They used to be called, derisively, the Minnesota No Stars. Now you can call them the Minnesota All-Stars. The Minnesota North Stars -- their real name -- are the talk of the National Hockey League after their astonishing upset of the Montreal Canadiens, who were seeking a record-tying fifth straight Stanley Cup, in the playoff quarterfinals.
Then as though to prove it was no fluke, they turned right around and knocked off the regular season champion Philadelphia Flyers --home ice advantage in their best-of-seven semifinal series.
And this is a team that finished dead solid last in its division two years ago and missed the playoffs last year.
Playing on enemy ice has obviously has not fazed swift young North Stars so far. They beat the Canadiens three times in the hallowed Montreal Forum, including the incredibly pressurized and dramatic seventh contest.
When Montreal came from behind to tie the game 2-2 early in the third period, sending the 17,465 partisan fans into a frenzy, it looked like the sort of spot where so many other teams in so many other years have come close without quite being able to make it against the mighty Canadiens. But the North Stars showed tremendous poise, holding off a furious Montreal attack over the next few minutes, and eventually it was their own Al MacAdam who scored with just 1:18 left to put Minnesota in the semifinals.
"Everybody tells you that lack of experience will catch up with you in the playoffs -- that a young team like ours can't handle it," says Minnesota coach Glen Sonmor. "Well, that depends on your kids. We have quite a number of poised young men.
"Bobby Smith centers our big line and is a very mature individual. Steve Payne, who's been Bobby's left-winger since they were juniors in Ottawa, borders on being cocky. all our kids seem a lot older than they are."
Sonmor has capitalized on his young legs by putting together an impressive skating team. The North Stars have at least as much speed as the other three semifinalists, quite possibly more.
"The Montreal series was the kind of hockey we liked to play," he says. "You had two teams that skated and skated, and there was none of this cheap shackling stuff.We try to keep the tempo as fast as we can. In that respect, I guess we've copied Montreal.
The Canadiens are not particularly flattered by Sonmor's brand of imitation, but they are respectful.
"They beat us three times in our own building," says Larry Robinson, the great Canadien defenseman."And that's good enough for me. Sure we had two 50 -goal scorers out of the lineup, but we've won before with our depth when people were hurt. That's no excuse. Minnesota's a good skating club and it was a good series."
The North Stars' strategy was keyed to slowing down Robinson.
Explains Sonmor, "We tried to keep the puck away from him as much as possible. When he got it, we tried to make him pass it quickly and then step in front of him before he could take a return pass. If you let him get cranked up he can kill you."
Another Canadien defenseman, Rod Langway, sounded a strong consensus for the losing side when he said, "Meloche was the difference in the last game and in the whole series. We got beat by a teriffic goal tender. He came up with one super game after another."
Gilles Meloche, who grew up almost in the shadow of the Montreal Forum and now owns a hamburger emporium not far away, has been knocking around the NHL for more than nine years, mostly with dead-end teams. this is his first trip to the playoffs.
He and MacAdam, the right-winger with Smith and Payne, are two of the eight players on the North Star roster who came in the merger with the Cleveland Barons two years ago.
Lou Nanne, the only man to play for the North Stars through the first 11 years of their existence, 1967-78, went straight from the ice to the general manager's job, sorted out the merger confusion, and righted the floundering franchise. Minnesota had been a promising expansion club that had declined badly in the mid-1970s as older players slumped.
A naturalized US citizen who had captained the 1968 US Olympic team and subsequently gained management experience as an officer of the NHL Players' Association, Nanne quickly appointed himself head coach so he could assess the available talent, fired the entire scouting staff, and reversed the North Stars' attitude to the draft. The last shift was especially pivotal.
Minnesota formerly had drafted by position, attempting to fill specific needs in its lineup. Nanne forgot about position and took the best athletes available.
In this way he began signing youngsters like the 6 ft. 4 in. Smith, whose range and playmaking ability are reminiscent of the Canadiens' famed Jean Beliveau. Steve Christoff, from the University of Minnesota and the US Olympic team, is the latest example. He scored eight goals late in the season and has added eight more in the playoffs, making him the best rookie goal scorer in playoff history. (Christoff and six other North Stars are American, the largest such contingent in the NHL.)
Nanne also plucked Sonmor, a former University of Minnesota coach, from the old World Hockey Association to be his man behind the bench.
All these moves suddenly are adding up to success for the soaring North Stars. Or All-Stars.