It was like hearing from an old flame who'd dumped you the instant something better came along. Now she was calling to invite you to dinner...to meet her fiancè.
It had been 3½ years since Norm Green bought the Minnesota North Stars, 3½ years since he swept into the Twin Cities as the savior of professional hockey, criticizing the previous owners for threatening to uproot the team and take ii to another state.
It had been six months since Green uprooted the team and took it to another state. Now the Dallas Stars were in Minneapolis for a neutral-site game against the Ottawa Senators. Banners were forbidden at the Target Center last Thursday night, but plenty of jilted Minnesotans found ways to express themselves. The medium varied—from T-shirts to caps to a cathartic chant—but the message was the same, summed up by a slogan on a button: UPON FURTHER REVIEW...NORM STILL SUCKS.
The game, in which Dallas dispatched the dreadful Senators 6-1, was the first of six NHL contests to be played this season in the Target Center. The driving force behind getting those games is Dana Warg, the Target Center's executive director, who is courting Edmonton Oiler owner Peter Pocklington, a man seeking a new home for his team.
A serendipitous scheduling conflict with the NHL's Board of Governors meetings in Southern California gave the 59-year-old Green a good excuse to skip Thursday's game, which he did. After all, a choice between soaking up verbal abuse and soaking up rays in Laguna Niguel isn't much of a choice.
But will Green soon be looking for excuses to avoid Dallas fans as well? Texans have yet to join their Minnesota brethren in obscene chants directed at the Stars' owner, but Green's Dallas honeymoon was nonetheless fleeting. On Oct. 1 the Stars sued the city of Dallas for the right to advertise beer inside the arena at home games, a right now held exclusively by the NBA Mavericks. Then, 37 days after his team's Dallas debut, Green was quoted uttering his first threat to pull the team out of Big D. The club denied that Green had issued such a threat, but given his history in Minnesota, the quote seemed to have the ring of truth.
While Green was busy wearing out his welcome in Dallas in record time, Minnesota was waging a curiously halfhearted battle to regain an NHL franchise. Pocklington, who is desperate to get his team out of Alberta, has been speaking of the Twin Cities in glowing terms, which has made some Twin Citians nervous. One of the league's most-cash-strapped owners, Pocklington has systematically unloaded the team's best players. The Oilers have won just six of their 32 games this season; only the Senators are worse. Most Minnesotans don't see a Norm-for-Peter Puck swap as much of a bargain.
"It's a moral dilemma," said Mary LeTourneau, editor of the Minnesota North Stars Booster Club newsletter. "Of course we want NHL hockey back. But we're afraid Pocklington will present us with a lousy team, fan support won't be there, and he'll take the team somewhere else. If that happens, we'll never get another chance. People aren't sure how to feel about it."
They do know how they feel about their departed team. In the 18,700-seat Target Center, the disappointing turnout on Thursday was announced as 14,058, but it looked more like a crowd of about 12,000. The impossible had happened. The team had gone, and some of its most loyal fans actually lived happily ever after. "I'm speaking now as a private citizen, not as president of the North Stars Booster Club," said Doug Rausch, lowering his voice to avoid being overheard by fellow boosters, "but I don't miss [the Stars] as much as I thought I would. Plus, with the money we saved on season tickets, we bought a house." Chimed in another former season-ticket holder, Tom Saari, "I paid off my cabin."
The Star players, too, are surviving quite nicely, thank you. They enjoy the temperate Texas climate (translation: year-round golf). They appreciate the absence of a state income tax. They even like flying into and out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. They are only occasionally weirded out by the odd geographical twist their careers have taken. In filling out a lineup card before a preseason game against the Florida Panthers, Star head coach Bob Gainey found himself writing, "Dallas vs. Florida." Says Gainey, who played 16 seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, "Once in a while, it hits you—this is different."
