Minnesota's new North Stars are skating into stride

Two heads may be better than one, but this year's Minnesota North Stars are showing that one hockey team is better than two. In the only merger of two teams in National Hockey League history, Minnesota and Cleveland combined in 1978 to form the new North Stars. Although ownership transferred to the Gund brothers, George and Gordon, of Cleveland, the team settled in the Twin Cities, an area with a longstanding love for hockey and a starved appetite for a winner.

Last season left Minnesotans undernourished and wondering if even the best of both these NHL weaklings was enough to build a competitive major league club. The new team struggled to a 28-40-12 record and failed to make the playoffs -- a fate reserved only for a handful of the NHL's very worst teams.

Actually, there were some mitigating circumstances. Coach Glen Sonmor had arrived on the scene after the season started.Also, there was the immense job of sifting through the two rosters and blending the best talent with new free agents and draft choices.

Added to this confusion was a schedule that threw the hybrid "new Stars" against strong Adams Division foes Boston, Buffalo, and Toronto for eight games apiece -- a growing experience for a young team, but no way to put a big number in the win column.

The problem of a tough schedule was solved this year when the NHL turned to a balanced schedule. For every time Minnesota (or any other team) takes the ice against powerhouses like defending champion Montreal, it also gets to feast on an undermanned club like the Edmonton Oilers or Washington Capitals.

While Philadelphia has grabbed the spotlight with its historymaking win steak , the Flyers may have to share some of it by the end of the season with this reconstituted young club that is still learning just how good it is. The North Stars are off to the best start in the 13-year history of the franchise and are dueling the Flyers for the league's best athome record with a 14-1-2 mark.

Players from the old Cleveland team fill about one-third (6) of the Minnesota roster, but the merger is only part of the new team's success formula. In their early years as an expansion club, the lowly Stars too often acted like a hockey version of the Washington Redskins. In search of instant respectability they traded young players and top draft choices for established veterans.

This proved no lasting answer. The club would rise a few notches in the standings, sometimes winning a spot in the playoffs, only to fall back again the next year.

For the past few seasons the team has been doing a successful Pittsburgh Steeler imitation -- quietly loading its roster with top draft choices won from all those cellar-dwelling years. The current roster features five 1st-round draft picks made since 1976 (the team had two 1st-round picks in 1979), one 2 nd-round player, and one 3rd-rounder.

The club's outstanding start (it currently has the fourth-best point total in the 21-team league) has surprised even Sonmor. His preseason goal, he says, was to finish ahead of the four former World Hockey Association teams the joined the NHL this year, along with the five clubs Minnesota beat out last year. In view of the fast start, though, he has raised the goal to finishing among the top eight teams, to ensure a home-ice advantage in the first round of playoffs. "But my players keep surprising me," Sonmor says. "They keep playing as though they think they're as good as anyone in the league."

The most valuable player obtained in the merger (perhaps the most valuable on the club) is goalie Gilles Meloche. Mention him with Rogie Vachon, Glenn Resch, and Tony Esposito and you'll be putting him in the right company. Meloche is especially quick with his hands, feet, and stick. He likes to come out and challenge the shooter to beat him -- and he usually wins.

But Meloche labored for years in relative obscurity in Cleveland because his team rarely got him many goals. Now Minnesota's front lines are causing fits for opposing netminders. Second-year man Steve Payne is on pace for a 50-goal year, and his linemates tim Young and Al MacAdam are pilling up goals and assists almost as fast.

The attack should soon be even stronger, too, with the addition of Bobby Smith, who is nearly ready to return after having missed most of the season with an injury. Smith was the first player taken in the 1978 draft and the league's rookie of the year in 1979.

Forwards must pay defense, too, and Sonmor has been pleased with the checking line of Kent-Erick Anderson, Mike Polich, and Tom Younghans. Polich is particularily adept at shadowing the opposition's best scorer. This line recently snapped the 13-game scoring streak of Los Angeles's Charlie Simmer, allowing him just one shot on goal.

On defense the draft choices have helped, along with free agent Gary Sargent. But Sonmor credits the pickup of veteran Paul Shmyr from Edmonton as the key here.

The Stars recently beat Montreal and Boston at home, and if they can mature into a solid road club as well they could be the surprise of the playoffs. Minnesota is perhaps the fastest-skating club in the league. Any team not willing to check aggressively up and down the ice will find itself panting in exhaustion -- while the North Stars blitzkrieg its goal.

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