Could this be where it all started?
Before Dino Ciccarelli played for the Minnesota North Stars and Al Secord played for the Chicago Blackhawks? Before fans at Met Center came to love to hate Secord, and before Hawks fans at old Chicago Stadium put nooses around the necks of blowup Dino dinosaur dolls?
Ciccarelli and Secord were in junior hockey in Ontario. This story comes from former North Stars player, coach and executive Lou Nanne:
One night Ciccarelli, playing for London, scored a game-winning goal against Hamilton. The next morning the newspaper ran a picture of Ciccarelli scoring, with Secord right behind him. Ciccarelli went to the paper and got a copy of the picture.
“He gets an 8x10 glossy,” Nanne said. “He writes, ‘Isn’t that the guy you’re supposed to be guarding?’ and sends it to Secord.”
Saturday, outside at TCF Bank Stadium, there will be an alumni game between Minnesota and the Blackhawks. And while there will be a few former members of Wild on the ice, it will basically be a North Stars-Blackhawks deal. And for anyone who watched those teams go at it through the years — particularly from the early 1980s through the 1991 playoffs, it will be an opportunity to reminisce about probably the best rivalry in Minnesota pro sports history.
Every element was there. Familiarity breeding contempt? Check. Skill and speed? Bodycheck. And, at the core, Ciccarelli and Secord. The vortex around which the rivalry swirled.
Ciccarelli was asked about that old Nanne story. He hemmed and hawed. Finally he laughed. “There is some truth to that story,” he said.
Brian Bellows can remember the first time he played at old Chicago Stadium in the fall of 1982 as a rookie.
“When you’re 18, people tell you stuff and you say, ‘yeah, yeah,’ ” the former North Stars winger said. “But nothing prepares you for standing on the blue line on a Sunday night game in Chicago, with 20,000 fans, the organ reverberating. Incredible. It’s the loudest place I’ve ever been.”
That old stadium required players to climb stairs to reach the bench.
“As you climbed the stairs, you’d start hearing the catcalls,” ex-North Stars captain Craig Hartsburg recalled. “You’d see the dinosaurs hanging from nooses. You knew where you were, and what you were in for.”
The teams started getting sick of the sight of each other. The NHL realigned in 1981, putting Chicago and Minnesota in the same division and installing a divisional playoff format. Hawks owner Bill Wirtz was the driving force for the change. He wanted division teams to play each other more often, knowing rivalries would ensue; Nanne remembers a Board of Governors meeting where some owners complained about the format.
“Wirtz stood up and said, ‘Give me 40 games a year against the North Stars and I’ll take it all day,’ ” Nanne said.
The teams played each other in the playoffs six times from 1982 through 1991. That includes four consecutive years starting in 1982, with Chicago winning three times. In 1982, the Blackhawks upset a North Stars team that had made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1981. In 1991 the Hawks led the league with 106 points only to be upset by the North Stars, who had finished with 68, on Minnesota’s drive to another Cup finals.
There were fights, both on the ice and in the stands, during the game and once during warmups, during a 1989 game in Chicago that started between Shane Churla and Wayne Van Dorp.
After Secord and the Hawks gooned it up a bit in a come-from-behind victory to end the 1982 regular season, North Stars coach Glen Sonmor was asked how his team would respond in the upcoming playoffs.
“We won’t go after Secord, ” Sonmor said. “We’ll go right after Savard and wring his neck.”
That would be the high-scoring Denis Savard.
“In my day, it was the biggest rivalry there was,” Savard said. “You didn’t sleep very good the night before.”
Both teams had a blend of physicality and skill. Secord had a hard punch and a hard shot, once scoring 54 goals in a season. Minnesota’s Steve Payne could handle himself in a fight and scored 28 or more goals in six consecutive seasons.
There was a mix. The North Stars had Neal Broten, Bobby Smith, Bellows, Ciccarelli; the Blackhawks countered with Savard and Steve Larmer. But there were heavyweights, too. The Stars had Willi Plett, Basil McRae and Churla. And who can forget Behn Wilson, Secord, Curt Fraser and Van Dorp?
