The script has been bizarre, too bizarre even for a soap opera The ongoing story of the Minnesota North Stars. Has there ever been anything like this in any sport? Never.
It is set in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The cast of characters changes, the Gund Brothers are written out of the script, but they linger to thicken the plot. The knight in shining armor is Norman Green, a businessman who charges into the joust wearing, of course, a green-and-yellow scarf. And with his lance at the ready, he does battle with the Gunds and the sweetheart deal handed them by the National Hockey League, dividing the Minnesota players between the North Stars and the San Jose Sharks, an expansion team that comes into being next season.
Will he really save NHL hockey for Minnesota? Does this hotbed of amateur hockey really want it? Green's first fight is with the Gunds. "There are some gray areas [in the division deal with San Jose] from our point of view," Green said. "The Gunds see it as black and white. . . they want too many of our young players." Green probably would like to protect 20 players from the Sharks, which would not give the bay area team any established players as a nucleus.
"All I know is that we've got a deal," said George Gund, who, along with general manager Jackie Ferreira and other Sharks personnel, have been barred from Minnesota's Met Center by Green. They do their scouting of North Stars personnel on the road.
Before Green became the North Stars' majority owner by buying out Howard Baldwin, he voted for the deal the league gave the Gund brothers, Gordon and George. At the time, Green represented the Calgary Flames on the NHL's Board of Governors.
The Gunds had threatened to move the North Stars. The league, not relishing a possible lawsuit if permission was denied, gave them. . . well. . . such a deal. Sell the North Stars to keep them in Minnesota; get an expansion franchise a year later; get 30 players from Minnesota; wind up with the best expansion team in league history.
The deal for manning the San Jose Sharks is this:
The North Stars protect 14 players and two goalies; the protected players must have played at least 50 NHL games by the end of last season; the Sharks pick 14 players and two goalies off Minnesota's list of contract players, including unsigned draftees up to June 1989; then, the two teams alternate picks until the Sharks have taken 30 players; in the expansion draft, the Sharks pick 20 players on an alternating basis with Minnesota, because 10 of the 20 will be North Stars; in the amateur draft, the Sharks get the No. 2 pick in the first round and then get the top pick in subsequent rounds.
The Sharks could strip the North Stars of their best prospects. Green is seeking a compromise, saying the dispute is in a "difference of interpretation." The "deal" is unlikely to be reconsidered by the Board of Governors. It could, however, land on president John Ziegler's desk for arbitration.
Green may truly believe a statement he made before the start of the season: "I have the opportunity to take a team that lost $16 million in four years. . . and show a profit in one year."
Maybe he thinks, "If we win, they will come."
But reality has reared its head. For the first two home games this season, fewer than 6,000 fans found their way to the Met Center each night. Green must know that last year when the North Stars went on a 13-1-0 home spurt early in the season the fans didn't come, not even when the club finished the season with the fourth-best home record in the league.
"Maybe they will come if we win," said Bobby Smith, back where his career began in 1978-79. "But there's more to getting the fans back than winning. . . we have to put out a team that works hard for 60 minutes, a team that plays as hard as Boston does; the Bruins are always a yardstick. They play hard and they win. We have to give the fans a team they can be proud of."
Splitting the squad? "There are some things we have to keep out of our minds," he said, "the off-ice things are something we can't control."
Captain Curt Giles agrees with Smith. "We're not concerned about [losing players] at all," he said. "All we're thinking about is playing. Our job is on the ice, not in the stands, not in the front office. We're focusing on the game, not on management. Our job is to play as well as we can. There are some things you can't control."
Giles has lived through the summer of uncertainty and put it behind him. For some of the younger players, it hasn't been that easy, for they are the ones the Sharks will snap at. Those who could be taken include Neil Wilkinson, Rob Zettler, Mike Craig and goalie Jarmo Myllys. They, too, are trying to stay focused on this season. The future is something they can't control.
Smith is one of the players who remembers when the team lit up the Twin Cities in 1981 by reaching the Stanley Cup finals. "We thought we were a team on the way up," he said.
Giles, who also played on that team, said, "We were a young team in the finals and if we only knew then what we know now. We had a great opportunity."
Since then, the North Stars have been "on a search for consistency," Giles said, "with all the hopes that go with the highs and the disappointments of the lows."
"After 1982, we exchanged skill for character and ended up a worse team," said Smith, who returned to the North Stars this summer, after the ownership change. Green was in, Bobby Clark was the general manager and Bob Gainey the coach. "The attendance in the first two games was lower than we expected," Smith said, "but, there's a great base of hockey fans in Minnesota. The two great hotbeds of hockey in the United States are Minnesota and Boston,
The story of Brian Bellows has to be factored into the script. Billed as the next franchise player, theBruins, with the first pick in 1982, made a deal with Minnesota to bypass Bellows for two players, Brad Palmer and Dave Donnelly. Neither made it. Neither did Bellows, immediately. He says he felt "no pressure" with the franchise label because "I was going to an established team, a good team. The flip side of that was it was tough getting ice time right away."