Tinker, tinker with the Stars,
Till they wonder what they are.
In a way, Lou Nanne's breakfast the morning of the day before the NHL All-Star game in Calgary was symbolic. The Minnesota North Stars' general manager put a fork through an egg yolk, and it collapsed and leaked away—just as Minnesota's once-bright hockey hopes had.
Four years ago Nanne's North Stars were sunny-side up and sizzling, a young, fast, high-scoring team that played good defense and upset Boston, Buffalo and Calgary in an inspiring march to the 1981 Stanley Cup finals, in which they lost to the Islanders. Those North Stars shone like a beacon for teams like the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, New York Rangers—teams that wanted to believe a freewheeling style of hockey could succeed in the otherwise rock 'em, sock 'em, mug 'em NHL. "So close we can taste it" was the team's slogan for 1981-82, but the North Stars quaffed no champagne from the Cup that season, and today they're in a sorry state.
"Seriously, I'm beginning to worry about making the playoffs," says Nanne, normally an unrelenting optimist. But he should be worried.
At week's end Minnesota had won only one of its previous 10 games, was 17-33-11, 20 points behind last season's pace, and sat in fourth place in the weak Norris Division, just eight points ahead of last-place Toronto, the worst team in the NHL. The Stars are apparently headed for their worst season since 1977-78, when the aptly named No Stars finished 18-53-9—worst in the league.
Look at the stat sheet and Minnesota's problem appears to be one of fading stars. Supposed scorers Neal Broten, Brian Bellows and Dennis Maruk are all having bad seasons, and Tom McCarthy and Dino Ciccarelli have missed 17 and 27 games, respectively, because of injuries. "History says they should score, but history lies to us," says North Stars coach Glen Sonmor.
No, it doesn't. Minnesota's current predicament seems to be more a case of a falling star disintegrating as it tumbles through an atmosphere of instability created by frequent trades, questionable drafts, two abrupt shifts in coaching philosophy (with perhaps a third in the offing now that Herb Brooks, a native and lifelong resident of the Twin Cities, is out of work after being fired by the Rangers Jan. 21) and, to be fair, an incredible plague of injuries.
Between the time they lost to the Islanders four games to one in the '81 finals and November 1982, the North Stars made more than a dozen different deals. Only 10 players, two of them goalies, remain from the team that made it to the '81 Cup finals. Nanne had built that team in 3½ seasons after retiring as a player to become general manager (and, for 29 games, coach) on Feb. 10, 1978. Now, 3½ seasons after his finest hour, the congenial wheeler-dealer—nicknamed Sweet Lou from the Soo after his birthplace, Sault Sainte Marie, Ont.—appears to have dismantled a contender in precisely the time it took for him to create one. Around the league the question is whispered: What is Louie doing? On this morning, as Nanne picks at his breakfast, other hockey men stop by or call over, clucking their condolences or making with the needle. Detroit G.M. Jimmy Devellano mentions "the injuries to very, very important people."
"And they're not hangnails," Nanne says. He's right. Only the Rangers have lost more man-games to injury (366) than have the North Stars (256). The club's captain and best offensive defenseman, Craig Hartsburg, was lost for the season Jan. 29 when he fractured a hip. Tough, if penalty-prone, forward Paul Holmgren was lost for the season after undergoing surgery Jan. 3 on his left shoulder. Tony McKegney, the team's hottest scorer after he was acquired in a December trade with Quebec, suffered a shoulder separation Feb. 9 and probably won't be back until April.
But player-agent Alan Eagleson isn't letting Nanne off that easily. From a nearby table he calls, "Hey, Louie. You see in the paper where [Brent] Ashton scored his 20th and [Warren] Young got his 31st?"