"Things were so bad," Nanne recalls, "that whenever anyone asked, 'Want to go to the North Star game?' the answer was, 'Only if you take me to dinner.' " Season-ticket sales were at an alltime low and regard for the quality of NHL play was at such a level that when Nanne called a press conference for local high school reporters—a marketing strategy aimed at attracting youth interest—one of the questions he fielded was whether he thought the North Stars could beat Hill-Murray, a top high school team in the state.
Nationally it was just as bad—the Minnesota No-Stars! When Sportscaster Len Berman interviewed Nanne on an NHL TV Game of the Week in 1978, he asked what sort of timetable Nanne had for making Minnesota a contender.
"Two years," Nanne replied.
Berman could hardly contain himself. "Two years?" he said. "Two years! You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen! The North Stars are going to be a contender in two years!" It sounded like a carnival, with some huckster shouting about a two-headed baby—You've got to see it to believe it! Nanne got so mad that he almost gave back the gift watch. Almost.
Two years later the North Stars were a contender. In the 1979-80 playoffs they knocked off the Montreal Canadiens, who had won the Stanley Cup four straight seasons, en route to the semifinals. Last spring Nanne's North Stars went all the way to the finals before losing to Torrey's Islanders, four games to one. Only five players remain from the 1977-78 team that Nanne played for. He didn't inherit a budding giant; he built one.
"What impresses me most about Lou is that when he made the switch from player to management, he made the real tough decisions involving his old teammates," says Herb Brooks, the new coach of the New York Rangers, who co-captained the 1968 U.S. Olympic team with Nanne. "People say he's callous and indifferent, but those weren't things he did lightly. They hurt him."
In Nanne's first trade he sent his former roommate, Defenseman Doug Hicks, to Chicago for a player to be named later. Here was one of the North Stars' most experienced defensemen, and Nanne didn't even get a body for him. It seemed pretty odd. But what Nanne was doing was carefully keeping Minnesota on track to a last-place finish, so he could have first choice in the forthcoming amateur draft. That pick, everyone knew, would be Bobby Smith, a center for the Ottawa 67s. Nanne also started to play some of the North Stars' young Americans—native Minnesotans—more regularly, which was great for local interest. And if they made mistakes that cost a few games, well, who would be the worse for it? Not Nanne. At least they were trying. He should have been named Coach of the Year for keeping that team in the cellar.
Per his game plan, Nanne coached only the last 29 games of that 1977-78 season—"I wanted to see how the players reacted to me," he says—and then became general manager full time. He wanted to build a team through the draft, the way the great football and hockey teams had always done it. Nanne's duties as G.M. became frenzied when, in the summer of 1978, the Cleveland Barons merged with the North Stars, a situation he likens to taking one bag of manure and mixing it with another bag of manure. Suddenly Nanne had 63 players under contract. He released or traded 23, in most cases for a draft choice or future considerations, which leads Torrey to observe dryly, "You know what happens when you spread manure around and get back draft choices—the grass grows greener." Nanne then had to find a coach and sign his top draft pick, who was, indeed, Smith.
This is where Nanne's local business contacts helped him. As a player, Nanne was always the guy who "knew this fella who could get you a deal...." Want a fur coat? Talk to Louie. There are stories of Nanne hopping off a team bus in, say, Czechoslovakia to make a call to some guy about a deal on blue jeans or watches or something. Well, one night at a dinner party Nanne was complaining about how the World Hockey Association was trying to lure away Smith—The Franchise—and if only the North Stars had a little more money.... Bill Ramsay was there. Ramsay is a neighbor of Nanne's in fashionable Edina, a Twin Cities suburb, and was Nanne's teammate at the University of Minnesota. His father also happens to be chairman of Marigold Foods. Ramsay is president. Bingo! Maybe, Nanne suggested, Marigold could pick up part of Smith's contract; maybe Smith could be a company spokesman or something. He's gonna be a big star, Bill ol' buddy, ol' pal. It sounded pretty good to Ramsay, but nothing was definite. Food for thought, so to speak.
A few days later the papers reported that Nanne had signed Smith to a four-year, $750,000 contract, and Nanne credited Marigold Foods with tipping the balance. "My father came into my office shaking mad," Bill Ramsay recalls. " 'What's this?' he asked. I told him I didn't know. Well, I didn't. He looked at me and said, 'You see those trucks out there? You hang around that Nanne much longer, and he'll be sitting in this office and you'll be driving those trucks.' " Fortunately for all concerned, Smith's relationship with Marigold Foods has been mutually profitable.