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Patrick Reusse

Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968.

St. Paul and Winnipeg have done this before, a mere 45 years ago

The representatives of Winnipeg and Minnesota have been in the NHL simultaneously for 21 seasons: the original Jets and the North Stars from the fall of 1979 through the 1992-93 season, and the second version of the Jets and the Wild from the fall of 2011 to the current first-round series that resumes with Game 5 in Winnipeg on Friday night.

The Jets were among four WHA teams absorbed into the NHL in the fall of 1979. For two seasons, the Jets and the North Stars were in different conferences, they were together in the Norris Division of the Campbell Conference in 1981-82, and then Winnipeg was moved to the Smythe Division.

The Smythe was also home to the Edmonton Oilers – Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, etc. – and some strong Winnipeg teams ran into early elimination.

The original Jets reached the playoffs 10 times and the North Stars 11 times in the 14 years that they were together in the NHL. There were only seven years when both the Jets and the North Stars reached the playoffs.

The best chance for a playoff series would have been in 1982, when the North Stars finished first and the Jets finished second in the Norris, but both were upset in the first round:

The “so close we can taste it’’ Stars by Chicago, and the Jets by St. Louis.

Minnesota lost the North Stars to Dallas after the 1992-93 season and returned with the expansion Wild in the fall of 2000. Winnipeg lost the Jets to Phoenix after the 1995-96 season and returned with the transplanted Atlanta Thrashers in the fall of 2011.

Winnipeg replaced the Thrashers in the Eastern Conference for two years, and this is the fifth season that the new Jets and the Wild have been in the Central Division – greatly increasing the odds the two cities finally were going to wind up engaged in an NHL playoff series.

The Jets had a tough time making such a date, reaching the playoffs only in 2015, and getting swept in four games by Anaheim. The Wild went to the second round that season.

Then came 2017-18: Winnipeg went from missing the playoffs with 87 points to 114 and second in the contentious Central. The Wild were third with 101 points.

And finally, these two division opponents with a geographical proximity of 467 miles had a playoff series to spark a real rivalry. Heck, two winter outposts within such range of one another that a highlight of the St. Paul Winter Carnival for a couple of decades was the finish of a Winnipeg-to-St. Paul 500-mile snowmobile race.

Winnipeg vs. Minnesota. There’s a first time for everything.

Except it isn’t. We’ve done this before, and in St. Paul’s case, on the same piece of property.

The World Hockey Association started in 1972, with 12 teams, including the Winnipeg Jets playing in an old arena that held 9,500, and the Minnesota Fighting Saints, targeted to play in the new St. Paul Civic Center that still was under construction.

The Jets’ nickname was carried over by a Winnipeg junior team of the same name, although it fit more perfectly when the franchise was able to sign Bobby Hull -- the Golden Jet – away from the Chicago Blackhawks as a player-coach.

Hull had 51 goals in 63 games played and the Jets finished first in the West. The Fighting Saints and the Alberta Oilers wound up with identical records of 38-37-3 and tied for fourth place and the last playoff spot.

WHA officials found a bylaw that teams tying would have a playoff game, so the teams met in Calgary on April 4 to decide which of them would get Winnipeg in the quarterfinals. Mike Antonovich broke a tie for the game-winner in a Saints’ 4-2 victory.

Two nights later, the Fighting Saints were in Winnipeg, and they lost 3-1 in the series opener. Antonovich had a tying goal early in the third period, but then Hull scored his second of the game against goalie Jack McCartan and a crowd of 7,354 left happy.

In Game 2, Winnipeg scored the last three goals, including Hull’s empty-netter, for a 5-2 victory.

The Saints had moved from the old St. Paul Auditorium next door to the Civic Center in January, and there was speculation that a playoff game vs. Hull would attract a large crowd.

This was a season in which the NHL sent only eight of its 16 teams to the playoffs, and the North Stars had made it, and were playing Philadelphia in the first round. The Flyers were a year away from winning a Stanley Cup, but they already were the Broad Street Bullies and a strong attraction for fans who liked “old-time hockey.’’

The North Stars lost in six games, while hosting Games 3, 4 and 6 on April 7, 8 and 12. The Fighting Saints hosted the Jets for Games 3 and 4 on April 10 and 11.

That competition for ticket buyers and the two losses in Winnipeg took the pizzazz out of the Jets/Hull attraction. The Saints got a 6-4 win in Game 3, when Jim Johnson and Len Lilyholm scored in the third period to break a tie, but the crowd was only 5,151.

The next night, the crowd was better (6,982) but the result was not for the Saints.