“I loved that there was the skill and the brawn,” said Bellows, who recalls taking a punch from Keith Brown as a rookie that made his jaw hurt for weeks. “Some shifts were pure skill. Others? One night I lined up beside Steve Larmer. All of a sudden Behn Wilson starts fighting Willi Plett. I think Curt Fraser was fighting Dan Mandich. Just heavyweights. I turned to Steve and said, ‘What do you think, buddy?’ He said, ‘Let’s sit this one out and watch the big guys fight.’ ”
During a playoff game in 1982 at Chicago Stadium, the game was halted by a brawl in the stands between fans of the two teams.
“One guy had a shoe in his hand, beating another guy over the head,” former North Stars defenseman Gordie Roberts said.
Troy Murray played with the Hawks and now is a radio color analyst for the team. In college at North Dakota, he learned to hate the Gophers. In Chicago, that changed to the North Stars.
“I walked into that and it was like, ‘Wow, this is a major situation.’ The fans were on edge,” he said. “If it didn’t happen that shift, it would happen the next. If it didn’t happen that game, it would happen in the next one. That’s something I think the ’80s were famous for. You knew the characters. The guys were there to do their job, and in those days, they were allowed to do their jobs. That filtered into the fans, in both buildings.”
Roberts remembers those Sunday night games against the Hawks in Chicago. “In the fall, half the fans had been to the Bears game and had a few drinks in ’em,” Roberts said. “By the time the Hawks game started at 7 p.m., they were liquored up. Didn’t take long for them to get riled up. Throw in a few fights and it went over the top.”
Former North Stars defenseman and Wild broadcaster Tom Reid was at Chicago Stadium one night, making the long climb to the press box — 91 steps, as he recalls. As he reached the top, he was approached by an immense man with a leather jacket and chains.
“He said, ‘What do you do?’ I told him I broadcast for the North Stars. Then he started coming at me, so I turned to get ready. He came up to me with a big cup of beer. He took the beer and poured it over his own head. And he said, ‘Now I’m ready for some serious hockey.’ ”
But at the center of it all were Ciccarelli and Secord.
Ciccarelli arrived in Minnesota and Secord in Chicago during the same season. Both were 50-goal scorers during their career. Secord was big and strong, Ciccarelli could both agitate and score. All that animus from juniors followed them, and it infused this rivalry.
“Both teams were good,” Ciccarelli said. “There was fan support on both sides, and it was incredible. They hated me, and they hated us, and same with the North Stars fans, they hated the Blackhawks. When you’re playing ’em so many times a year, you kind of get sick of ’em.”
In Game 1 of the 1982 playoffs, Chicago’s Dave Hutchison butt-ended Ciccarelli, prompting a brawl that ended with 125 penalty minutes being doled out.
In Game 4 of the 1984 playoffs — the season the North Stars finally broke through with a series victory vs. Chicago — came perhaps the defining blow in this rivalry. Out of a faceoff, Secord, two hands on his stick, chopped down Ciccarelli from behind. As Ciccarelli writhed on the ice, Roberts and Secord went at it and a brawl ensued. Ultimately, Ciccarelli got up. As he was skating to the bench, Ciccarelli found the strength to flip off the crowd.
Ciccarelli loved every moment of it.
“That drove me to be competitive,” he said. “Playing in that stadium, 20,000 screaming people, I just loved it. Just loved it. The more they hated me, the more success I had in that building. There has to be hatred, and there has to be competitiveness. And then the fans. I still see people. When they find out it’s me, and they’re from Chicago, they say, ‘We hated you.’ And I say, ‘Thank you.’ There’s nothing better when fans are on you to stick it to ’em by scoring goals.”
Secord is an airline pilot and his schedule won’t allow him to be at the alumni game; that likely won’t stop the fans from their infamous “Secord sucks” chant. But Ciccarelli and most of the other notable members of this rivalry will be.
“I’m sure this will be competitive,” Ciccarelli said. “I’m going to want to score goals and beat Chicago again.”
Savard, talking about the game this week, jokingly threw down the gauntlet. “Tell Dino to get ready,” he said, laughing.
To which former North Stars defenseman Brad Maxwell replied: “Tell him to bring it on. He won’t have Secord to protect him this time.”