Rising North Stars
The Expansion Years of Minnesota Hockey
By Stew Thornley
No one will deny that the hockey roots of Minnesota run deep. High school, college, amateur, semi-pro, and professional teams have contributed to the rich rink heritage in the state. Over the first half of the 20th century, Minnesota also produced some of hockeys greatest stars, such as goalie Frank Mr. Zero Brimsek of Eveleth and stolid defenseman Moose Goheen of White Bear Lake.
However, it wasnt until the mid-1960s that the area was granted a National Hockey League (NHL) team, one of six expansion franchises that would double the size of the league beginning in the fall of 1967. The Minnesota North Stars, playing in the Metropolitan Sports Center (later to be known simply as The Met Center), joined the Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, California Seals (who switched their geographic designation from California to Oakland early in the season), and St. Louis Blues in the West Division. The East Division was comprised entirely of the established teamsthe Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Montreal Canadiens.
The East Division retained the big namesJean Beliveau, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Dave Keon, Ed Giacomin, Phil Espositobut a number of respected veterans and touted newcomers became part of the West Division, including Andy Bathgate of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Terry Sawchuk of the Los Angeles Kings, and Bernie Parent of the Philadelphia Flyers.
As for the North Stars, their original roster included Cesare Maniago, a tall goaltender who was the first player taken by the North Stars in the expansion draft; Billy Collins, a reliable penalty killer and defensive forward; Ray Cullen, an agile center and accurate shooter; Wayne Connelly, a winger with a wicked slap shot; Mike McMahon, an offensive-minded defenseman with a wry sense of humor; Dave Balon, a talented left winger from Saskatchewan; fan favorite Elmer Moose Vasko, who was lured back onto the ice after spending a year in retirement following 10 years with the Chicago Black Hawks; Bill Bat Masterton, an former All-American at the University of Denver who had been a member of the U. S. National team the preceding season; Parker MacDonald, the oldest member of the team, who had turned in a number of fine seasons with the Detroit Red Wings; and Bill Goldsworthy, an aggressive forward who had been signed to his first contract, with the Boston Bruins, by Harold Cotton, who by this time was the North Stars Director of Field Operations.
Several of the aforementioned playersCollins, McMahon, Maniago, and Mastertonwere familiar to local fans as they had played for a Minnesota minor-league team in the preceding years. In addition, another member of the team was John Mariucci, the legend from Eveleth who had left his job as coach of the Minnesota Gophers to serve the North Stars, first as Director of U. S. Player Development and then as Assistant to the General Manager.
Serving in the dual role of general manager and coach of the North Stars was Wren Blair, noted for his signing five years earlier of a 14-year-old out of Parry Sound, Ontario, Bobby Orr, to a contract with the Boston Bruins.
The North Stars and the other new NHL teams were decided underdogs when they faced the East Division teams. Even a tie could be considered a coup for a West Division team when it came against the Montreal Canadiens or New York Rangers.
Only a month into the history of the team, the North Stars went one better than that. A standing-room only crowd of 15,128, at the time the largest ever to watch a hockey game in Minnesota, packed the Sports Center as the North Stars faced the defending Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs.
Minnesota front lines swarmed Toronto goalkeeper Bruce Gamble throughout the first period while defenders kept attacking Leafs away from Stars goalie Cesare Maniago. Gamble held off the Minnesota surge until late in the first period when defenseman Bob Woytowich took a return pass from Ted Taylor and slammed the puck into the net. Toronto countered on a long slap shot by Ron Ellis that eluded Maniago with only one second left in the period. The North Stars had outshot the Maple Leafs, 19-6, in the first period, although the score was tied at 1-1. The Minnesota defense was even more stifling over the next 20 minutes, holding Toronto to three shots on goal, and the North Stars took the lead for good on a goal by Andre Boudrias, assisted by Dave Balon, with just over two minutes left in the second period. Neither team scored in the third period, and the North Starswho held the defending champs to 14 shotshad a 2-1 win, their first over an East Division foe.
