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FALLEN STARS
Jay Greenberg
October 29, 1990
Mismanagement has wrought the incredible—a dampening of Minnesota's ardor for pro hockey
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October 29, 1990

Fallen Stars

Mismanagement has wrought the incredible—a dampening of Minnesota's ardor for pro hockey

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Some of Nanne's deals worked, but in the long term the North Stars declined because he drafted terribly. From 1980 to '85, Nanne selected just six players who are still playing regularly in the NHL. Nanne, now Minnesota's vice-president of marketing and public relations, points out that five players—including former All-Star defenseman Craig Hartsburg—had their careers ended prematurely by injuries. That was bad luck, but not having replacements for them was bad planning.

For a few years Minnesota maintained respectable point totals in what had become a bad Norris Division. But the team was deteriorating, and Nanne now admits that it took him too long to realize which of his scouts had the best judgment.

He also went through six coaches. When Herb Brooks, a local hero at the University of Minnesota before he coached the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1980, was fired by the New York Rangers in 1985, Nanne tried but could not reach an agreement with Brooks.

Nanne finally landed Brooks for the 1987-88 season, but Brooks couldn't turn Minnesota around. When Nanne, his nerves as frayed as his reputation, quit for health reasons halfway through that 19-48-13 season, Brooks asked Gordon Gund to make him G.M. Gund, who didn't want to combine both jobs, hired Jack Ferreira, the Rangers' chief scout. Brooks then stepped down and went public with his hurt. Season tickets, which had peaked at 10,400 in '81-82 and were more than 6,000 when Brooks became coach, plummeted to fewer than 4,000.

Still, Nanne's last two drafts did yield some prospects, and Ferreira's choice for coach, Pierre Page, turned out to be a good one. The North Stars improved by 19 points in 1988-89 and attendance was rising. Then came the Jan. 30, 1990, announcement by the Gunds that unless the Metropolitan Sports and Facilities Commission came up with $15 million for improvements to the Met Center and fans bought an additional 6,000 season tickets within three weeks, the franchise would move. The Gunds made no attempt to sell those tickets. As prospective buyers interested in keeping the North Stars in the Twin Cities emerged, it became obvious that the Gunds didn't want to sell them. They wanted to move the team to the Bay Area before the NHL expanded there. The league, meanwhile, wanted to keep the franchise in Minnesota and bowed to the Gunds' demands for an expansion franchise on the West Coast.

On May 9, Baldwin, the former managing partner of the Hartford Whalers, and Belzberg, a retired rental-car executive, bought the North Stars for $31 million. The Gunds, in essence, traded the North Stars plus $19 million—the NHL had established a price of $50 million for an expansion team—for a new franchise in San Jose. The solution appeared to satisfy all parties, but the NHL gave the Gunds more than just a new territory. Unconscionably, the league allowed them to strip the rebuilding North Stars of their farm system.

At the end of this season, Minnesota can protect only 14 skaters and two goalies, all of whom must have played at least 50 NHL games by the end of 1989-90. The Sharks, as the new San Jose team has been aptly named, then will also claim 14 players and two goalies from the North Star system, not including any draft picks from 1990 and '91. Finally, each team will alternately select from among the remaining 60-plus players that Minnesota has under contract or holds the rights to. The North Stars will also get to pick 10 of the players made available from the rosters of the other existing NHL clubs in the expansion draft, but these players are likely to be marginal veterans rather than prospects. Minnesota has reportedly cut a deal with San Jose that will send left wing Ulf Dahlen to the Sharks in exchange for the North Stars' being allowed to retain its most promising young defenseman, Neil Wilkinson. Still, Minnesota figures to lose four or five of its best prospects. At least two of them, right wing Mike Craig and defenseman Dean Kolstad, are now playing for the North Stars.

"Mike is going to help us this year, and then he's going to be gone," says Bellows. "We're developing him for somebody else.

"I was looking at some team pictures the other day, and it reminded me that my first few years here we had a helluva team. Now I'm on my ninth coaching change in nine years. We were just getting used to Pierre [who left in May to become general manager for the Quebec Nordiques and was replaced by former Montreal Canadien Bob Gainey]. It looked like we were making progress, and now we're back to square one again."

Lacking a superior offensive defense-man, another hard-driving scorer to match Bellows and a feisty center, the North Stars are average in almost every aspect of the game. They do, however, have a potential superstar in Mike Modano, their prize for finishing last in the NHL three seasons ago. Modano, a speedy center, had 29 goals and 75 points in his rookie season last year.

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