RICHFIELD, Minn. – There was a clear age difference amongst players on the rink at Richfield Ice Arena during a light Friday practice.
Several graybeards, huffed and puffed and laughed their way through back-and-forth scrimmage. Mixed in with these older players were younger ones with fewer crow’s feet around their eyes, just trying to fit in.
The Minnesota North Stars haven’t been around since 1993-94 when the organization played their first year in Dallas as the Stars. Since then a lot of their players have aged and all have retired. All of their records are tied to the Stars, even though the players have little visibility in that area.
On Saturday, legends from the North Stars will take center stage in Minnesota for the first time since the 1992-93 season – their last in the area – when they play a Chicago Blackhawks alumni group. Sprinkled in with these players are some Minnesota Wild players from the team’s earlier era.
It’s one of the major buildup events of this weekend’s Stadium Series game at TCF Bank Stadium between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday.
The alumni game is at 4 p.m. local time at TCF Bank Stadium.
The strangeness of the situation – of a team that no longer exists being celebrated in the alumni game – is not lost on the players. Even the jerseys pay homage to the North Stars more than the Wild.
“It’s great that they come together, in this market in Minnesota,” said former North Star Dino Ciccarelli. “They’re so rich in tradition with hockey. To include all the guys for an outdoor game is awesome. It’s a lot of fun. A lot of laughs, a lot of memories.”
Only seven players of the 26 on the Minnesota alumni team’s roster played for the Wild.
This speaks to the youth of the Wild as a franchise – the organization started NHL play in 2000-01 – and the pull and still relevant popularity of the North Stars. The North Stars’ first year was 1967-68 and many adored legends still live here and are recognized at most hockey rinks.
According to Hockey-Reference, a total of 237 players from Minnesota have played in the NHL. The next closest is Massachusetts with 187 followed by Michigan with 154.
Hockey goes deeper here than just the Wild and it was important for the NHL and the Wild to show this, even if it meant giving a platform to a team that in essence no longer exists.
“It’s an honor, it’s a great tribute for a lot of the guys we watched growing up,” said former Wild player (current assistant coach) and Richfield native Darby Hendrickson. “Obviously special that the Wild are all connected but these guys were here for so long and were great players. A lot of these guys were your role models and guys you wanted to be like some day. When the team got lost it was sad, but these guys were the core of who you watched and who you wanted to be like.”
Local North Stars alum Brad Maxwell was an important component of putting the game together. Maxwell, who played 471 career NHL games with the North Stars is head of the Minnesota NHL Alumni Association.
When it was decided the alumni game would include former North Stars players, Maxwell rallied locals with ties to that organization
“He’s done a great job with a lot of organizing, making sure guys knew what was coming and what was happening,” said former North Star Craig Hartsburg. “It’s a weekend we’re going to have fun and to be sure to be proud ex-North Stars.”
Former Wild players understand that they’re not the main attraction in this game. They’re fine with ceding the big stage for the North Stars alum.
The Wild get that they are only strengthened as an organization by Minnesota’s strong hockey alumni base, most of which are made up of former North Stars.
“We’ve been here for a little bit but they’re the heart and soul for hockey in Minnesota at the professional level,” former Wild forward Andrew Brunette said. “We’re glad to be a part of it.”
Former North Star Brian Bellows floated the idea of making the bond between the two groups grow deeper – like with a sort of retro jersey night for the Wild wearing North Stars gear.
“That could be a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s a celebration of guys who played here and had fun and a lot of us still live around here, which is fantastic.”
But for now, it’s just about trying to figure out how to mesh the young Wild with the North Stars legends. If anything the North Stars realize they can’t beat the Hawks without the Wild’s youth.
Joked Maxwell, “We need them because they’re young.”
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