It’s hard to believe that for seven years, hockey-mad Minnesota had no major league professional hockey team. For five years in the 1970s, though, the Minneapolis-St. Paul market had two.
When the National Hockey League (NHL) finally decided to expand like the other North American sports leagues in the 1960s, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area seemed like the perfect place to put a team. Not only was the area a hotbed, as it were, for college hockey, but minor league hockey as well. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul were home to several minor league clubs going as far back as the 1920s.
Professional major league hockey arrived in the fall of 1967 with the launch of the Minnesota North Stars, one of six new NHL teams starting up that year. The team was placed in the same division as the other new teams, while the so-called “Original Six” made up the league’s other division.
The North Stars finished in fourth place with a record of 27-32-15 and made the playoffs. They took out the Los Angeles Kings in seven games but lost to the eventual division champion St. Louis Blues, also in seven games. The team averaged 11,861 during the regular season, seventh overall but tops for the new teams.
The team missed the postseason the following year, but attendance increased. They made the playoffs the next three seasons as attendance ticked up, reaching its all-time peak of 15,319 during the 1971-1972 season. That year the team finished in second place in the Western Division but lost to the St. Louis Blues in seven games in the first round.
In the fall of 1972, the hockey world changed. The same group that had started the American Basketball Association (ABA) in 1967 to compete with the National Basketball Association (NBA) set their sights on hockey. Their newly formed World Hockey Association (WHA) hit the ice in the fall of 1972 with 12 teams. Half of those teams played in markets that had an NHL team, including Minneapolis-St. Paul.
While the North Stars played in suburban Bloomington, just south of Minneapolis, the WHA team, called the Fighting Saints, took up residence across the Mississippi River in St. Paul. Their name was inspired by a previous minor league team called the Saints who billed themselves as the “Fighting” Saints in their promotional materials. The new team’s first home was the St. Paul Auditorium. Their first game was a 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets at home. On January 1, 1973, they moved into the brand new St. Paul Civic Center, a building bigger than the North Stars' home. In that game, they skated to a 4-4 tie with the Houston Aeros. Minneapolis-St. Paul was a two-pro hockey team market and would remain so until January 1977.
The North Stars only saw a very slight dip in attendance, while the Fighting Saints averaged just over 5,800 fans a game. Both teams made the playoffs, and both exited in the first round. For the 1973-74 season, the North Stars’ attendance held steady, while the Fighting Saints increased to 6,400 fans per game. The North Stars didn’t make the playoffs, while the Fighting Saints made it to the second round. Interestingly, both teams led their respective leagues in the number of American players featured on their rosters. The North Stars had four, while the Fighting Saints boasted 10.
For the 1974-75 season, things were trending in the Fighting Saints’ favor. Another extended playoff run pushed attendance to a franchise peak of 8,400. Across the Mississippi, the North Stars missed the playoffs as attendance in Bloomington dipped to 13,587.
Meanwhile, the war between the WHA and NHL was taking its toll on franchises in both leagues, largely due to rising player salaries. During the 1974-75 season, North America had 32 pro hockey teams, and experts reckoned that almost all of them were losing significant amounts of money. All 32 teams made it to the 1975-76 season, but by the end of that campaign the WHA was down two teams, with one of those casualties being the Fighting Saints, who folded on February 28, 1976.
That wasn’t the end of the Fighting Saints, though. In 1976, the NHL moved the California Golden Seals to Cleveland. The team was renamed the Barons. The move, however, couldn’t be completed until the struggling Cleveland Crusaders of the WHA agreed to leave town, which they finally did in July of that year. Their new home was the St. Paul Civic Center. The team’s owner, Cleveland businessman Nick Mileti, planned to sell the team to local interests. Unable to do so, the second Fighting Saints folded on January 20, 1977. The Barons' saga, by the way, is retold in a great book previously reviewed on our blog.
The North Stars weren’t in much better shape. After three straight seasons missing the playoffs, they squeaked into the 1976-77 postseason. However, they only drew 9,000 fans a game. The following season, they again missed the playoffs while drawing barely 8,000 fans a game.
In an unprecedented move, the NHL allowed the North Stars and the even more downtrodden Cleveland Barons to merge. The combined team would keep the North Stars name and play in Minnesota. With the addition of a few talented players from Cleveland, the new North Stars were able to turn things around in the 1980s, regularly making the playoffs. In 1991, despite having a losing record in the regular season, the team made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Two years later, the team was moved to Dallas to become the Stars. The area remained without a major league hockey team until 2000. That year saw the debut of the Minnesota Wild, who moved into the brand new Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul, built on the former site of the Civic Center, the Fighting Saints' old home.