Bill Mastertons name became a notable one in Minnesota hockey for a pair of reasonsone celebrated, the other tragic. Masterton scored the first goal in the regular-season history of the North Stars, on October 11, 1967 at St. Louis in a 2-2 tie with the Blues. Three months later, at the Met Sports Center, Masterton collided with a defender in a game against the Seals. He never regained consciousness and died barely 27 hours later, the first on-ice fatality in the history of the National Hockey League. This was still a period when most players skated without helmets and many goalies operated without masks. Andre Boudrias was the only member of the North Stars to wear a helmet before the incident, although the death of Masterton accelerated the proliferation of helmets with Mastertons former linemate, Dave Balon, one of the first to don headgear as a result.
Meanwhile, the North Stars retired Mastertons number 19 and instituted the Bill Masterton Memorial Cup, to be presented to the teams Most Valuable Player. Goalie Cesare Maniago, who produced six shutouts during the 1967-68 season, was the first recipient of the Masterton Cup. Another top performer for the Stars was Wayne Connelly, who topped the West Division with 35 goals. Andre Boudrias, whose previous NHL experience consisted of seven games with Montreal, led all rookies in the league in scoring.
Five teams put on a furious battle for the four playoff spots in the West that inaugural expansion season. Only the Seals were out of the running as just six points separated the others at the end of the regular season. The North Stars, with 69 points, finished fourth to capture the final playoff spot by two points over Pittsburgh. The Stars had finished only one point behind third-place St. Louis, three points behind second-place Los Angeles, and four points behind first-place Philadelphia. Along the way, the North Stars beat each of the East Division teams at least once except for the Rangers.
In the West Division playoffs, the Blues knocked off the Flyers in seven games, while the North Stars did the same to the high-scoring Los Angeles Kings, taking the deciding game by a score of 9-4. The Stars and Blues then battled for the West Division championship and a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals. Scheduling conflicts at the Sports Center left the North Stars with only two games on home ice in the series. Despite the handicap, Minnesota split the first six games of the series, bringing it down to a decisive seventh game in St. Louis on Friday night, May 3. The game was scoreless into the closing minutes of regulation time. Finally, the North Stars broke through with a goal as Ray Cullen screened Blues goalie Glenn Hall, allowing Walt McKechnie to score on a 35-foot wrist shot with 3 minutes, 11 seconds left to play. However, St. Louis tied the game 31 seconds later and the game went into sudden-death overtime.
With just over three minutes left in the first overtime period, Wayne Connelly broke free at the red line and went in alone toward Hall until he was pulled down from behind by Jim Roberts. Blues fans gasped as they expected that Connelly would be awarded a penalty shot. However, referee Art Skov didnt see it that way. Not only did he not grant the penalty shot, Skov incredibly declined to even call a two-minute minor on the Blues. Play continued into the second overtime period when the Blues Ron Schock got one past Maniago to give St. Louis a 2-1 win.
It was a fantastic game to wrap up a fantastic series between two teams who would remain fierce rivals throughout their early years.
The Blues continued their winning ways in their second season, improving their regular-season record to 37-25-14, while the North Stars backslid in 1968-69. Eleven games into the season, Wren Blair ceded the coaching reins to John Muckler, the coach and general-manager of the North Stars Central Hockey League team in Memphis. The North Stars started well but then failed to gel under Muckler, and Blair moved back into the coaching position in mid-January of 1969. (It would be 20 years before Muckler would again coach in the NHL; his return was a successful one, however, as he coached the Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup championship in 1989-90. Muckler later coached the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers.) The return of Blair to the bench made little difference to the North Stars as they finished the 1968-69 season in a tie with Pittsburgh with 51 points, worst in the NHL.
