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Original Issue

It's in the Stars

Minnesotans catch Star fever as their team leads Pittsburgh in the Cup finals

First, let us flip objectivity over the boards and out of play. Rather, let me. I grew up rooting for the Minnesota North Stars. I grew up despite rooting for the Minnesota North Stars. I have emotional scars like Gump Worsley has facial scars. My memories are like a Zamboni: Big and ugly, they resurface periodically.

I always believed that nothing could reverse all this, but something has. I never believed the phrase "Nothing's impossible," but nothing is. The North Stars, who had 13 wins, 29 losses, 8 ties and 0 fans on Jan. 21, took a 2-1 series lead in the Stanley Cup finals on Sunday by defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 at the Met Center. The Stars are now "smelling the Cup," as a deejay in a Bloomington, Minn., watering hole so ineloquently put it last week. When I was being raised in Bloomington, the only Stars "smelling the cup" were rookies involved in that venerable hazing ritual.

But there it is. The North Stars are indeed smelling the Stanley Cup, and the effect on hockey fans throughout the state has been like that of smelling salts on a long unconscious population. As Dark Star, the overnight call-in radio host on Minneapolis superstation WCCO-AM says, "I've heard a lot of people say that hockey is coming back into their lives."

From how far back did hockey have to come? Before this preposterous spring, the fondest Met Center memory this fan could conjure was of a spring day in 1984. Never in the 16 years that the Stars had been playing at the Met had I seen the place as full or as frenzied. Speckling the stands were 2,000 spectators, most of whom were fast asleep, but a handful politely applauded the action. It was my high school commencement ceremony. A Kennedy High School board member fed me my diploma in the slot, and I went top-shelf with it, where the diploma resides today: top shelf, upstairs in the hall closet of the home I returned to last week.

The diploma is still collecting dust, but the seats and their occupants at Met Center are not. "It really is unbelievable," said Jim Mrozek, 29, of Bloomington, 10 minutes before the puck was dropped to open Game 3. "I came the last time the Penguins played here, in December. There were about 7,200 people. It's so good to see this place full now."

Last week I saw how homeboys in my hometown have cut North Star logos into their scalps and how their less funky fathers have cut North Star logos into their lawns. I learned of schoolchildren in the state who have created posters threatening, in crayon and marker, homicide on the home team should it not win the Cup. And I learned, by extension, of schoolteachers puckish enough to commission such projects.

Speaking of homicide, what to make of that guy in the shades, with the hair down to there and the leather-and-steel spiked manacle on his left wrist? The guy who appeared to be swinging something at Jon Casey as the silent, balding, bespectacled North Star goalie from Grand Rapids made his way through the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport before the start of the final series. The enormous weapon was, it turns out, an ax. Which is what a headbanger calls his electric guitar. Casey, unruffled as always, autographed the instrument for his metalhead admirer.

All of these newly rabid North Star fans are not, in fact, really rabid. That is an important point. Because at least one soldier in the Met's black-sweatered army of ushers survived being bitten by an overzealous member of the faithful during the Campbell Conference finals against the Edmonton Oilers. This happened during a game that was in Edmonton and televised on the Met's scoreboard.

What the H-E-double-hockey-sticks has gotten into the people of Minnesota, a state in which Bud Grant is thought to be animated and Walter Mondale to be charismatic, a state so evenhanded that it produced rock-dwarf Prince to balance its birthing of lumberjack-giant Paul Bunyan, a state whose citizens are ordinarily as plaid-flanneled and Scandinavianly inanimate as its 31-foot statue of Bunyan himself? Can this be the same state that of late has gone berserk? As Minnesotans so often say instead of yes, "You betcha."

Oddly enough, the word berserk, like so many of the Stars' fans, is of Scandinavian descent. The etymology was made abundantly clear on May 15, when nearly 500 people rocked Joe Senser's Grill & Bar in Bloomington to watch, on the joint's 28 TVs, Minnesota beat the Penguins 5-4 in the series opener in Pittsburgh. The celebration could have been even larger. "I think the fans would be even more psyched," said Mike Villafana of Minneapolis, "if any of them had figured out yet who any of these players are."

