Over the years, Dan Cote has collected all manner of North Stars hockey memorabilia: signed pucks, posters, jerseys, even a Bill Goldsworthy board game. The New Hope resident remains so attached to his favorite team that a few years ago, when he spotted a barrel in a Minneapolis alley, he slammed on his brakes.
“It was set out with the trash, and it was full of garbage,’’ Cote said. “But it was custom-painted, yellow with green banners and a North Stars logo. It was really shoddy. But I made sure no one was watching me, and I grabbed it and threw it in the back of my car.’’
Thousands of Minnesotans can identify with Cote’s confession. For the past 23 years, since their beloved North Stars were stolen away and transformed into the Dallas Stars, they have continued to carry a green and yellow torch for the state’s original NHL franchise. Even the arrival of the Wild — which is facing Dallas in the playoffs for the first time, in a first-round series that continues Monday — could not make up for the loss of their first love.
Though the North Stars ceased to exist after owner Norm Green hauled them off to Texas, fans have kept the phantom franchise alive in a variety of ways. They turn out for exhibition games featuring the team’s aging former players, who still are treated like rock stars. They visit Cote’s Facebook page, a hub for news and nostalgia liked by 62,525 people.
During Game 3 at Xcel Energy Center, expect to see plenty of North Stars gear — still a big seller — and hear the “Norm Sucks’’ chant, the unofficial motto of North Stars fans since the 1993 move. Though they will be cheering for the Wild in an upscale St. Paul arena, they will be channeling memories of those raucous nights at the Met Center and the team that made them fall in love with the NHL.
“I was 15 ½ when they moved, and I only went to Met Center a handful of times,’’ Cote said. “But I can still smell that stadium. I’ll never forget it.
“Hockey is a different sport now, and there’s a lot of nostalgia for a place that isn’t there, a bygone time. You had great players, great characters, wearing a great uniform. People look back on that era and remember all the good things.’’
Still a big seller
For many North Stars fans, nostalgia begins with a capital N — topped by a star, rendered in vivid green and yellow. The team logo became a Minnesota cultural touchstone, so well-loved that it outlived the franchise.
At the Hockey Lodge in Southdale Center, it adorns T-shirts, jerseys, hoodies, scarves, knit hats and 13 different styles of ball caps. Even those born after the North Stars’ departure are drawn to the logo’s timeless, retro-cool look, sales associate Mitch Marek said. But when he helps customers who wore it back in the day, a sale often comes with a side of storytelling.
“We’ll get people who remember going to the Met Center, and they’ll talk about what that was like,’’ Marek said. “Some of our North Stars stuff is as popular as our Wild stuff.’’
During February’s Stadium Series weekend at TCF Bank Stadium, people lined up 12 deep to buy $185 North Stars jerseys and $35 T-shirts. The gear also is a hot seller at the NHL’s online store, which offers 30 different items. Affinity for the logo has led the Wild to explore a throwback jersey night, in which the team would wear replicas of the North Stars’ jerseys, but reclaiming the logo for Minnesota has not been simple.
The NHL owns and controls all teams’ trademarks. Wild executive John Maher said the league and the Wild have been “very respectful’’ of the fact that the North Stars are ancestors of the Dallas franchise, not the Wild. The first time that the NHL and Dallas allowed the Wild to use the logo was two months ago, when a team of retired North Stars and Wild played the Chicago Blackhawks’ alumni as part of the Stadium Series.
“Our fans are interested in it, and that makes us interested,’’ said Maher, who plans to seek more opportunities for the Wild to incorporate the logo. “The North Stars are definitely a piece of hockey history here that our fans are hoping we can keep alive.’’
As popular as the logo is, there is one thing fans love more: the actual North Stars. Many former players still live in the Twin Cities, providing a living link to the team.
Brad Maxwell, a North Stars defenseman from 1978 through ’85, oversees a group of Minnesota NHL alumni that plays games to raise money for charity. The North Stars’ enduring stardom draws big crowds to those games, and to autograph signings, golf outings and other events. At the Minnesota-Chicago alumni game, hundreds of people sporting vintage gear came early to greet the team’s bus.
Maxwell said he is frequently recognized in public by fans who want to reminisce. “People just seem to know who you are,’’ Maxwell said. “They’ll remember things from 30 years ago. You see how important this is to people still, and it means a lot to us.’’
Though the team has been gone for more than two decades, its long-running appeal seems to transcend generations and geography. At a practice before February’s alumni game, little boys wearing North Stars jerseys stood shyly with their fathers to ask players for autographs. A local store clerk said he recently asked a child wearing North Stars gear what he thought of Norm Green; as his father chuckled, the boy — about 4 years old — replied, ‘‘Norm sucks!’’
“I cheer for the Wild, but I miss the North Stars like crazy,’’ said Darin Jessup, a lifelong North Stars fan who grew up in California in a family with Minnesota roots. “I only wear green and gold. Out here [in Northern California], I’ll run into other people wearing North Stars stuff, and they’re always from Minnesota. It’s just something that brings people together.’’
Nostalgia, grieving and anger
Cote understands that well. He created the North Stars Facebook page seven or eight years ago, to give fans a virtual Met Center where they could share their memories and keep tabs on favorite players.
He posts interviews, where-are-they-now updates, historic photos and notices of birthdays and deaths. The community adds its own stories and recollections, and the page also functions as a marketplace for memorabilia. There are a handful of other websites dedicated to the North Stars — including one that features a recording of Jim Bowers singing the national anthem — and a few books.
Some fans never got past the anger stage of the grieving process, prompting Green to tell a Dallas newspaper last week that he was afraid to come to this week’s playoff games in St. Paul. Cote said he has made his peace with the loss of the North Stars, though he never will forget them. He is saving up to renovate his basement with a North Stars theme — including a table made from that old barrel.
“It’s in the garage now, holding rakes and stuff,’’ he said. “I’m not getting rid of it. To me, it’s all about nostalgia for that team, for that era.’’