Lou Nanne didn't come riding in on a white horse to save the Minnesota North Stars. He was part of the whole disaster from the start. Nanne joined the team at the tail end of its very first season, 1967-68, and for the next 10 years he was back there on defense, game but plodding, or filling in at right wing when needed. During that period the North Stars had the worst record in the NHL (274 wins, 436 defeats, 149 ties). Every year Nanne would come to camp, and every year the coach (whoever he happened to be; the North Stars went through seven those 11 seasons) would hint that Nanne probably wouldn't make the team—a sad thing, for Nanne was popular with the fans. But lo and behold, when the final roster was named, Nanne would be on it—also a sad thing because it was a dead giveaway that North Star fans were in for another long winter.
Which is what makes the whole thing so savory now. The awkward defenseman—Sweet Lou from the Soo—is the general manager and prime mover of the best young team in the NHL. In 3½ seasons Nanne turned the North Stars from the worst team in the league into a Stanley Cup finalist. He has wheeled and dealed more than 30 players, accumulating draft choices in return. Minnesota's season-ticket sales have climbed from 4,428 to nearly 10,000 since Nanne took charge, and enthusiasm for the pro game has never been higher in the Twin Cities, an area with a proud hockey heritage but one that has long viewed the NHL as a polluting influence on the amateur version of its sport. That is, until Nanne came along. Some maintain that what's good for the river is good for the sea. "The NHL would be better off with Nanne promoting the whole league instead of just one team," says John Gilbert of the Minneapolis Tribune. An informal poll of Nanne's rival G.M.s produces the same conclusion: If hockey's version of Pete Rozelle is out there somewhere, poised to lead the NHL through the '80s, it is....
Sweet Lou from the Sooooooo! Smile when you say that. He does. The guy is a hockey executive with a sense of humor, which is a contradiction in terms. Raised in the Italian hotbed of hockey, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, home of Phil and Tony Esposito among others, Nanne became a U.S. citizen in 1967, four years after graduating from the University of Minnesota. He tirelessly sells his sport, his team, his players, his ideas, American hockey and, unapologetically, himself, all in an engaging, self-parodying style.
And is he ever slick. Last month Nanne, who was G.M. of Team U.S.A. for the Canada Cup, was watching his club practice when someone peddling a pinkish quick-energy drink asked him to try a cup. He took a sip and nodded.
"Pretty good, eh?" the salesman asked.
"Yup," said Nanne. Suddenly his face brightened. "Can I sell you a cup?"
The salesman almost fell over laughing. He took back his drink and jiggled it all over his shoes, wagging his head in admiration. Sweet Lou had outhustled the hustler. And it never stops.
Nanne's charm and wit are most often displayed during between-period TV interviews, and if he picks up another Seiko digital watch or Sony clock radio in the bargain, well, who can blame him? "I don't make much money," Nanne lies, "so I'm opening a watch shop." He is un-repentantly vain about his looks (he once was balding and has had a nose job), is progressive in his thinking ("I don't get ideas, I steal them") and works, if not lives, like a devout Calvinist. He has even inspired verse, courtesy of William A. Torrey, noted poetaster, fashion plate and G.M. of the New York Islanders:
Player, Coach, G.M., and also TV star,
Sweet Lou from the Soo has truly come far,
He has taken a loser and made it a winner,
Which proves beyond doubt the Good Lord loves a sinner.
It all goes back to Feb. 9, 1978, when Nanne was a bench-riding, bent-nosed 36-year-old fringe player for the hapless North Stars. The next day he was their coach and general manager. It was preposterous! One day an overly superstitious defenseman, who spent more time in the broadcast booth than on the ice, and the next...Mr. Nanne's office, please hold. He had coached the University of Minnesota freshmen for five years, and although his skills as a spokesman and a negotiator for the NHL Players Association were well known, his experience in the front office consisted of selling ads for the North Stars' game program. Yet he persuaded the club's owners he could turn around their franchise. It seemed the sort of thing the Chicago Cubs would have done—hire some loyal Joe who had been with the organization for years and then watch him make the same mistakes his predecessors had.