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Minnesotans were given 10,000 lakes and frosty winters, and they took the hint. There are an estimated 49,000 people registered to play organized hockey in the state, and the Minnesota high school championship last March drew 16,470 at the St. Paul Civic Center and had a television audience of 300,000. Youngsters dream of growing up to skate for the University of Minnesota, and adults return to their childhood by watching the Golden Gophers. Peer into a Minnesota resident's eyes and you see the reflection of his soul. His pupils are dilated to the size of a puck.
So how can it be that enthusiasm for professional hockey has thawed in the Twin Cities? Even though Gordon and George Gund, the owners of the NHL's Minnesota North Stars until last spring, left the freezer door open for nearly 10 years—in the process presenting a textbook example of how not to run a sports franchise—how could Minnesotans' affection for the pro game have so melted that opening night of the 1990-91 season drew only 5,730 fans to the 15,093-seat Metropolitan Sports Center? As if to prove that the attendance figure isn't a misprint, the second and third games at the Met Center drew 5,970 and 5,280, respectively. The fourth game brought out 9,129 to sec Norris Division rival Chicago. It also brought a brave declaration from Norman Green, the North Stars' new owner, of better times ahead. "I'm certain that within a year we'll turn this thing around and within two years we'll be sold out," he said before the game.
Minnesota played dismally that night and lost 4-1, yet the fans hardly bothered to boo. At this point in their seven-year attendance slide, the North Stars would prefer anger to apathy. The 11,354 average attendance last season, inflated by an estimated 3,000 discounted and free tickets, was almost 4,000 less than the league average. More daunting to Minnesota's hopes of recovery is a bizarre agreement the new owners signed with the Gunds. The deal kept the North Stars in Minnesota but will strip the team of a large number of its prospects, who will play for the expansion franchise that the Gunds will get in San Jose next season. Small wonder that the euphoria many Minnesotans felt when the Gunds sold the team to Howard Baldwin and Morris Belzberg has yet to be reflected at the box office.
Green—who has since bought the North Stars from Baldwin and Belzberg—put the home opener on local TV, a treat for Twin Cities fans since Minnesota's games are usually telecast only on cable, which is not available in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The game drew an estimated TV audience of 200,000. This reconfirmed the obvious—people in Minnesota like hockey—but failed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between enjoying the sport and paying to watch the North Stars play.
There was a time—the 1981-82 season, which followed the North Stars' lone appearance in the Stanley Cup finals—when 15,220 fans packed the Met Center for each game. Now the question is, Have the North Stars made too many mistakes to win those supporters back? The challenge is complicated by the fact that in addition to facing competition from college and high school hockey, the North Stars are going pucks-to-hoops against the novelty of the two-year-old NBA Timberwolves, who drew 26,160 a game last season in the Metrodome and will move this season to the newly opened Target Center in downtown Minneapolis.
Some fans, however, remain faithful. Despite the North Stars' poor draft choices over the years and a chaos of player and coaching changes, John Sullivan, an office supplies salesman from Bloomington, still goes to about 10 games a year. He describes friends who no longer attend as not necessarily disenchanted, merely suspicious. "I think most people are sitting on the fence, waiting to see if the North Stars get better," Sullivan says. One theory is that those fences run right to the Timberwolves' ticket windows. "Since I've come here," says right wing Brian Bellows, who has played for Minnesota since 1982, "I saw the Twins become the hot team, and now their attendance has cooled off. Basketball is new and exciting now, and downtown is the place to go. I think if we show some improvement, we can get the average up to 10,000 to 11,000 a game. I really wonder, though, if we'll ever get 15,000 regularly again."
Green insists that the North Stars will get crowds that large. He says the franchise, which the Gunds announced lost $6 million last season, needs to draw only 8,000 to break even, a number that seems low. Green has raised ticket prices $3 to $5 for most seats (the scale is now $9.50 to $28.50), fired 33 of the 60 people in the front office and moved 900 building operations people off his payroll. He wants an organization that is lean, mean and, eventually, green. He has established residence in the Twin Cities—he is a native of Calgary—to demonstrate that the North Stars are in Minnesota to stay.
Green, a shopping mall developer who formerly owned 18% of the Calgary Flames, comes from an organization that has never skimped on player development. The North Stars, who through Sunday are 1-6-2 after finishing 36-40-4 in 1989-90, obviously need an upgrade in personnel. Green says he has no intention of cutting corners there.
Money was never the problem with the Gunds. Judgment and distance were. After disbanding their failing Cleveland Barons franchise and buying the North Stars in 1978, the Gunds merged the two rosters. George, who lives in San Francisco, and Gordon, who's based in Princeton, N.J., were infrequent visitors to the Met Center. To rebuild a North Star franchise that was even less competitive than it is today, the Gunds put their faith in Lou Nanne, a charter player for the North Stars (the franchise began operation in '67-68). As general manager, Nanne parlayed the extra players from the combined rosters into additional draft choices, a move that appeared to set up Minnesota as a future powerhouse.
A trade with Detroit gave the North Stars the second pick in the 1982 draft, and a deal with Boston, which had the first pick that year, enabled Nanne to take Bellows, the most highly touted junior since Wayne Gretzky. Nanne then obtained from Pittsburgh what would become the first choice in the 1983 draft. But instead of selecting either Pat LaFontaine or Steve Yzerman, who turned out to be dominating NHL players, Nanne took Brian Lawton. Lawton, a center, never scored more than 44 points in five disappointing seasons with the North Stars and, after stints with four other NHL teams, is currently playing for Phoenix of the International Hockey League.