North Stars, Jets finally break the ice

There was a time when the National Hockey League had competition in its battle for hearts, minds and dollars. The clash was especially bitter in markets like Minnesota, where the North Stars and World Hockey Association’s Fighting Saints glared at each other across 12 miles of icy pavement.

“An unwritten rule dictated that nobody in the North Stars organization could say anything favorable about the WHA,” wrote veteran hockey scribe John Gilbert in the Minneapolis Tribune. Jack Gordon, the North Stars’ general manager, complied with the mandate by acting as if the WHA didn’t exist. And he held firm until the persuasive powers of money – combined with the Fighting Saints’ collapse – melted the frost enough to schedule a home-and-home preseason series against Winnipeg in 1977.

It was a profit play for Minnesota, which was struggling mightily on the ice and at the gate. Traditional NHL powers had been scheduling marquee opponents for years in an effort to boost tepid preseason attendance, but the lightly regarded North Stars couldn’t hook a partner like Boston, Montreal or Philadelphia, so they decided to try it with Bobby Hull and the Jets.

A perennial WHA powerhouse, Winnipeg already had one Avco Cup to its credit and narrowly missed repeating as league champions in 1976-77. The Jets had a superstar in Hull, they were the highest scoring team in the WHA (4.76 goals per game in 1977-78) and they had the league’s second-highest average attendance. They were everything Minnesota wasn’t. The North Stars were bereft of star power and defense, dismally short on fans and habitually goal-starved (2.73 goals per game in 1977-78). Geography, it seemed, was all the teams had in common when they prepared to open their series in Winnipeg on Sept. 28, 1977.

Prior to the game, North Stars coach Ted Harris predicted a fast pace. “I don’t really know too much about the Jets except that they are supposed to be able to motor,” he told Dan Stoneking of the Minneapolis Star. To counter their speed and skill, Harris assembled a checking line built on 23-year-old Alex Pirus and his ability to contain Hull. Pirus’ previous claim to fame had been good grades at the University of Notre Dame, so it seemed a bit hopeful on Harris’ part, especially after Hull racked up 10 goals in a nine-game European exhibition tour the week before.

The game would be a homecoming for both Harris and Gordon, who were Winnipeg natives, but the coach wasn’t admitting to any added motivation from that or from the NHL’s battle against the rabble-rousing WHA. “I don’t think that will provide any extra incentives,” he told Stoneking.

The North Stars caught a break prior to pre-game warmups when Ulf Nilsson was scratched from the Jets’ lineup. It made Pirus’ task marginally easier, and when the puck dropped at Winnipeg Arena, he set to shadowing the Golden Jet. Winnipeg pumped 17 first-period shots at Paul Harrison, but only one of them came from Hull, and a surprised crowd of 7,500 watched as Minnesota refused to wither under their high-powered Jets.

Harrison, who would split Minnesota’s goaltending duties with Pete LoPresti, was brilliant. “He held us in the game,” Harris told Gilbert. Pirus, too, was outstanding, holding Hull to a single shot through three periods and four minutes of overtime to maintain a 1-1 tie.

“I wasn’t awed by him,” Pirus told Stoneking afterward. “I think I got all the awe out of my system last year playing against the Orrs and the Ungers and the Espositos.”

Roland Eriksson, a 23-year-old center from Sweden, completed the improbably happy night for Minnesota by knocking his own rebound past Winnipeg’s Joe Daley for the game-winning OT goal.

Hull credited Minnesota’s stifling checkers for his quiet performance. “Before I drive home tonight, I’m going to peek in the back seat and make sure that kid isn’t in there,” he told Stoneking. “What was his name?”

Pirus continued making a name for himself in the rematch, played three days later in front of 5,005 at Met Center. Winnipeg dashed the North Stars’ budding optimism with a pair of quick goals – one scored by Hull and the other coming from his assist — and carried a 4-1 lead into the third period, but Pirus scored early in the stanza to breathe life back into Minnesota’s attack. Then the North Stars’ first-round draft pick, 20-year-old defenseman Brad Maxwell from the New Westminster Bruins, went on the offensive, cruising behind Winnipeg’s net and stuffing a shot past Markus Mattsson to make the score 4-3. It was Maxwell’s first professional goal.

“I’ve still got the puck, but I don’t remember much about the goal,” recalled Maxwell some 35 years later. “Sounds like a good one though.”

Despite the boost from Maxwell, the North Stars couldn’t manage an equalizer and Winnipeg skated off with a 4-3 win to split the series. Within a few weeks, the Jets were flying even higher, winning 11 of their first 13 regular season games. Hull would go on to enjoy a renaissance campaign at 38 years old, registering 46 goals and 71 assists. When it was over, Winnipeg hoisted the Avco Cup for a second time.

Things weren’t nearly as bucolic to the south. Minnesota sputtered from the gate, losing its first six games, and Harris was fired during a three-game homestand in late November. The team responded with a win and a tie under Andre Beaulieu, but then stumbled again with losses in six of its next seven. From late December through late January, Minnesota failed to win a single game and was outscored 40-20 over the 10-game span. Average attendance plummeted below 9,000 and financial woes mounted. Beaulieu was eventually sacked too, as was Gordon, who was dismissed in February and replaced by Lou Nanne, then the team’s 36-year-old sometimes defenseman, sometimes coach. It was a chaotic environment in which the team’s young standouts earned a baptism by fire.

“It was disruptive,” said Maxwell. “After coming from such a successful, stable junior team, where people were hanging from the rafters in our building every night and we had a great coach, to what was not a very good situation in Minnesota — it was disheartening. But I was just glad to be in the NHL and I wanted to prove myself.”

Minnesota finished the season with the league’s worst record, 18-53-9. In June 1978, the organization was on the verge of collapse, so it was combined with the slumping Cleveland Barons franchise under the ownership of Gordon Gund, a move which infused the North Stars with Gilles Meloche, Al MacAdam, and Greg Smith. Then Minnesota turned up three aces in the 1978 Amateur Draft (Bobby Smith, Steve Payne and Curt Giles) and soon the organization was on the rise.

“Putting two teams together to make one was an absolutely great deal for Minnesota – the team and the fans,” said Maxwell. “And then Lou (Nanne) got in there and got some great picks.”

Three seasons later, Minnesota — buoyed by Maxwell, the former Barons and Lou’s picks, among others — looked nothing like the dysfunctional  1977-78 squad, ousting Boston, Buffalo and Calgary en route to its first Stanley Cup Finals appearance, matched against the dynastic New York Islanders.

– Jayson Hron

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