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In a tumultuous off-season, the franchise was purchased by Green, a former minority owner of the Calgary Flames. Desperately seeking to fill the arena, Green tried one tacky promotion after the next: cash giveaways, gear-bag night, stick night, Moonwear Sports Pants night. In the end, the promotions did as much harm to attendance as good. Says Pat Forciea, Minnesota's vice-president of communications and operations, "It was getting to where people said, 'If they're not giving something away, why go?' "
Would-be fans had a larger reason for boycotting the North Stars: Why bother forming an allegiance to a club that was just going to be dismembered after the season? Originally, that's what the Gunds intended to do. In exchange for agreeing to sell the Stars and leave them in Minnesota, they extracted from the NHL the rights to an expansion franchise in San Jose, which will begin play next season. To stock the new team—the aptly named Sharks—the NHL approved the Gunds' plan to fleece the North Stars of many of their top young players.
When he realized what a raw deal he had gotten, Green appealed to the league, and the Sharks' rights to swim in Minnesota's talent pool have been amended considerably. The new deal reportedly leaves the North Stars with their nucleus of experienced players and their nucleus of experienced players and their future—young players like Shawn Chambers, Mike Craig, Rob Zettler and Neil Wilkinson, who had been destined for San Jose—intact.
In January, Green finally gave up on cheesy promotions, figuring his money would be better spent in advertising. Minnesota has since come out with a print and TV ad that harnesses Gainey's legendary stoicism. Gainey appears in three different pictures. In each, he is as tight-lipped and lugubrious as an undertaker. Under each is a caption: "Coach Gainey after a penalty"; "Coach Gainey after a goal"; "Coach Gainey after kicking Chicago's butt in the playoffs."
Coach Gainey does have a sense of humor. "Sometimes, when he's talking to us, you'll see him smile for about a half second," says Gagner. "That's when you know he's made a joke." At practice the day after a particularly dispiriting loss in November, Gainey gathered the North Stars around him. "We will be going through a series of extremely complicated drills," he said. "If you become confused, do not hesitate to ask for help."
"For the next 20 minutes we skated our butts off in one big circle," Smith says. "I don't think we saw a puck all morning."
The period of losing ugly ended in mid-November, giving way to a stretch of close games, most of which Minnesota lost. Throughout, Gainey remained resolutely upbeat. The tinkering continued.
In mid-January, a funny thing happened: The North Stars started winning. From Jan. 17 to March 17, Minnesota went on a 14-6-6 surge that ensured them both a spot in the playoffs and a near-doubling (from 3,500 this season to 5,800 next season) of their season-ticket base. "Now," says Forciea, "a chimpanzee could do my job."
As the North Stars speed through the playoffs, pinching themselves, none will admit the seemingly obvious: They are playing over their heads. Logic insists that midnight is nigh for the Cinderfellas, that against the defending champion Edmonton Oilers in the Campbell Conference finals, which begin Thursday, Minnesota's carriage will become a pumpkin.
Then again, the Cinderfellas may live happily ever after.