Wren Blair, first North Stars coach, dies at 87

 Wren Blair was the amusing GM/coach of the expansion North Stars.

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Coach Wren Blair behind the North Stars bench in 1968.

Photo: Larry Schreiber, Star Tribune

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The North Stars hired Wren Blair as their first coach and general manager partially because he was an entertainer.

And Blair delivered.

"He was a character, he really was," former North Stars defenseman Tom Reid said. "The things he used to do on the bench and in the dressing room were crazy. He couldn't skate very well. He was the type of guy who could scream and holler, and be your best friend two minutes later."

Blair -- who died Wednesday at his home in Whitby, Ontario, at age 87 -- was remembered by his former players for his eccentricities.

"Wren was really flamboyant, he was outgoing, he was gregarious, he was demonstrative," said Lou Nanne, who played for Blair and later became the North Stars coach and general manager, too. "He really enjoyed life, and he was wild. He was very unpredictable, and he loved hockey, and his players, and working with the game."

Blair's first claim to fame was finding and signing Bobby Orr, then a 14-year-old phenom, for a Boston Bruins-sponsored team in 1962. Orr is considered one of the greatest defensemen in hockey history and led the Bruins to two Stanley Cup championships.

Blair was general manager of the Minneapolis Bruins, a Central League team that played for two seasons (1963-65), before his jump to the NHL. Walter Bush, a partner in the Bruins and the first North Stars president, hired Blair as GM/coach to put together the expansion North Stars for the 1967-68 season.

Blair had two tenures as coach and remained as GM until 1974, when he was fired and replaced by his coach, Jack Gordon.

"The Bird" was known as a wild man on bench, often climbing on boards to profanely berate officials and his players. He once described a Stars crowd as bunch of "phlegmatic Swedes."

"I had to do something to get some attention," Blair told the Star Tribune in 1991. "The Twins, the Vikings and the Gophers football team owned the town.

"One night, a reporter asked me about the crowd. I said, 'Ah, they are nothing but a bunch of phlegmatic Swedes, sitting up there on their hands like pieces of stone.' [Jim] Klobuchar wrote a column in the Minneapolis Star, saying he was offended because I had ignored all of the phlegmatic Norwegians, Italians, Germans and Irishmen.

"By Christmas time, that building was full."

The North Stars' first season was marred by the only death in NHL history from an on-ice injury, when forward Bill Masterton fell and struck his head on the ice. The Stars were in a division with the five other expansion teams and came within a goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals by losing, in overtime, in Game 7 to St. Louis in the conference finals.

In 2009, Blair was quoted in the Star Tribune as saying he wanted his players to think he was unpredictable so they would band together.

"It was part of the plan," Blair said. "They responded pretty good. They played hard that year."

His former players remembered him Friday, as usual, with familiar stories.

"In the early '70s, he got locked in the Pittsburgh dressing room and couldn't get out," Reid said. "None of us knew where he was. He never came in for the pregame speech, but the linesman told us to go to the ice or we'd get a delay-of-game penalty.

"[Goalie] Cesare Maniago wasn't playing, so we told him to coach. Wren was banging on the door until a security guy finally heard him. Seven or eight minutes in, we hear noise behind us and Wren is jumping over seats and over the glass to get to the bench."

Said Nanne: "You never knew what he was going to do. One time he was standing up on the boards yelling at the other team during a game. He slipped and he fell spread eagle right on the boards and hurt himself right where he shouldn't have and lost his breath for like five minutes.

"He was very instrumental in selling the product because he was so colorful and so outrageous that people were captivated by his actions."

Following his North Stars days, Blair served as president of the Pittsburgh Penguins from 1975 to '77, then spent six years as player personnel director for the Los Angeles Kings before staying involved in junior and minor league hockey.

Funeral services will be Friday in Whitby.

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