One bright spot of the season was the performances of a pair of players who came to Minnesota in an off-season deal with MontrealClaude Larose and Danny Grant. The two played on the same line and complemented each other well. Larose produced 62 points on 25 goals and 37 assists, many of the latter coming on feeds to Grant, who scored 34 goals during the season, tying the modern-day NHL goals for a rookie set by Bernie Boom Boom Geoffrion in 1951-52 and tying the all-time rookie goal scoring record set by Nels Stewart in 1925-26. In addition, Grants 65 total points set an all-time rookie record, breaking the mark of 62 set by Gus Bodnar in 1943-44.
Grant was awarded the Calder Trophy as the NHLs top rookie, becoming the first West Division player to win one of the leagues regular-season awards.
The North Stars won a coin flip with the Penguins to secure the top draft pick in the 1969 amateur draft, which they used to secure Dick Redmond, considered the best attacking defenseman to emerge from Junior A hockey in Canada since Bobby Orr. The addition of Redmond was part of a general overhaul of the team that included the acquisition of Duluth native Tommy Williams from Boston. However, the heart of the 1969-70 team was a holdover who was emerging into a star. Bill Goldsworthy hadnt lived up to the high expectations many had for him in the North Stars first two years, and had even been sent to the minors for a spell during the 1968-69 season. He got his act together, though, for the North Stars third season and produced 36 goals, breaking Wayne Connellys West Division record. Each was punctuated by the on-ice jig that became famous in Minnesota, The Goldy Shuffle. Goldsworthy played on a line that had J. P. Parise on the left wing and Tommy Williams at center. With precise stickwork and rapid rushes down the ice, the trio thrilled Minnesota fans and finished 1-2-3 on the North Stars in scoring in 1969-70.
The Stars, however, had to endure a period of dry spells during the season. After a December 6 win over Montreal, the North Stars went more than a month before winning again. During this time, Blair stepped aside as coach and asked center Charlie Burns to move from the ice to the bench. The shift in duties was planned as a temporary move, and Burns was granted the official title of assistant coach although his tenure lasted longer than either Blair or Burns expected; the assistant portion of Burnss title was eventually dropped.
Meanwhile, Minnesota continued to sputter. Following a January 14 victory over St. Louis, the North Stars sank into another winless streak that extended through the end of February and covered 20 games. Few fans in the Sports Center expected much when the North Stars faced the Toronto Maple Leafs in a Sunday afternoon game on March 1. But a newcomer on the Minnesota benchgoalie Gump Worsley, just acquired from Montrealbuoyed the spirits of the team. Worsley had been acquired by the North Stars two days before and was suiting up for the first time.
Not only that, Charlie Burns went from coach to player-coach. With the new goalie on the bench and the new coach on the ice, the inspired Stars shocked the Leafs with an 8-0 drubbing as Cesare Maniago stopped 41 Toronto shots. Worsley was in goal a few days later in a 2-2 tie against Philadelphia and back in the nets again at weeks end in helping the Stars to an 8-3 win in Toronto. The following weekend, Worsley minded the goal in back-to-back victories6-3 at home against Pittsburgh and 4-2 against the Rangers in New York, the Stars first win ever in Madison Square Garden. The North Stars played well throughout March, but it wasnt clear if the late surge would be enough to secure a playoff spot.
The final weekend of the regular season was spent in Pennsylvania with a Saturday game in Philadelphia and a Sunday night game in Pittsburgh. A win would most likely be needed to make the playoffs. However, it looked more like a tie would be the outcome in the April 4 game against Philadelphia. With goalies Bernie Parent of the Flyers and Gump Worsley of the North Stars performing brilliantly, the game was scoreless in the third period when Minnesota defenseman Barry Gibbs shot the puck into the Flyers zone. The 80-foot shot was on goal and somehow eluded Parent and ended up in the net. I was just trying to get the puck in their end, said Gibbs. I was aiming at the net, but I never thought it would go in.
Its the biggest goal of my lifeeven if it was a fluke.
