Lou Nanne was in his ninth season as a regular defenseman for the Minnesota North Stars on Jan. 22, 1977. The opponents for this game at Met Center were the Buffalo Sabres and the crowd would be announced at 11,095.
The North Stars were on a power play midway through the first period. Tim Young and Ernie Hicke set up Nanne for a shot from the point and he sent the puck past Sabres goalie Al Smith at 9:05.
It was the first goal of a game that the North Stars would win 4-3, and it was also historic, although no one in the building knew so at the time. It was Nanne’s second goal of the season, the 68th of his career and last he would register as an NHL player.
Louie had been brought to Minnesota from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario by John Mariucci to play hockey for the Gophers, and if there is a rightful heir to Maroosh as the Godfather of Minnesota hockey, it is Nanne.
Louie grew up as an ardent Red Wings’ fan in the Sault, and on Friday, he was in Detroit’s new $800 million arena for a game vs. the New York Rangers.
“We got a tour of the place before the game,’’ Nanne said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s the greatest hockey building of all-time.’’
The building was not the main attraction for the Nanne delegation. Louie was there with his high school sweetheart from the Sault and wife, Francine, and their daughter Michelle Lettieri and her husband Tino, granddaughter Bianca Lettieri, and Tino's brother from Montreal.
It will come as no surprise that the Red Wings had arranged for the Nanne group to enjoy very good seats for the occasion, which would be the NHL debut for Vinni Lettieri – grandson, son, brother, nephew – for the Rangers.
“They asked which end of the rink we wanted the seats, where the Rangers would be shooting twice or playing defense twice,’’ Nanne said. “It didn’t take long to answer, ‘Where they will be shooting twice.’ ‘’
Nanne said: “We were so excited and proud that Vinni would be playing his first NHL game … none of us could even think about him scoring a goal. That would be too much to ask for.’’
Lettieri played at Minnetonka High School and a full season with Lincoln in the USHL where he scored 28 goals. He became a third generation Gopher in 2013-14, following his grandfather and his uncle Marty Nanne.
It took some time for Vinni to impress coach Don Lucia. He was on the fourth line with minimal special teams duty as a freshman, and finished with two goals and eight points. The next year he had nine goals and 12 points.
Lettieri moved up the line chart as a junior and had seven goals and 26 points, and then as a senior in 2016-17, he became a go-to forward; 19 goals, 18 assists, and had two teams pushing hard to sign him as an undrafted free agent – the Blackhawks and the Rangers – at season’s end.
“It looked like he was going to sign with Chicago, and then Glen Sather called me and said, ‘We want to get in on this,’ ‘’ Nanne said.
Sather is the president of the Rangers and one of Louie’s many best friends in the NHL. There was a lengthy negotiating session right after the Gophers’ 3-2 loss to Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Lettieri and his advisers decided on the Rangers. He had a strong training camp and was sent to the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL. What the Rangers liked about Vinni was his shot, and the also the fact it was his instinct to shoot.
“I’ve always said to him, ‘I’ve never heard a hockey coach say we had too many shots tonight; I’ve heard a lot of them say we didn’t shoot enough,’ ‘’ Nanne said.
A blood clot in Chris Kreider’s arm had knocked him out of the lineup and created an opening on the Rangers forward lines. Lettieri had 12 goals in 31 games at Hartford, and the Rangers were looking for a player to get more pucks on the net.
The Nanne family found out he was being called up for Friday’s game and headed to Detroit. Hibbing boy Joe Micheletti is the Rangers’ TV analyst, and he made sure the cameras knew where the Nannes were sitting.
There was an interview on the MSG network that ran before the game and Vinni was asked his reaction when passed over in the draft as an 18-year-old:
“I was peeved,’’ he said, although peeved wasn’t the actual word offered.
Lettieri was playing on the fourth line. He was on the ice early in the third period. He flipped a puck off the boards, Boo Nieves controlled it for the Rangers, and headed into the offensive zone.
“We had perfect seats to see the play,’’ Nanne said.
What they saw was Vinni – grandson, son, brother, nephew – trailing the play, and getting a pass near the right circle, and doing what he does, which is get rid of the puck quick, and it was past Detroit’s Jimmy Howard for a 2-1 Rangers lead.
Later, Lettieri was on the ice for Detroit’s tying goal, before the Rangers won 3-2 in a shootout.
The TV cameras zeroed in on the Nannes when Vinni scored, and there was a vide of an emotional Louie and Tino, both fighting tears, that caused a sensation on Twitter.
On Saturday, Louie and Francine headed home. Tino, Michelle and Bianca will be in New York on Monday when the Rangers play the Sabres in the NHL Winter Classic at the Mets' Citi Field.
“When was your last NHL goal?’’ I asked Louie in a phone call as he was getting off a plane in the Twin Cities on Saturday.
“I don’t know,’’ he said. “I can’t remember.’’
I found something called “Hockey Summary Project.’’ I went through summaries for North Stars games in reverse order until finding Louie’s second goal of the season on 1-22-1977.
I called back an hour later and said: “It was 14,951 days, or 40 years, 11 months and 7 days.’’
“What’s that?’’ Louie asked.
The amount of time between Nanne family goals in the NHL, of course.
“I’ve been in hockey over 50 years,’’ Louie said. “A lot of great moments. Nothing tops this.’’