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Monday, April 14, 2003
Game 3? 'It's going to be absolutely nuts'

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Minnesota North Stars, with Dino Ciccarelli and Bobby Smith and Craig Hartsburg and Gilles Meloche, had just beaten the Canadiens in Games 1 and 2 of their second-round playoff series in 1980.

Both games were in Montreal, no less.

Before Game 3, the North Stars were about to take the ice at the Met Center, in Bloomington. The dressing room was downstairs in the old building, and coach Glen Sonmor decided he didn't need to give a pep talk.

He just let the Stars listen.

"You couldn't hear yourself talk," Sonmor said Sunday, from his home in the Twin Cities suburb of Bloomington. "It was that crazy. That's what it's going to be like Monday night. It's going to be absolutely nuts."

After an 11-year absence, Stanley Cup hockey returns Monday night to the Twin Cities, when the Wild face the Colorado Avalanche in the Xcel Energy Center. This is the first NHL playoff series in Minnesota since the North Stars lost to the Red Wings in seven games in the '92 Norris Division semifinals.

Yes, it's going to be absolutely nuts, and not only because the Wild -- the upstart third-year expansion franchise -- managed to knock off the Avalanche in Game 1 in Denver last Thursday and returned home tied 1-1 in the series.

The line of Wes Walz, Marian Gaborik and Antti Laaksonen has played Peter Forsberg's line to a standstill, and maybe more than that, and defenseman Willie Mitchell has been so strong, you wonder what the Devils are thinking now of that March 2001 deal that sent Mitchell to Minnesota for Sean O'Donnell.

Dwayne Roloson was terrific in the net in the first two games, and coach Jacques Lemaire -- the brilliant innovator -- would be nuts to go with Manny Fernandez in Game 3. ("Nuts" sometimes works for Lemaire, though.)

Even if the Wild had come back to St. Paul down 2-0, it would have been crazy Monday night, anyway.

With all due respect to Detroit -- or, actually, to its temerity in copyrighting the term, Hockeytown -- the Twin Cities are the United States' true Hockeytowns. Lecturing too much about that would be condescending. Everybody knows about the area's deep-rooted amateur hockey history, right?

The funny thing is that some of us are old enough to remember when that kind of grassroots fanaticism was considered a threat to U.S.-based NHL franchises, and the graybeards and dunderheads running the league were too dense to understand that hockey interest -- on any level -- was a boon for the NHL.

My God, NHL men used to grouse, all those Minnesota fans were too busy going to their kids' games, or to college games, or even playing the sport themselves in adulthood, to plunk down hard-earned money to attend NHL games.

Rather than position themselves to take advantage of that hockey interest, the North Stars too often used that as an excuse. Instead of gleefully positioning themselves at the top of the chain, and nurturing the sport on every level, the North Stars -- in line with conventional NHL thinking of the time -- shook their heads and couldn't understand why their status as being members of the best league in the world didn't guarantee them a long-term embrace from a savvy fan base.

And then, of course, an owner of suspect character and motives -- Norm Green -- came along to completely poison the water that went into the Met Center ice, and position the franchise for an exile to Dallas.

Today, most U.S.-based NHL franchises get it.

The Red Wings certainly do, and the Ilitch family -- with its support of youth hockey -- always has.

Even the Avalanche, in a Colorado market where few are natives of the area and where youth hockey is burgeoning and college hockey continues to be popular and successful, is another showcase example of the way the league has smartened up since the Neanderthal age of the early '80s. Rather than fight the hockey competition in the area, the Avalanche organization tries both to cooperate with it and create more of it.

The Wild, as young as the franchise is, have that down to a science. Program sales at home games fund youth hockey programs. The organization reaches out to hockey, on every level. It doesn't pretend to be above it all, and worthy of automatic support.

It tries to earn it.

With the Wild in the playoffs for the first time, Minnesota is back where it belongs. In the spotlight.

The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers won their second straight NCAA championship Saturday night and the riots in the Dinkytown region of Minneapolis overnight only show that there are morons everywhere who will seize any opportunity to disgrace themselves.

The Gophers' championship got far more prominent play in the Twin Cities media Sunday than the Wild's 3-2 defeat in Denver in Game 2 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals, and that's the way it should be.

The Twins Cities is the best hockey market in the United States, hands down.

No, that doesn't necessarily have to mean fans shelling out three-figure prices for NHL playoff tickets, but it's one of the considerations. It's about tradition, about kids playing, about a high school tournament, about the Minnesota Gophers, and even about 40-something fans remembering when J.P. Parise was a hero or when Bill Masterton didn't regain consciousness.

Sonmor has been a part of both eras, as coach of the Gophers from 1966-72, then as the coach of the North Stars from 1978-82. Today, he does part-time scouting for the Wild and is the radio analyst for the Gophers' games. (So he was a tad hoarse Sunday after riding back on the charter plane from Buffalo with the Gophers, and being a part of the celebration.)

"I work for the Wild, so maybe I'm not neutral, but what the organization has done is just wonderful," he said. "When the NHL was coming back here, some people said it would be successful right away. To be honest, I didn't think that at all. I thought it would take some time. But I've been wrong. And now that the team is in the playoffs, it's just wonderful. It will be marvelous, so alive, for the games here.

"What's happened has boggled my mind. Doug Risebrough and Jacques Lemaire put this team together, and they wanted two things: a player had to be able to skate, and be fiercely competitive. That was Doug and Jacques, and that's the way this team is. And the people here have taken to it. Hockey is such a part of the fabric of this state. I consider John Mariucci the godfather of American hockey. I guess Boston has a little bit of something like this, but the kids here all grow up dreaming of playing in the state tournament, playing for the Gophers and then going into pro hockey. I know this might be high, but someone told me that 40 percent of the rights-holders to Wild season tickets still play hockey."

The playoffs are back where they belong.

In Minnesota.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, Simon and Schuster's "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," is available nationwide.