Long after the North Stars moved to Dallas, after the Met Center was blown up and paved over, Gregg Otten hung onto his rubber chicken. Saturday, for old times’ sake, the Maple Grove man brought it out of retirement.
Otten, 63, dangled the chicken — hanging by a noose on a North Stars hockey stick, plastered with a Blackhawks logo and the inscription “Secord Still Sucks” — over a railing outside TCF Bank Stadium. The villainous Al Secord was not among the former Blackhawks playing in Saturday’s Stadium Series alumni game, but it didn’t matter. Otten and his wife, Patty, and friend Jim Burns still waved it proudly as their old North Stars favorites disembarked from a bus, marveling at the masses who gathered to welcome them back.
“I’ve been waiting for this day forever,” said Otten, who for years tormented Secord with the chicken from his seats eight rows off the Met Center ice. “The North Stars never should have left.”
That sentiment blanketed the stadium as a team of Stars and Wild alumni beat Chicago’s retirees 6-4 before a crowd announced at 37,922. The prelude to Sunday’s Stadium Series game between the Wild and Blackhawks generated mostly warm feelings, despite the historic acrimony that defined the Stars-Hawks rivalry for decades.
Dino Ciccarelli and Denis Savard gave a nod to those fight-filled years only 43 seconds in, when Savard dropped his gloves and went after Ciccarelli. Instead of punching him, though, Savard wrapped his old nemesis in a bear hug as his Chicago teammates laughed, setting the tone for an afternoon of grudge-free nostalgia.
“This was a beautiful experience,” said former North Stars winger Brian Bellows, who scored Minnesota’s second goal. “I got to see a lot of guys I hadn’t seen in a long, long time, and I got to know some of the Wild guys better.
“The crowd was great. And to play Chicago, that just added to it. It was a fantastic day, and I think everyone left with good feelings.”
Minnesota co-coach Tom Reid predicted no lingering bad blood would be shed. Any residual anger from 26 seasons of North Stars-Blackhawks battles seemed to have gone the way of many players’ hair: if it hadn’t vanished altogether, it had at least faded. Besides, Reid said, he expected his team would be so exhausted it wouldn’t have enough energy to fight.
That didn’t mean the game would be a skatearound. Both franchises have active alumni associations that play several games each year to raise money for charity, and both anticipated their competitive instincts would come flooding back once the puck dropped.
Former defenseman Brad Maxwell, head of the North Stars alumni association, said there were enough artificial joints on his roster to shut down an airport metal detector. With several players in their 50s and 60s, he suggested most of the line-matching would be decided by age, while Reid didn’t think most shifts would last more than about 20 seconds. “It will be nice to have the paramedics standing by, behind the bench,” he joked.
But the stiffness the players showed getting over the boards at Friday’s final practice quickly disappeared, melted by the thrill of playing before thousands of appreciative fans. Some spectators said they were looking forward to the alumni game as much, or more, than Sunday’s actual NHL contest. Many of them showed up hours before the game, lining up to buy $185 North Stars jerseys and $35 vintage T-shirts and hosting tailgaters decorated with team memorabilia.
Hundreds more already were wearing their North Stars gear, sporting caps, toques, jackets and sweaters that were purchased decades ago — or just recently. The North Stars haven’t lost any of their appeal since their move to Dallas in 1993, and fans too young to have cheered at Met Center jumped aboard the wayback machine.
“They lost the [1991 Stanley] Cup the year I was born,” said Derek Schrecengost, who drove from Cloquet with three twenty-something friends to attend the game. “They have so much history. Everyone in Minnesota loves history.”
Saturday, the guys in green and gold and their Chicago counterparts seemed frozen in time. Maxwell said the Minnesotans wanted to win nearly as much as they did when the games counted, emphasizing they weren’t just there “to wave at the crowd.” They got that out of the way early — shaking hands and snapping photos with fans stacked four deep to greet their bus — and then got down to business.
Dennis Maruk and Bellows scored in the first period, which ended with the score tied 2-2. Wild assistant coach Andrew Brunette snapped a wrist shot past Chicago goalie Jimmy Waite late in the second, and Wild alumnus Wes Walz added a goal from the right circle early in the third to give Minnesota the lead for good.
After the game, the victors’ locker room was stuffed with family members, lively conversation and laughter. The reunion didn’t end there. Sunday, the authors of so much of Minnesota’s pro hockey history will reassemble at the stadium, to watch the Wild and Blackhawks write a fresh chapter.
“I just had a blast,” said former Stars forward Bobby Smith, who scored in the third period. “In a way, this is extra special, because the [North Stars] don’t exist anymore.
“For a certain era of fan, this was their team. Those were the good old days. And it was a lot of fun to acknowledge that.”