Mike McMahon, a longtime defenseman who was a member of the inaugural Minnesota North Stars team in 1967 and logged more than 500 games in the top professional hockey leagues of his time, has died.
Mike McMahon’s NHL and WHA career spanned from the early 1960s into the mid-1970s. He broke in with the New York Rangers and played with the North Stars during the franchise’s first two seasons, before bouncing around the NHL and then skating three seasons with the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the WHA in the early 1970s.
McMahon died Monday in St. Paul following heart problems. He was 71 years old.
The native of Quebec City who grew up across from Buffalo in Fort Erie, Ont., played 224 games in the NHL and another 279 in the rival WHA. He finished with a combined 44 goals, 169 assists and 420 penalty minutes.
His most productive season was 1967-68 with the North Stars, when he tallied 14 goals and 33 assists in the regular season and another three goals and seven assists in 14 postseason games.
It was a season of tremendous highs marked by comedy but also tragedy for McMahon and his teammates. The team finished a mediocre 27-32-15 but came within a goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. On Jan. 13, teammate Bill Masterton fell on the ice during a game, lost consciousness and died about 30 hours later. He remains the only player in NHL history to die from on-ice injuries.
On Jan. 16, the NHL All-Star Game went on as planned, despite the North Stars’ request to delay it. On Jan. 17, the North Stars’ season resumed in St. Louis, the same day as Masterton’s funeral in the Twin Cities.
“Nobody wanted to play, but they made us play,” McMahon recalled in a later interview.
McMahon was the subject of what was probably the most hilarious moment of that first season after his errant pass perfectly set up an opening-period goal for the Los Angeles Kings. Bombastic Head Coach Wren Blair stormed into the locker room between periods and tried throwing his topcoat at McMahon. Instead, he slipped on orange peels routinely left behind by the players and hit the floor hard.
“He just laid there,” McMahon recalled years later. “Wren says, `Anybody laughs and you’ll be sent so far away, the Hockey News won’t be able to find you.’ ”
McMahon’s sister, Cathy Dennahower, said Friday that her brother “always wanted to be in the play, whatever was going on. ... He was truly focused.”
Dennahower said McMahon was a “hard hitter who always said you’ve got to keep your head up” on the ice.
Head up or not, his sister added, McMahon lost his front teeth in a minor-league game to a firm check from the legendary Don Cherry, now famous for his bombastic television commentary style and technicolor wardrobe.
“He cross-checked me head-first into the boards,” Cherry wrote in “Hockey Stories and Stuff,” published in 2008. “I drilled him and I knocked all his front teeth out.”
Cherry found out the next day that McMahon’s father, a former NHLer, was at the game. “What a bummer,” Cherry wrote.
McMahon’s father, Michael McMahon Sr., also played in the NHL, mostly with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1940s. He won the Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1944. The father and son share space on the hockey Wall of Fame back in the family’s hometown of Fort Erie.
Michael McMahon Jr., who worked for Brown & Bigelow after his playing days, is preceded in death by his sister Joyce McMahon. Along with Dennahower, he is survived by sons Christopher and Jeffrey; daughter Jennifer; and their mother, Kathy. Memorial services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Church of St. Bonaventure, 901 E. 90th St., Bloomington, with visitation one hour before.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482