The Jets’ Norm Beaudin scored on a power play in overtime for a 3-2 victory. The penalty was called against defenseman John Arbour by Bill Friday, the legendary referee hired by the WHA.

Arbour received four of the five total penalties called on the Saints, and he was fuming. “Friday’s had it in for me all year and I don’t know why,’’ Arbour said. “He called five on me in the playoff game we had in Alberta.’’

Four nights later, the Jets ended the series in five games in an 8-5 track meet in Winnipeg. Antonovich scored seven seconds into the second period to give the Saints a 3-2 lead, and then the Jets took over, with Beaudin finishing with three goals and four assists.

“Winnipeg was just a better club,’’ Fighting Saints coach Harry Neale said. “Whether it was 8-5 or 2-1, they just had a better club in this series. But we’ll be back and win a series in this building some day.’’

The Fighting Saints lasted two more full seasons, folded during the course of the next two seasons, and never again met the Jets in the playoffs. Winnipeg lost in the 1973 finals to the New England Whalers, but would win three (1976, 1978, 1979) of the seven WHA championships.

The old Winnipeg Arena is long gone, and the Civic Center was replaced on that St. Paul corner by the Xcel Energy Center, but Harry Neale’s vow can be paraphrased 45 years later:

Some day, a St. Paul team will win a playoff series in Winnipeg, although for it to happen in 2018, it will take three straights wins for Wild … starting Friday night.

Reusse: Losing Parise to injury was too much for Wild fans to take

The Wild’s postgame radio show was winding down on the drive home from downtown St. Paul on Tuesday night. I heard a handful of call-ins and two of those were complaints about the lack of exuberance from the crowd for this Game 4 of a first-round playoff series vs. Winnipeg.

The announced crowd was 19,277 at Xcel Energy Center, a number that is 106 percent of what’s now the seating capacity.

There were probably 1,500 Jets followers that made their way into the arena. Other than those folks, there were the usual 95 percent of home team fans wearing Wild jerseys of one color or the other.

That had to be the beer talking when a couple of young men felt the urge to call the great Pat Micheletti to express disappointment with the support from a Wild crowd.

We’ve never seen anything like this when it comes to the backing for a local franchise. The Vikings don’t count – that’s eight home games in the regular season, compared to 41 for a hockey team playing much of its schedule in the middle of winter.

All the nostalgia for the North Stars … that team was never supported remotely as well as the Wild has been, from its inception in the fall of 2000.

There were long streaks of sellouts, and when tickets finally started to become plentiful, owner Craig Liepold pulled the greatest marketing coup in the six decades this has been a major league sports market:

On July 4, 2012, he signed the top two free agents on the NHL market – Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. There was so much gratitude for this among the hockey public that even another NHL lockout could not deter the enthusiasm.

There were a couple of games that weren’t official sellouts once the reduced schedule started in mid-January 2013, but soon the building was being oversold with standing room and it has remained that way for five full seasons.

And now Minnesota’s most-loyal crowd wasn’t in enough of a frenzy for this playoff game?

The Wild went into this series as underdogs, and without Suter, their ironman, 28-minute a game defenseman due to a serious leg injury. And then around 3 p.m. on Tuesday, the shocking news broke that the Wild also would be without Parise.

There was a collision at the blue line late in Sunday’s game as Zach was reaching to knock the puck out of the Wild’s defensive zone. Parise did interviews after the game with no indication of injury.

Then pain arrived, Parise was checked, and it was discovered that he has a fracture in his sternum. And that took away a relentless forward on a goal-scoring roll for the Wild.

The last goal on the roll that Parise scored was a work of art … gritty art. He was in front of the net, apparently tangled, then did a subtle pushoff like a rebounding forward to create a foot of room, and Mikko Koivu hit Parise with a brilliant pass for a deflected goal.

That gave the Wild a 2-1 lead in what became a 6-2 victory and put the series at 2-1 for Winnipeg.

So, there was real hope, and then came the news as the loyal 106 percent showed up to overflow the arena: No Parise, not on this night, not on Friday as the Wild face elimination (after Tuesday’s 2-0 loss), and not for any hockey that miraculously would follow this spring.

As I heard the second caller complaining about the lack of steam in the crowd, my answer would have been, “No Suter, followed by no Parise … the old dabbers were down for Wild zealots. And the Wild is going to need to provide some inspiration to change that.’’

And I was pleased to hear Micheletti, the co-host, offer the same message as a response.

Every other collection of fans in the Twin Cities consists of front runners. The Wild fans are not front runners. They have a love for this hockey team that is almost familial.

And when the team suffers losses like this, Suter, then Parise … well, you can’t expect the ticket-buying friends of the Wild to cheer mightily through their tears.