Fluke or not, the goal stood up as Minnesota won the game, 1-0, assuring themselves of a playoff spot while eliminating the Flyers from post-season contention. The Stars finished the regular season with a 5-1 win over Pittsburgh to finish third and earn themselves a first-round meeting with the Blues.
In another hard-fought series, the Blues prevailed in six games and then went on to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the third straight year. And, for the third straight year, the Finals had a similar ending with the Blues being swept in four games.
Matching the champions of West Divisionconsisting entirely of expansion teamswith the champion of the established teams in the East Division was making the Stanley Cup Finals anti-climatic. The NHL took two steps to eliminate that scenario in 1970-71. One was the shifting of the Chicago Blackhawks to the West Division as part of a restructuring that included two new expansion teams, the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks, who were both assigned to the East Division. The other was a change in the playoff format. After the opening round of playoffs, the surviving teams would face teams from the opposing division in the second round. One way or another, the league hoped the changes would mean that two of the established teams would face one another in the Stanley Cup Finals.
It worked out pretty much the way the NHL hoped although there was nearly a big surprise along the way. What came as no surprise during the season was the dominance of the Chicago Blackhawks in the West Division. Led by goalie Tony Esposito, the Hawks allowed the fewest goals in the NHL and ended up with 107 points, 20 more than West Division runner-up St. Louis.
Jackie Gordon took over as coach of the North Stars in 1970-71 as Charlie Burns returned to the role of full-time center. Gordon had spent the past 17 years with Cleveland of the American Hockey League (AHL) as a player, player-coach, coach, and general manager and was a part of four AHL Calder Cup titles. Another significant newcomer to the Stars was Ted Harris, an outstanding defenseman who came to Minnesota from Montreal and assumed the role of captain on the North Stars.
The North Stars finished fourth during the regular season, only a point behind the third-place Flyers, good for an opening round playoff spot against the St. Louis Blues. After two previous post-season losses to the Blues, the North Stars finally prevailed, eliminating St. Louis in six games. The Stars then faced the Montreal Canadiens, who were heavily favored in the series. The Canadiens took the first game of the series by a score of 7-2. The outcome was no shock to anyone. However, the next game was a shocker. In the Forum in Montreal, Minnesota came away with a 6-3 victory. It was the first-ever win by one of the expansion teams over an established team in the playoffs.
Montreal took Game Three, in Minnesota, 6-3, but the North Stars evened the series with a 5-2 win in the fourth game. The hockey world was turning its attention to this series. Back on its home ice in Game Five, Montreal won, 6-1, and then returned to Minnesota with hopes of finishing off the North Stars in the sixth game.
The battle was a classic. Montreal broke a 2-2 tie when Rejean Houle banged home a rebound of Henri Richards shot with six-and-a-half minutes left in the second period. The Canadiens 3-2 lead held up into the closing minutes of the third period when the Stars pulled Maniago in favor of an extra attacker. As the final seconds ticked off, Ted Hampson carried the puck across the Montreal blue line.
Hampson sent a pass toward Jude Drouin, who was breaking toward the goal. Being checked, Drouin was unable to get his stick on the puck. It hit his skate and squirted back to Hampson with one second left on the clock. Hampson lifted the puck over a sprawling Ken Dryden, the Montreal goalie, and into the netbut the red light to signify a goal never went on. The green light indicating that time had expired had registered first.
The North Stars argued that the puck had gone in before the clock ran out, but referee Bill Friday held firm and did not allow the goal. On the basis of that call, Montreal won the game and the series. The Canadiens went on to defeat the Black Hawks in the Finals for their third Stanley Cup championship in four years.
But the Minnesota North Stars had earned the respect of their peers as well as fans across North America. The series with Montreal was a turning pointnot just for North Stars but for all of the class of 1967-68.
No longer were the newcomers considered to be expansion teams. From this point forward, they were the equals of the others in the National Hockey League.
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