Since the Puck Drop newsletter isn’t a daily publication this time of year, we often have to use the neighborhood rule when it comes to Minnesota hockey history and not adhere to a strict “on this date’’ label. This is one of these times.
Twenty-eight years ago Wednesday, the North Stars met the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. It was Minnesota’s second trip to the final – the Stars lost to the New York Islanders’ dynasty in five games in 1981 – and this one was more of a surprise.
The Stars went 27-39-14 in the regular season, good for 68 points and a matchup against the Presidents Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks in the Norris Division semifinals. After upsetting the Blackhawks in six games, coach Bob Gainey’s squad beat St. Louis 4-2 and defending Cup champion Edmonton 4-1, setting up the matchup with Mario Lemieux, “Badger’’ Bob Johnson and the Penguins.
I found myself behind enemy lines in the spring of ’91, having taken a job in State College, Pa., that February. The excitement around the Penguins was strong in Central Pennsylvania, especially since it was Pittsburgh’s first finals appearance. Though there were a lot of Flyers fans in the area to balance things, the Penguins became a huge story in an area ruled almost exclusively by Penn State football.
My interest was back in Minnesota, where the Stars were taking the Twin Cities by storm, serving as an appetizer to what would transpire that October with a baseball team that called Metrodome home. This being the days before the internet, word of mouth and day-old newspapers were the best ways to get updates from afar.
The Star Tribune’s Stanley Cup preview got to Pennsylvania by mail a day after Game 1, but that May 15 sports section was a must-read for hockey fans, with three-fourths of the cover and four pages inside devoted. Looking back at microfilm from the time, some highlights included:
* NHL President John Ziegler, on the North Stars’ run, not realizing a certain Stefon Diggs catch would follow 26 years later: “Everyone is calling this that Miracle in Minnesota. Underdogs overcoming all odds are part of the great lore in sports, and the North Stars have proved that kind of opportunity exists in our league.’’
* Dean Lombardi, former North Stars assistant GM, on the ’91 team: “They’re playing like a team that gets on a roll in the NCAA basketball tourney.’’
* Lemieux, on playing for the Stanley Cup for the first time: “Players go throughout careers without having a chance to gain this position. It’s something I’ve been wanting for a long time.’’
* Stars GM Bobby Clarke, on comparisons between Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky: “Because of his size, he has a chance to be better than Gretzky, but he’s a long way from accomplishing what Gretzky has.’’
* Stars forward Bobby Smith, on his team’s chemistry: “The biggest test of a hockey team is a playoff series, and we beat three of the best teams in the league. We’re a more confident team.’’
* ABC broadcaster Al Michaels, he of the “Do you believe in miracles?’’ fame: “I love when things like this happen. The Twins did the same thing in ’87.’’
* Barb Ehlen, manager of Champps sports bar in Richfield, when asked if there was North Stars mania? “We got it here, honey. Every time there’s a game, we get packed to capacity. They come from all over.’’
Of course, not everyone was on the bandwagon. A high-ranking St. Paul city official, who asked not to be identified, offered this: “Hockey is a dumb sport. I hate hockey.’’
Hmm, wonder if he’s had his attitude about hockey adjusted, with fans of the sport routinely packing Xcel Energy Center.
The Stars’ run ended in six games as the Penguins won the first of two consecutive Cups. But what a ride it was, even if the ending left something to be desired.