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Sweet Lou from the Soo
E.M. Swift
October 12, 1981
Lou Nanne, Minnesota's general manager, is a lousy poet, but his savvy and salesmanship have made the club a contender. Many think he should be running the NHL
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October 12, 1981

Sweet Lou From The Soo

Lou Nanne, Minnesota's general manager, is a lousy poet, but his savvy and salesmanship have made the club a contender. Many think he should be running the NHL

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Which is exactly what Nanne does when the subject of marketing the NHL comes up. Nanne denies having an interest in Ziegler's job as president, but he's a salesman, and he can't hide the fact that he knows the president's job has been handled all wrong. This is a man whose first jobs out of college were selling chemicals and envelopes. You know how many envelopes you have to sell to make a living? The North Stars paid him far more than he was worth as a player because he agreed to sell ads for their game programs. He was so good at it that the Minnesota Vikings got him to sell ads for their programs. Nanne can flat peddle, and hockey hasn't been able to sell itself to television, the print media or large reaches of the American public since the days of Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.

"Hockey is lower in popularity than it should be in the U.S.," Nanne says. "We've got two things to build on: cable TV, which will enable us to reach whole new markets, and the success of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team."

Millions of Americans who wept over the gold medal winners wouldn't dream of attending an NHL game. There simply is no connection between the two in their minds, and the NHL has made little effort to make a connection. The players, general managers, coaches and officials of the NHL are still overwhelmingly Canadian, or Canadian influenced, and they take a strongly nationalistic attitude toward their game. "These people think because they don't need help marketing the sport in Canada, we don't need it in the States," says Nanne. "It's like England and cricket. They don't want to change it because it's a great game the way it is. I always feel like the ghost of Howie Morenz must be walking around at NHL Rules Committee meetings.

"Americans love scoring—touchdowns, home runs, the three-point play. The most exciting play in hockey is the penalty shot, but it's hardly ever called. I'd even like to penalize the goalie for smothering the puck. People ask, 'What is he going to do when it gets trapped between his pads?' Let him figure it out!"

Nanne points out that hockey is still the only sport—besides, fittingly, boxing—that doesn't have some sort of overtime in the regular season. He'd like to see it, despite the fact that one of the most frequent complaints about the game is how long it takes to play. To speed things up, Nanne advocates that all line changes be made while the puck is in play, thus eliminating the tiresome "juggling" of lines that often occurs after a whistle. He'd like the league to try two 30-minute periods instead of three 20-minute periods. Last year Nanne scheduled an exhibition game with two 30-minute periods to see how the players and the ice would hold up, and they both did fine. Eliminating fighting and the pointless pushing and jersey-tugging that accompany it also would speed things.

Let's face facts: The NHL doesn't think of itself as a sleeping giant. Burned by overexpansion, criticized for violence, mocked for a schedule that permits 76% of its teams to advance into the playoffs, the league has circled the wagons. If television doesn't want us, we don't want television. If the press won't write nice things about us, we won't talk nicely to the press. The league doesn't have a spokesman or an intelligible direction; it is 21 separate fiefdoms, each battling for its own piece of the public pie. And the players make up a 22nd fiefdom.

But the man for everyone is Nanne, who is Canadian-born, American-naturalized and a former vice-president of the Players Association. Nanne was a driving force behind the NHL merger with the WHA. He is a mediator, a negotiator; he gets things done quickly, and without selling his soul to special-interest factions. "Louie could talk himself out of a shoebox," says his wife, Sweet Francine from the Soo.

"We're competing with baseball and football," says Nanne. "What makes us unique is that we're an international sport. We're in a position to have the most important international competition of any sport."

Nanne would like to see a Stanley Cup final between the European champion and the NHL champion. It would be like soccer's World Cup. Because the season is already too long, Nanne would eliminate the opening round of the playoffs. That, in turn, would make the 80-game regular season more meaningful—21 teams vying for eight playoff berths—quarters, semis, finals and then off to Moscow or wherever.

Ask yourself: Would you have watched the New York Islanders play the Soviet major league's champions last May? A four-out-of-seven series for the Stanley Cup? Nanne's eyes do pinwheels at the thought of the cable possibilities of that matchup. Naturally, he sees it as the North Stars vs. the Central Army Club of Moscow. Can you imagine Viktor Tikhonov, the Soviet coach, getting a bit of verse from Nanne on the eve of the first game? Just a little something to bring the North Stars luck?

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