Indeed, it often seemed that Casey was the only North Star on the screens. "What the hell is Casey smoking?!" someone screamed when Casey left the crease and nearly the 412 area code to pursue a loose puck. Later, the Pens' Mario Lemieux (a skunk on skates named Lepieux, local T-shirts would have you believe) skated in alone and scored on Casey. In the men's room, a rapt but disgusted fan threw up his hands—or one, anyway—as he watched the replay over and over on a TV above the urinal he was using.

For the fourth time in four playoff series, Minnesota had taken a one-game-to-none lead on its opponent. Funny. Grant lost four Super Bowls. Mondale lost the 1984 presidential election by 16 million votes. An eminently mediocre North Star team got annihilated by the New York Islanders 10 years ago in its only other Stanley Cup finals. Ed McMahon's envelopes arrive in these parts labeled "You may already be a loser." Even the Norwest Center in downtown Minneapolis was designed to be a few feet shorter than the city's tallest building, the IDS Center. In a land so inured to such one-downsmanship, the Stars' fourth straight display of one-upmanship seemed especially brash.

If you can't be number 1, be number 2. If you can't be number 2, give up. Those words, inscribed above the bar at the Shanty Town Grill, a two-line pass from the Met Center, are more typical of Minnesota. Mike Wallick, 32, was behind the counter at the Shanty, his family's establishment, for Game 2 last Friday night, serving up cheese logs and chicken drummies and watching the action at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena on a small black-and-white television.

"No one was there," Wallick was saying of the single North Star game he attended this season. "I think they skated to a 2-2 tie. We were real excited to see that. Anne, which game was that?"

Night manager Anne Stellmach produced a North Star ticket stub from the back room. It was from the Oct. 27 game against the Detroit Red Wings. Wallick, almost misty-eyed, then produced from his wallet a cherished ticket of his own. It was the betting slip from the Las Vegas casino where, on the late date of April 8, he had put down a five-spot at 30-to-1 odds on Minnesota to win it all. Will he be cashing the ducat any day now? "I think so," Wallick said, even as he watched the North Stars being waxed 4-1 on the TV. "Yes, I think so."

That is the new Minnesota fan. Confident. Not cowed by anyone, especially Edmonton Journal columnist John Short. After Game 3 of the Campbell Conference finals, Short reprimanded North Star fans, via a guest column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, for their "total vulgarity." Short particularly objected to their incessant "vile chant" of "Oilers suck." Chastened, Star fans chanted something else throughout Game 4: "John Short sucks."

That game was Minnesota's seventh consecutive victory on home ice. On Sunday, the Stars would try to make it eight. As I drove through Bloomington that morning, I saw that George Konik's front lawn had a 15-foot-by-15-foot North Star logo mowed into it. Nothing unusual there, even if George was a member of the Penguins' first team, in 1967-68.

That afternoon, I couldn't help but see two more sizable North Star logos. They were painted on the front end of a female tailgater in the Met's parking lot. North Star logos were also painted on a car driven by the kids from Buffalo, Minn., who had commandeered Mom's stainless-steel mixing bowl for the makeshift Stanley Cup they carried.

The interior walls of the Met Center were festooned with posters created by the kids at Scott Highlands Middle School that featured still more North Star logos. The handiwork of one child, who had things in their proper perspective, read, NORTH STARS: SKATE OR DIE. Die? There is little chance of that happening. For as another school-kid's poster said of the Stars, YOU HAVE THE SAINTS' BLESSING.

"I don't think it's divine," said nine-year North Star Brian Bellows after Minnesota's win in Game 3 before 15,378 fans. "It's just a belief that something good is going to happen to us."

Sounds divine to me. Only two teams in the last two decades can presume to claim a similar otherworldly intervention. One was the 1987 world champion Minnesota Twins. The other was the '80 U.S. Olympic hockey team, which won the gold medal with the help of a Roseau, Minn., boy named Neal Broten. Broten is now the North Stars' captain.

I sat in a Minnesota bar during Game 1 and watched as Broten scored two goals. Each time he toasted a Penguin defense-man, the bar patrons toasted Broten. Any barkeep in the state could have told you two things last week: Minnesotans like their miracles on ice, and we're no longer drinking to forget.



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