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First, let us flip objectivity over the boards and out of play. Rather, let me. I grew up rooting for the Minnesota North Stars. I grew up despite rooting for the Minnesota North Stars. I have emotional scars like Gump Worsley has facial scars. My memories are like a Zamboni: Big and ugly, they resurface periodically.
I always believed that nothing could reverse all this, but something has. I never believed the phrase "Nothing's impossible," but nothing is. The North Stars, who had 13 wins, 29 losses, 8 ties and 0 fans on Jan. 21, took a 2-1 series lead in the Stanley Cup finals on Sunday by defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 at the Met Center. The Stars are now "smelling the Cup," as a deejay in a Bloomington, Minn., watering hole so ineloquently put it last week. When I was being raised in Bloomington, the only Stars "smelling the cup" were rookies involved in that venerable hazing ritual.
But there it is. The North Stars are indeed smelling the Stanley Cup, and the effect on hockey fans throughout the state has been like that of smelling salts on a long unconscious population. As Dark Star, the overnight call-in radio host on Minneapolis superstation WCCO-AM says, "I've heard a lot of people say that hockey is coming back into their lives."
From how far back did hockey have to come? Before this preposterous spring, the fondest Met Center memory this fan could conjure was of a spring day in 1984. Never in the 16 years that the Stars had been playing at the Met had I seen the place as full or as frenzied. Speckling the stands were 2,000 spectators, most of whom were fast asleep, but a handful politely applauded the action. It was my high school commencement ceremony. A Kennedy High School board member fed me my diploma in the slot, and I went top-shelf with it, where the diploma resides today: top shelf, upstairs in the hall closet of the home I returned to last week.
The diploma is still collecting dust, but the seats and their occupants at Met Center are not. "It really is unbelievable," said Jim Mrozek, 29, of Bloomington, 10 minutes before the puck was dropped to open Game 3. "I came the last time the Penguins played here, in December. There were about 7,200 people. It's so good to see this place full now."
Last week I saw how homeboys in my hometown have cut North Star logos into their scalps and how their less funky fathers have cut North Star logos into their lawns. I learned of schoolchildren in the state who have created posters threatening, in crayon and marker, homicide on the home team should it not win the Cup. And I learned, by extension, of schoolteachers puckish enough to commission such projects.
Speaking of homicide, what to make of that guy in the shades, with the hair down to there and the leather-and-steel spiked manacle on his left wrist? The guy who appeared to be swinging something at Jon Casey as the silent, balding, bespectacled North Star goalie from Grand Rapids made his way through the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport before the start of the final series. The enormous weapon was, it turns out, an ax. Which is what a headbanger calls his electric guitar. Casey, unruffled as always, autographed the instrument for his metalhead admirer.
All of these newly rabid North Star fans are not, in fact, really rabid. That is an important point. Because at least one soldier in the Met's black-sweatered army of ushers survived being bitten by an overzealous member of the faithful during the Campbell Conference finals against the Edmonton Oilers. This happened during a game that was in Edmonton and televised on the Met's scoreboard.
What the H-E-double-hockey-sticks has gotten into the people of Minnesota, a state in which Bud Grant is thought to be animated and Walter Mondale to be charismatic, a state so evenhanded that it produced rock-dwarf Prince to balance its birthing of lumberjack-giant Paul Bunyan, a state whose citizens are ordinarily as plaid-flanneled and Scandinavianly inanimate as its 31-foot statue of Bunyan himself? Can this be the same state that of late has gone berserk? As Minnesotans so often say instead of yes, "You betcha."
Oddly enough, the word berserk, like so many of the Stars' fans, is of Scandinavian descent. The etymology was made abundantly clear on May 15, when nearly 500 people rocked Joe Senser's Grill & Bar in Bloomington to watch, on the joint's 28 TVs, Minnesota beat the Penguins 5-4 in the series opener in Pittsburgh. The celebration could have been even larger. "I think the fans would be even more psyched," said Mike Villafana of Minneapolis, "if any of them had figured out yet who any of these players are."