But apparently it's a welcome difference for Texans. The Stars have averaged 15,374 fans per game at 16,814-seat Reunion Arena. Some come for the hockey, some for the carnival atmosphere. Anyone who has ever attended a Star home game will not be surprised to learn that Jeff Cogen, the team's vice-president of advertising and marketing, was once an employee of Ringling Brothers. It is the rare professional sporting event that offers such promotions as deejay dog races, in which local disc jockeys pull "lucky listeners" around the ice on sleds, and between-periods sumo wrestling.
In its first season as a hockey venue, Reunion Arena has become one of the NHL's toughest rinks for visiting teams. The Stars are 15-10-7 but have lost just one of 17 at home. One key to their success—besides Cogen, of course—has been the play of 23-year-old Mike Modano, a No. 1 draft pick in 1988, who is having a breakthrough season. When Modano pumped in the first of his two goals against Ottawa (he now has 24 in 32 games), LeTourneau, of the North Stars Booster Club, shook her head. "I paid $2,000 a year to see this kind of performance from him," she said. "As soon as they go somewhere else, he goes nuts."
The shared ordeal of moving to a new city has resulted in a closeness they had not previously known, say most of the Stars. Says defenseman Mark Tinordi, "Moving means all these little hassles—finding schools for your kids, finding doctors, where to shop. Doing it together has made us more of a family."
And as in most families, there is a certain amount of bickering. "There's such a thing as seeing too much of one another," says Neal Broten, who skates on a forward line with his brother Paul. "The weather in Texas is the same all the time. Every day you throw on the same old shirt, same old pair of jeans. I don't even need my winter boots. I miss the snow. I miss firing up my truck, cranking the heater, scraping off the windshield—all that stuff I grew up with."
Broten's mood might have begun to sour earlier this season when a stranger in Dallas provided him with an unsolicited hockey tutorial. Sidelined by a hip-flexor injury, Broten was in the stands for a game when a fan began explaining offsides. "The guy meant well," says Broten, who recently played in his 900th NHL game. "I didn't say anything."
To teach Texans the game's finer points, the club ran a weeklong series of ads in The Dallas Morning News this fall. The series was called Hockey 101, and each day it explained a new term. "Icing—no, not the stuff on a birthday cake," one lesson began. "Spearing—no, not what you do to get an olive," said another.
There is plenty to learn. There is still the occasional panic in the stands when the goalie leaves the crease on a delayed penalty. Someone stop him! He thinks the period is over! "But for the most part," says Star president James Lites, "our fans know when to cheer. After three or four games, they become experts."
And the experts agree that the biggest need is simply to learn to live with Norm Green. On Nov. 12 Green was quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as having told the Dallas International Sports Commission that if the city would not improve Reunion Arena or, better yet, build a new facility, he would consider moving his team to nearby Tarrant County. Although Green declined to be interviewed for this article, a team spokesman says his comments were "taken out of context."
"So now he's bitching about Dallas?" said Steve Froehlig, who showed up at the Target Center for Thursday's game with a haircut that read NORM STILL SUCKS. "There's a surprise."
For all the anti-Norm chants during the game against Ottawa, most of the people at the Target Center otherwise seemed content to applaud their old friends. In a nod to the Stars' erstwhile home, Gainey put the two Brotens, Jim Johnson and Trent Klatt—all Minnesotans—on the ice to start the game. After his first goal Modano saluted section 101, where the still-intact Booster Club was seated.
Later Modano was asked about his transition from Minnesota to Texas. Was it difficult? Traumatic? "Actually," he said, "it was pretty easy. It was just me and my clothes and my golf clubs."
So much for sentimentality. Afterward, instead of driving to the suburbs where most of them used to live, the Stars walked to their hotel. The next morning they boarded a plane bound for the city that is their new home.
Texans are starry-eyed (opposite, top) while Minnesotans (right) resent Green for taking away Stars like Dave Barr, shown scoring against Ottawa, and goalie Darcy Wakaluk (opposite, bottom).
[See caption above].
In Dallas a heaping spoonful of sumo wrestling between periods helps the hockey go down.