Early Minnesota North Stars

Early Minnesota North Stars

A Journey into Hockey

It's now the site of the mammoth Mall of America - we are told an IKEA to be precise.

But this place in Bloomington, Minnesota used to be the site of the Metropolitan Sports Center - home of the Minnesota North Stars.

The North Stars joined the NHL in 1967 along with Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, California Seals (who switched their geographic designation from California to Oakland early in the season), and St. Louis Blues in the West Division.

Had their owner not removed them to Dallas, the team would have been celebrating its 50th season in Minnesota this year.

We will not forget them.

The North Stars original roster included Cesare Maniago, the lanky goaltender who was the first player taken by the North Stars in the expansion draft; Billy Collins, a reliable penalty killer and defensive forward; Ray Cullen, an agile center and accurate shooter; Wayne Connelly, a winger with a wicked slap shot; Mike McMahon, an offensive-minded defenseman with a wry sense of humor; Dave Balon, a talented left winger from Saskatchewan; fan favorite Elmer “Moose” Vasko, who was lured back onto the ice after spending a year in retirement following 10 years with the Chicago Black Hawks; Bill “Bat” Masterton, an former All-American at the University of Denver who had been a member of the U. S. National team the preceding season; Parker MacDonald, the oldest member of the team, who had turned in a number of fine seasons with the Detroit Red Wings; and Bill Goldsworthy, an aggressive forward who had been signed to his first contract, with the Boston Bruins, by Harold Cotton, who by this time was the North Stars’ Director of Field Operations.

Several of these players were selected because of their prior connection locally —Collins, McMahon, Maniago, and Masterton were familiar to local fans as they had played for a Minnesota minor-league team in the preceding years. In addition, another member of the team was John Mariucci, the legend from Eveleth who had left his job as coach of the Minnesota Gophers to serve the North Stars, first as Director of U. S. Player Development and then as Assistant to the General Manager.

Serving in the dual role of general manager and coach of the original North Stars was Wren Blair, also noted for his signing five years earlier of a 14-year-old out of Parry Sound, Ontario, Bobby Orr, to a contract with the Boston Bruins.

An early accomplishment for the North Stars was a win against an established team. Only a month into the history of the team, before a standing-room only crowd of 15,128 the North Stars topped the Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs, 2-1.

In those early years, Bill Masterton’s name became a name never to be forgotten for a pair of reasons—one celebrated, the other tragic. It was Masterton who scored the first goal in the regular-season history of the North Stars, on October 11, 1967 at St. Louis in a 2-2 tie with the Blues. Three months later, at the Met Sports Center, Masterton collided with a defender in a game against the Seals. He never regained consciousness and died barely 27 hours later, the first on-ice fatality in the history of the National Hockey League. It took place at a time when most players skated without helmets and many goalies operated without masks. Andre Boudrias was the only member of the North Stars to wear a helmet before the incident, although the death of Masterton accelerated the proliferation of helmets with Masterton’s former linemate, Dave Balon, one of the first to don headgear as a result.

Masterton’s number 19 would be retired and the team would initiate the Bill Masterton Memorial Cup, to be presented to the team’s Most Valuable Player. Goalie Cesare Maniago, who produced six shutouts during the 1967-68 season, was the first recipient of the Masterton Cup. Another top performer for the Stars was Wayne Connelly, who topped the West Division with 35 goals. Andre Boudrias, whose previous NHL experience consisted of seven games with Montreal, led all rookies in the league in scoring.

A league trophy would also be named in his memory.

In that first year ,five teams put on a furious battle for the four playoff spots in the West Division . Only the Seals were out of the running as just six points separated the others at the end of the regular season. The North Stars, with 69 points, finished fourth to capture the final playoff spot by two points over Pittsburgh. The Stars had finished only one point behind third-place St. Louis, three points behind second-place Los Angeles, and four points behind first-place Philadelphia. Along the way, the North Stars beat each of the East Division teams at least once except for the Rangers.

In the West Division playoffs, the Blues knocked off the Flyers in seven games, while the North Stars did the same to the high-scoring Los Angeles Kings, taking the deciding game by a score of 9-4. The Stars and Blues then battled for the West Division championship and a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals. Scheduling conflicts at the Sports Center left the North Stars with only two games on home ice in the series. Despite the handicap, Minnesota split the first six games of the series, bringing it down to a decisive seventh game in St. Louis on Friday night, May 3. The game was scoreless into the closing minutes of regulation time. Finally, the North Stars broke through with a goal as Ray Cullen screened Blues goalie Glenn Hall, allowing Walt McKechnie to score on a 35-foot wrist shot with 3 minutes, 11 seconds left to play. However, St. Louis tied the game 31 seconds later and the game went into sudden-death overtime.

With just over three minutes left in the first overtime period, Wayne Connelly broke free at the red line and went in alone toward Hall until he was pulled down from behind by Jim Roberts. Blues fans gasped as they expected that Connelly would be awarded a penalty shot. However, referee Art Skov didn’t see it that way. Not only did he not grant the penalty shot, Skov incredibly declined to even call a two-minute minor on the Blues. Play continued into the second overtime period when the Blues’ Ron Schock got one past Maniago to give St. Louis a 2-1 win.

It was the start of a terrific rivalry between the North Stars and the Blues who would remain fierce rivals throughout their early years.

More to come.

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Early Minnesota North Stars