As general manager of the North Stars, Lou Nanne returned from scouting junior sensation Bobby Smith with a clear mission.

"I said, 'We're picking first,' " Nanne recalled with a smile. "I did a lot of experimenting the rest of the year."

Wink, wink.

In other words, if the North Stars were going to be bad — which they were in 1978 — they might as well be horse manure bad to ensure the best possible draft pick.

Smith was the consensus crown jewel of the draft, and Sweet Lou wanted him in the worst way.

A tall, skilled center, Smith set an Ontario Hockey League record with 192 points, winning the scoring title over a 16-year-old phenom named Wayne Gretzky.

A 192 points in 61 games?

"That was back before goalie coaches," Smith joked. "Who, by the way, have ruined the game."

Nanne's North Stars did their part by finishing with the league's worst record that season, Smith became the No. 1 overall pick and an organizational revival commenced.

Smith's stature as one of the best and most popular players ever to wear a North Stars jersey was reflected in the warm embrace he received during Saturday's alumni game against the Blackhawks at TCF Bank Stadium.

Smith received one of the loudest ovations from the crowd of 38,000 during introductions.

The old-timer reunion rekindled fond memories for those who dug their North Stars jerseys out of ­storage. The hated rivals proved that some habits die hard as Ciccarelli and Chicago's Denis Savard got tangled up right after the game started for a faux fight.

The crowd loved it.

Smith gave them another highlight with his empty-net goal in the final minutes of a 6-4 victory.

"That was an absolute blast," Smith said. "The competitive streak got going, especially in the third period."

Smith doesn't skate much anymore but, at 6-foot-4, he still towers on the ice. He still has that long reach that made him difficult to defend, especially with the puck on his stick.

"I thought that he was going to have a good run at the Hall of Fame," Nanne said. "He was just that kind of player."

Smith won the Calder Trophy as a rookie. He led the North Stars to the Stanley Cup Finals his third season. He recorded 114 points the following season.

And then he was gone soon after that. In a move fitting the Minnesota sports scene circa 2000s, Smith forced his way out of town a year and a half later.

A coaching change brought Bill Mahoney's defensive system, and Smith fell out of favor. He was demoted to the fourth line and saw his ice time cut.

Nanne tried to wait things out. Smith requested a trade again that October, threatening to quit and enroll in college if he didn't get his wish.

Nanne asked him to wait until December to see if things changed.

"He said the only thing that's going to change between now and December is I'm going to come in with galoshes on and say I want to be traded," Nanne said.

Nanne finally traded Smith to Montreal. Fans and media were furious with Nanne and Mahoney.

"I think a lot of times players need a change in their career," Smith said this weekend. "I went into a different atmosphere where I was just one of the players instead of kind of being a headline guy. I enjoyed that, too."

Smith won a Stanley Cup championship in seven mostly productive seasons in Montreal before returning to Minnesota in 1990. He says he always knew he would finish his career here.

"I really thought this was going to be home forever," he said.

He led the North Stars to the Stanley Cup Finals once more before retiring. He enrolled at the University of Minnesota at age 35 with three young kids. He earned a business degree and his MBA from the Carlson School of Management.

Smith served as general manager of the Phoenix Coyotes for five seasons before buying the Halifax Moose-heads junior team 13 years ago.

Smith couldn't remember the last time he played in an organized hockey game before Saturday. His 58-year-old body will probably feel it for a few days, but the payoff is worth it.

He got to reconnect with old teammates and scored a goal against the hated rival, albeit an empty netter. Smith did his trademark celebration, raising both arms above his head.

"Couldn't beat the goalie," he said, smiling. "When he goes to the bench, I'll shoot the puck."

Chip Scoggins •