This series of articles will celebrate (or laugh at) some of the worst professional sports teams of all time. I will focus on teams within my lifetime so expect the worst from the 1970s to present day.
You know you have a bad hockey team when players from the Cleveland Barons are needed to improve your club. That’s exactly what happened to the Minnesota North Stars, following the 1977-78 NHL season. Yes, the North Stars were so putrid, they needed support from a team that was folding, yet still finished 12 points ahead of them in the standings. The North Stars were that bad.
The Green and Gold finished the 77-78 season with a laughable 18-53-9 record, good for a measly 45 points. The North Stars and Barons tied for giving up the most goals, conceding 325 goals, or an average of just over 4 goals a game. The North Stars were getting scored on like a co-ed on Spring Break.
Whenever a hockey team has trouble keeping the puck out of its own net, goaltending is an issue. The North Stars had that issue in 77-78. Pete LoPresti is the main culprit. The native of Tower, Minnesota (pop. 500) had a forgettable season, going 12-35-6 with a 4.23 goals against average. Surprisingly, LoPresti did post 2 shutouts, but was otherwise an open gate for opposing shooters.
Paul Harrison was another unfortunate victim, to be stuck between the pipes for this hapless group. Harrison recorded a 6-16-2 mark with a 3.82 goals against average and 1 shutout. Mercifully for Harrison, he was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the offseason.
Gary “Suitcase” Smith also had a brief spell in net for the North Stars. The well-travelled goalie, (he played for 7 NHL teams in his career) appeared in 3 games for the Stars, compiling a 0-2-1 mark with a 3.00 goals against average, before joining the Washington Capitals later in the season.
But it wasn’t just the goaltending that was the problem. The defence of the Stars wasn’t much better. A mixture of youth and veterans blended like water and oil on the ice. Brad Maxwell was seen as the future of the North Stars blueline. The 18-year-old rearguard did enjoy a solid offensive season, chalked up 18 goals and 29 assists for the Stars. However, his play in the defensive zone left much to be desired. Maxwell was a -57 in his rookie season for the Stars. And you thought Minnesota winters were cold!
At least Maxwell contributed offensively, unlike his counterpart Fred Barrett. The veteran defenceman went the entire season without registering a goal, even though he missed only one game all season. Worse yet, Barrett was a -35, which made him equally useless at both ends of the ice. Barrett also had a reputation for being one of the dirtiest players on the Stars, which made him hated by opposing teams.
Things were so bad on the blueline, Lou Nanne decided to retire and accept the head coaching position for the Stars. Nanne appeared in 26 games for the Stars before deciding he had enough with being teammates with this sorry group, and decided to be their boss. Nanne was the third coach of the season for the Stars, as he was preceded by Ted Harris and Andre Beaulieu. By the end of the season, Nanne was promoted to general manager.
The forwards were young and had trouble adjusting with the professional game. Some of them did have promise, but the rigours of the NHL were too much for this baby-faced group in 77-78. Tim Young led the Stars with 23 goals while Roland Eriksson’s 60 points topped the club. Young was the North Star that showed the most promise, as he was starting to develop has a solid two-way centre. His playmaking was seen as a bright spot on the team, he just didn’t have the support to make him shine.
Glen Sharpley was another young forward with potential. The 20-year-old centre notched 22 goals and 33 assists in his second season with the North Stars. However, Sharpley’s poor attitude and unwillingness to improve his checking saw his NHL career cut short, and he never developed into the long-term star, Minnesota was hoping for. His -33 showed him to be lazier than a member of the Canadian Senate.
While some of the Stars young contingent were OK, none of them lived up to the high expectations, management placed upon them and were soon distant memories. The likes of Steve Jensen, Per-Olov Brasar, Alex Pirus, and Ron Zanussi all went on to undistinguished NHL careers, despite their youthful optimism.
When a team was this bad, the truly awful games will outnumber the good ones by a wide margin. The North Stars started the season, by losing their first six games, and never looked back. Their worst loss came on November, 23 1977 when the New York Islanders rolled into the Met Centre, and pounded the hapless Stars 9-2. But perhaps the Stars most embarrassing game happened a week later at the Boston Garden.
The North Stars were playing the Big Bad Bruins when a line brawl broke out midway through the third period. Bruins tough guy John Wensink did a number on poor Alex Pirus, while Terry O’Reilly pounded the living daylights out of Steve Jensen. After Wensink finished off Pirus, he then went to the North Stars bench, and challenged the entire team to fight. The North Stars looked frightened and did nothing while Wensink and the Bruins faithful mocked the cowardly North Stars. It was a shameful act by a terrible hockey team.
The best thing that happened to the North Stars was the season coming to an end. The collapse of the Barons franchise meant the Stars were getting some new players for next season. Gilles Meloche was an upgrade in goal. Greg Smith and Jean Potvin provided stability to the blueline. Al MacAdam brought an offensive spark that also improve the North Stars fortunes in the future.
The recently retired Nanne, also proved to be a shrewd GM, when he selected Bobby Smith first overall in the 1978 entry draft. The Ottawa 67’s centre quickly became a top line player for Minnesota, thus bringing hope to the State of Hockey.
The North Stars improved by 23 points in 1978-79, but still missed the playoffs. However they broke through in 1979-80. After sweeping Toronto in the first round, the young North Stars shocked the hockey world by eliminating Montreal in seven games in the second round. The Canadiens were looking for their fifth straight Stanley Cup, but the North Stars crushed those hopes by winning the deciding game at the fabled Montreal Forum. The North Stars peaked in 1980-81 when they reached the Stanley Cup Final, only to run into the New York Islander dynasty. The North Stars were gone in five games, and the franchise left Minnesota in 1993.
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