For Neal Broten, it was just another chapter of a charmed hockey life.
In the spring of 1979, Broten, a freshman from Roseau, had scored the winning goal — a diving, highlight-reel affair — that gave the Gophers a 4-3 victory over North Dakota in the NCAA championship game in Detroit.
A year later, he was on the Team USA squad that won gold at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Returning to school, Broten led the Gophers to the 1981 title game. They lost to Wisconsin in the championship, but Broten won the inaugural Hobey Baker Award.
Two days after the loss to Wisconsin on March 28, North Stars General Manager Lou Nanne signed Broten to an NHL contract. The next day, on March 31, Broten took the ice for his first pro game, against St. Louis, at Met Center.
“We felt he was ready,” said Nanne, who traded a player to Edmonton for a second-round pick in the 1979 draft, which he used to take Broten, securing his rights. “We were going to sign him and put him right into the lineup.”
It came with three games left in the regular season.
A good move. In that first game, a 6-3 victory over the Blues, with the Stars leading 5-0, Broten scored his first NHL goal. He scored again — again against St. Louis — in his second game.
That was just an appetizer. The North Stars qualified for the playoffs, then marched through them. They swept Boston in the first round, then beat Buffalo four games to one, then Calgary 4-2 to reach the finals, where they fell to the Islanders in five in the Stanley Cup Final. Broten played in all 19 games, totaling nine points.
Broten returned the next season and had 38 goals and 60 assists for 98 points, the start of a five-season stretch in which he averaged 85 points per season. He won a Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 1995, scoring the game-winning goal in Game 4 in a sweep of Detroit, becoming the first American to score a cup-clinching goal. He finished his 17-year NHL career with 923 points in 1,099 games.
“I thought he’d be good, but I never thought he’d be that good,” Nanne said recently. “In my estimation he should be a candidate for the Hall of Fame. But they haven’t put him in, and I’m somewhat disappointed in that.”
Relatively small at 5-9, Broten had great balance, Nanne said.
“You rarely saw him knocked off the puck or knocked down,” he said. “And he had elongated time. The game was in slow motion for him. He had great vision, could make plays at the last second.”
And it all started in a whirlwind in March 1981 when, in a few days, Broten went from a Gopher to a North Star.