boss."
It is in this spirit that the Saints, who mostly avoided such head-to-head battles in previous years, scheduled 19 home games this season on nights that the North Stars were playing across the river. The first two of these confrontations were standoffs, the Saints drawing a bigger crowd one time, the Stars the next. Another showdown occurred last Wednesday night. The Stars, before an oddly somnolent crowd of 8,335 in Bloomington, managed a rare win, shutting out one of the NHL's most recent expansion teams, the 2-year-old Kansas City Scouts, 2-0. In St. Paul, a somewhat livelier gathering of 12,210 watched the Saints lose 6-4 to the WHA expansionist Cincinnati Stingers. But the attendance figures were still inconclusive; the St. Paul numbers were swollen by a special promotion in which kids were given free Saints jackets.
The only sure thing is that 20,000-plus fans watched pro hockey in the Twin Cities on one night, a turnout that, wedged into one building, would have broken all of the sport's single-game attendance records. Chalk this up to an area hockey mania that keeps pucks flying on 40-odd rinks, the players ranging from eager-eyed Squirts to Minnesota Governor Wendell Anderson, a '56 Olympic defenseman who competes in an Oldtimers League. Then there is the University of Minnesota, which on another evening last week whipped St. Louis University 6-3 before 6,502 raucous fans. The Gophers, NCAA champions two years ago and runners-up last season, consist entirely of native Minnesotans.
For all the hockey fever, though, it is questionable whether the Twin Cities can support two big-league clubs. The estimated break-even point for the Fighting Saints is an average crowd of 10,500 for their 40 home games this season, while the North Stars need 14,000 spectators at an equal number of home games to keep their debts from piling up further. In the fight for survival, the North Stars come off as the Establishment team, both as the NHL entry and because a lot of their devotees are from such leafy Minneapolis suburbs as Edina and Wayzata. Fighting Saints fans tend to come from the blue-collar sections of St. Paul, a city that has long nursed an inferiority complex in its relations with Minneapolis. It was with suitable nose-thumbing brashness, then, that the WHA club last year put up billboards practically in the shadow of the North Stars' arena, one of them reading, WE'RE NOT THE OTHER TEAM ANYMORE. The NHL club loftily ignored this for a while, only recently responding with its own sign: IT'S NOT THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN...JUST THE BEST.
"We don't like to knock somebody else's product," says Walter Bush, plainly ruing the need for his North Stars to resort to such tactics. "We'd rather just talk about our team."
"Know why the North Stars are in trouble?" says the Saints' Belisle. "Some of their fans find it socially unacceptable to lose."