Saturday, 21 May 2011

Real Interleague Play Would Have Been Awesome

With Major League Baseball embracing interleague play once again, the detractors and supporters are out in force about whether or not this is a good move by baseball. The detractors find the games to be meaningless in the grand scheme of things while the supporters like seeing teams they rarely see travel through their home ballpark. While the NHL has always been the league of leagues in hockey, there were a few lucky cities that saw both an NHL team and a WHA team take up residence during the WHA's short life as a pro hockey league.

One such city was Minneapolis/St. Paul where the North Stars and Fighting Saints both held ground until the Saints finally closed up shop in 1977. The teams played on opposite sides of the Mississippi River, but they never once played against each other despite battling for the hearts of Minnesotans. So what happened during the historic years when the Stars and Saints fought over Minnesota?

Jerry Kirshenbaum of Sports Illustrated wrote a very interesting article on the battle that was waged between the NHL's North Stars and the WHA's Fighting Saints during this time. Mr. Kirshenbaum's article was published on November 10, 1975, and showed an interesting side to this battle after Philadelphia and Vancouver had both ousted the Blazers in favour of NHL teams in years previous to 1975, and the Toronto Toros reportedly looking at a move to Hamilton to escape the Maple Leafs' stranglehold on the city of Toronto in 1975.

Honestly, this battle sounds like it's the Hatfields vs. the McCoys. The Saints, inexplicably, scheduled home games on the same nights as the North Stars in their efforts to capture the hearts of fans. I'm not sure who came up with this tactic, but it was interesting to see what happened despite the futility of this plan.

It is in this spirit that the Saints, who mostly avoided such head-to-head battles in previous years, scheduled 19 home games this season on nights that the North Stars were playing across the river. The first two of these confrontations were standoffs, the Saints drawing a bigger crowd one time, the Stars the next. Another showdown occurred last Wednesday night. The Stars, before an oddly somnolent crowd of 8,335 in Bloomington, managed a rare win, shutting out one of the NHL's most recent expansion teams, the 2-year-old Kansas City Scouts, 2-0. In St. Paul, a somewhat livelier gathering of 12,210 watched the Saints lose 6-4 to the WHA expansionist Cincinnati Stingers. But the attendance figures were still inconclusive; the St. Paul numbers were swollen by a special promotion in which kids were given free Saints jackets.
Where the teams differed in their approach to winning this battle was the style of play each team employed. The North Stars played a much more defesnive style of play, preferring to grind out wins with their star goalie, Cesar Maniago, and their band of lesser-known players. The Saints, on the other hand, preferred a more unorthodox style of play, allowing players to run-and-gun and brawl whenever necessary. In the WHA, that meant a large number of games with high scores and lots of penalty minutes.

The Saints also were pretty adept at grabbing free agents that had built some popularity as North Stars. One such player was Henry Boucha, a born-and-bred Ojibwa and Minnesotan, who arrived from the Detroit Red Wings in 1974 in a trade with the North Stars for Danny Grant. Mr. Boucha was involved in a very serious stick-swinging incident with Boston's Dave Forbes in his short time with the North Stars. In 1975, Boucha made the jump to the Fighting Saints after his blurred vision and cracked orbital bone caused the North Stars some concern. Mr. Kirshenbaum caught up with him for a comment on the building territorial war between the two hockey clubs.
The Minnesota-born Boucha is the latest of a string of North Stars wooed away by the Saints, but recent surgery on the eye damage by Forbes — Boucha's third such operation — delayed his debut until last week's Cincinnati game. He scored two goals, talking afterward not of fighting but of his old team across the river. "If we played the North Stars in a seven-game series, we'd beat them in five," he crowed.
Animosity? I'd say so. Neither the Yankees and Mets nor the Cubs and White Sox have shown that kind of hatred towards one another for a long time, but I'm pretty sure that if they did, those baseball series would be a lot more fun. Clemens vs. Piazza was the last time we saw fireworks of that magnitude, and that was fun to watch!

As history tells us, both teams eventually succumbed to the pressures of losing too much money - the Saints folded in 1977 while the North Stars eventually moved south to Dallas in 1993. Clearly, though, the NHL squad lasted a lot longer than the WHA club did, though, and Mr. Kirshenbaum foreshadowed this fact at the end of his article.
If only because of recent history, the betting has to be on the NHL club to hang on. Given his painful experiences at Philadelphia and Vancouver, it is not surprising to find Johnny McKenzie making conciliatory noises. Puffing a cigarette in the Saints' dressing room after the Cincinnati game, he said, "Minnesota's a great hockey state, and if they start winning, I think both teams can survive here." The part about the state, at least, makes sense.
With the Minnesota Wild, the NCAA teams, and the local high school hockey teams all showing great attendance numbers, hockey in the state of Minnesota has never been better.

But how cool would it have been had the Fighting Saints and North Stars battled for Minnesota hockey supremacy like Henry Boucha had wanted? That's the kind of interleague hockey game that I would have loved to see, and it may have made one or both of those teams much stronger in the long run.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


JeffB said...

Having lived through the entire North Stars/Fighting Saints era, the North Stars wanted NOTHING to do with the Fighting Saints at the time. The North Stars were only five years old when the Saints arrived on the scene and only had managed their first winning record the season before the Saints arrival, so the honeymoon period for the North Stars had ended and they had not established any winning tradition yet. The Saints were the right team at the right time to challenge the North Stars.

They did things right, creating a "Minnesota" feel to the team from the choice of coach and players, great new arena and flashy colors and logo.

After a first season of relative anonymity, but solid play, the Saints went out and got the dynamic Mike Walton, who immediately led the league in scoring, one of three 40 goal scorers on the club. Additionally, they added John Garrett in goal and continued a competitive streak of play evidenced by a long, long streak of not being shutout.

They also had some of the most over the top tough guys as part of a lineup that, from top to bottom with only a few exceptions, were willing to drop the gloves at any time, often multiple times, during a game, Gord Gallant in particular.

After year one, the Saints never had a losing record, including when they folded 2 1/2 years later. Meanwhile the North Stars sank into a dismal period, missing the playoffs five of the next six years. Only the dreadful expansion teams in Washington and Kansas City kept the Stars from being rock bottom. How bad were the North Stars? Tim Young once led them in scoring during this time period with 51 points! 51!

Any game between the two clubs would have been a situation where the Fighting Saints had everything to gain and nothing to lose, while the North Stars even playing the Fighting Saints would have given the Saints credibility and losing to them would have been a major embarrassment for the established NHL club.

Boucha was right. The Fighting Saints would have pounded the North Stars into submission, even prior to the arrival of Jack Carlson and Paul Holmgren, while their speedsters would have skated circles around them all night long,

Now, had this been 1978-79 after the arrival of Bobby Smith and Steve Payne and the merger with Cleveland that brought Gilles Meloche and Al MacAdam, the story would be quite different, but while the Fighting Saints were in existence, the North Stars were at an all time low point and were ripe for the picking.

I doubt both would have ever survived in a market this size and believe the North Stars would have always prevailed in the end by being part of the stable NHL as well as being there first, but I have always been surprised that the Fighting Saints, who drew over 17,000(!) on occasion, didn't last longer than they did simply because the product was better in every way at the time.

Teebz said...

Great comment, Jeff! That is some excellent insight!