ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The thrill of watching the NHL playoffs has never dimmed for Al Shaver, even though nearly 20 years have passed since he last called a Minnesota North Stars game on the radio. This spring, as he followed the first round on TV from his home in British Columbia, one series summoned memories of an unlikely playoff journey that happened two decades earlier.
Bitter postseason rivals Vancouver and Chicago clashed for the third consecutive season, with the Canucks avenging their second-round losses to the Blackhawks in the previous two years. That reminded Shaver of the hate-hate relationship the North Stars had with Chicago long ago in the Norris Division. In 1991, the Stars barely squeaked into the playoffs, then shocked the NHL by upsetting the top-seeded Blackhawks -- and they kept rolling until Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, when they lost to Pittsburgh and Mario Lemieux.
That ended one of the strangest and most exhilarating seasons of the North Stars' colorful history. It began with four games in the Soviet Union, where the team worried about radiation poisoning from Chernobyl and dabbled in the black market. Fewer than 6,000 fans showed up for the home opener, prompting owner Norm Green to give money away at games. Bob Gainey was a rookie coach, and Mike Modano was just 20 years old.
Six months later, Shaver was narrating a stunning run through the playoffs from a raucous, jam-packed Met Center, capping the last glorious season the North Stars would have before they moved to Dallas in 1993 and their arena turned to dust.
"When the North Stars beat the Blackhawks that year, it was just like a quick trip to heaven," said Shaver, 83, the only play-by-play announcer the Stars had during their 26 seasons in Minnesota. "It still gives me a lot of pleasure when I turn on 'Hockey Night in Canada' and see a couple of shots of North Stars players in the opening sequence. That was really a fun year."
Modano, now mulling the end of a 21-year career, still marvels at how fortunate he was to be part of that memorable run in his second NHL season. After butting heads with Gainey early in the year, he blossomed at wing with linemates Dave Gagner and Brian Propp, part of a close-knit group he still holds dear.
"There's not a moment when you talk about hockey that I don't think of those guys," Modano said. "They had a big impact on me at such an early age.
"To be in the Finals when I was so young, I was blown away by it. At the time, I didn't really know or understand the effect we could have on a community and a city. But the fans were just itching for something positive to happen to this team, and I got a taste of how big a hockey town it was."
From the bleakest beginning
Green would become one of the most vilified sports owners in Minnesota history when he moved the North Stars two years later, giving rise to the omnipresent chant of "Norm Sucks." In the summer of 1990, he had just bought a controlling interest in the team -- and two weeks into his first season, he already was denying rumors that the Stars would leave.
Four consecutive losing seasons had made Met Center the emptiest arena in the NHL, with an average attendance of 5,660 for the first three home games. The Stars won just six of their first 27 and were 12-28-8 on Jan. 15, as the players struggled to adjust to Gainey's methods and philosophies. But the strong web of friendships in the locker room prevented the team from giving up or falling apart. By February, things had begun to turn.
"That was a great group of guys, as close-knit as any team I've ever been on," said Jim Johnson, a New Hope native and former Minnesota Duluth defenseman who was traded from Pittsburgh to the Stars in December. "We even had a dinner club, where the guys would go out to dinner together with our wives. When you have that close of a group, you can do great things."
Gainey, now fully familiar with his players' capabilities, reconfigured his lines to maximize the Stars' scoring punch. The defense gained consistency and confidence in support of goalie Jon Casey, and the rising power play helped the team go 12-1-2 in its final 15 home games.
Gainey had won five Stanley Cups during his playing days in Montreal, and he had a core of players -- including Bobby Smith, Propp, Brian Bellows and Neal Broten -- whose competitive zeal sharpened during the playoffs. That led the coach to believe that the North Stars, who finished the regular season with a 27-39-14 record, could pull off an upset against a Chicago team that led the NHL with 106 points.
Assistant coach Andy Murray, with input from the players, analyzed the Blackhawks in minute detail and assembled a 40-page manual to prepare them for the first round. The core strategy was to goad the short-tempered Hawks into penalties, allowing the Stars to utilize that surging power play. They won the first game at Chicago Stadium -- starting a trend in which they won the opener on the road in every series of the playoff run -- and finished off the Blackhawks in Game 6 at Met Center, to the surprise and delight of a suddenly energized fan base.
"To see that enthusiasm at Met Center and in the community was great fuel for our team," said Gainey, who now serves as a consultant for the Canadiens. "And it was great medicine for that group after the long and dreary days early in the year. It was a reminder that in sports, you're never over until you're over."
The Stars would keep proving that. They went on to defeat St. Louis, which had the NHL's second-best record, in six games. Next came Edmonton, the defending Stanley Cup champion, in the Campbell Conference finals; the Stars took that series in five games, earning a shot at the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1981.
That sent the Twin Cities into a full-fledged frenzy. The IDS Center in downtown Minneapolis displayed a North Stars logo. Thousands of fans came to see the Stanley Cup and other NHL trophies at the Hotel Sofitel, and U.S. Senators Dave Durenberger and Paul Wellstone made friendly wagers with their Pennsylvania counterparts.
The biggest parties took place at Met Center, where acres of once-empty asphalt now hosted epic tailgaters. "You'd come in on the Cedar Avenue end of the building, and there was a wild scene in the parking lot," Shaver recalled. "Fans were just going bananas out there. Everybody was cooking steaks and swigging beer and drinking wine and anything else that was drinkable. By the time they got into the building, they were really fired up."
Fast start in Finals
As they had in their previous three series, the Stars split the first two games on the road, winning the first in Pittsburgh and losing the second. With Lemieux sidelined because of back spasms, they won Game 3 at Met Center to snatch a 2-1 series lead. But the ride came to a hard end as the Stars' defense fizzled, Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso shined and Lemieux led his team to three consecutive victories, ending with an 8-0 thumping of the Stars in Game 6 at Met Center that gave Pittsburgh its first Stanley Cup.
"We needed Lemieux's back to go out again," said Bellows, who led the North Stars with 29 points in 23 playoff games. "It was disappointing not to finish it off, but we made a good run. We didn't have a Lemieux or a (Wayne) Gretzky. We were a bunch of guys who had to work hard to succeed, who got along really well and pulled together to get on a roll."
Bellows, an institutional equity trader who lives in the Twin Cities, remains in touch with a handful of teammates. Gainey said he learned things that season that continued to serve him well in his coaching career, things he shares even now with the coaching staffs in Montreal and its minor league affiliate.
Today, an Ikea store stands on the Met Center site, and the North Stars survive only in fond memories. The Stanley Cup has yet to have a Minnesota team etched upon it, but the men who nearly did it 20 years ago haven't given up hope.
"I can't wait for the Wild to have a great playoff run," said Johnson, who still spends summers in Minnesota. "After being born and raised there, to see that playoff atmosphere with the North Stars was a thrill. In 13 seasons in the National Hockey League, that was the most fun I ever had."