The National Hockey League, playing its 50th season that spring, scheduled a June expansion draft to stock six new clubs, including the Minnesota North Stars. At the same time, the fledgling American Basketball Association was looking to compete with the National Basketball Association.
The ABA’s rag-tag collection of owners, without a plan or adequate financing, faced a stiff challenge taking on a 12-team NBA in which half of the clubs were losing money. Yet, the new league was born, with the Minnesota Muskies taking to the hardwood that fall with 10 other franchises, including the Indiana Pacers, Kentucky Colonels, Denver Rockets, Dallas Chaparrals and Anaheim Amigos.
The new league quickly set itself apart from the NBA… after hiring the NBA’s first superstar as its commissioner: the 6-foot-10 George Mikan, who towered over opponents and led the Minneapolis Lakers to the first NBA championship in 1950. Mikan, widely considered the Babe Ruth of the upstart NBA, was a masterful shot-blocker and rebounder with an ambidextrous hook shot. He played seven seasons for the Lakers and guided them to four NBA titles in a five-year span. Four years after Mikan retired as the league’s all-time scoring leader in 1956, the financially struggling Lakers relocated to Los Angeles.
Mikan, who practiced law and operated a travel agency in Minneapolis following his playing days, made several unilateral decisions after taking over as the ABA’s chief executive. The new owners wanted ABA headquarters in New York, but Mikan insisted he wasn’t leaving home, so the new league was based in Minneapolis. Other Mikan mandates were more memorable.
The bespectacled former player, who struggled to see the brown ball when he watched basketball games, decided the league would play with a red, white and blue ball. “The owners acted like I wanted to burn the flag when I said to forget the brown ball,” he told Terry Pluto, author of “Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association.” Mikan also instituted a long-distance, three-point field goal, a wildly popular innovation that the NBA later adopted. The three-point shot and the dunk became cornerstones of the new league’s open, improvisational style.
During the ABA’s initial player draft on April 2, 1967, the Muskies used their first two picks to select future Hall of Famer Mel Daniels, a 6-foot-9 All-American center from the University of New Mexico, and a future Hall of Fame coach, Phil Jackson, a Little All-American forward for his home state school, the University of North Dakota. Daniels inked with the Muskies instead of the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals, becoming the NBA’s first first-round pick to jump to the new league. He learned a hook shot from Mikan, and in that first season led the 50-28 Muskies in points and rebounds.
Although the opportunity to play close to home intrigued Jackson, the NBA’s New York Knicks also drafted him in the second round and the team’s coach, Red Holzman, traveled to North Dakota and signed him to a better offer than Muskies owner Larry Shields could afford. Jackson, who joined a talented club featuring Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere, was part of two championship clubs in 10 seasons with the Knicks. He went on to win 11 more rings coaching the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.
In the playoffs the following spring, the Muskies failed to reach the ABA Finals when they lost a five-game series to the eventual league champion, the Pittsburgh Pipers, led by the inaugural league MVP and scoring leader, Connie Hawkins. Soon after, the Muskies, who failed to draw fans to the Met Center in Bloomington, departed for Florida and became the Miami Floridians. Before the move, Shields, desperate for cash, dealt Daniels, the league’s Rookie of the Year and arguably its second-best player, to the Indiana Pacers for a first-round pick, two players and cash. The trade was among the worst in ABA history.
Bill Erickson, a Minneapolis attorney, bought a majority share of the Pipers and brought the flashy, entertaining Hawkins to Minnesota for the ABA’s second season. The Brooklyn-born future Hall of Famer, arguably New York’s greatest playground legend and the ABA’s leading attraction, had been spurned by the NBA following a point-shaving scandal at the University of Iowa, which likely did not involve him.
Hawkins, who was blackballed from college ball and played for the Harlem Globetrotters, averaged 30.2 points a game for the Pipers during an injury-plagued 1968-69 season. Daniels told Pluto that “the Connie Hawkins that led Pittsburgh to that first title could play in the NBA and be on the same level as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.” But this immense talent in town was lost on Minnesota fans, who were no more inclined to drive to the Met Center to watch him and the 36-42 Pipers. Even $2 tickets over the season’s last two months failed to draw fans. The team returned to Pittsburgh after one season, a crazy business decision typical of the ABA. From that point on, Mikan was Minnesota’s lone connection to the ABA.
Meanwhile, the National Hockey League, long a six-team affair, doubled in size for the 1967-68 season. The league had been mostly an East Coast phenomenon, with only teams in Chicago and Detroit not based in the Eastern time zone. In adding six teams, however, the NHL crossed the continent. The Los Angeles Kings and Oakland Seals took up residence on the left coast; joining them in the newly created West Division were the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota North Stars.
Minneapolis native and longtime amateur and minor league hockey administrator Walter Bush fronted an ownership group running the new Minnesota franchise—named for the state motto “L’Étoile du Nord,” the French phrase meaning “The Star of the North.”
Prior to an expansion draft to stock the six new clubs, held on June 7, 1967, the North Stars hired the flamboyant, entertaining and free-wheeling Wren Blair to oversee personnel decisions as the club’s general manager and coach. A few years earlier, Blair had discovered 14-year-old phenom Bobby Orr and later signed him for the Boston Bruins. Bush and Blair had worked together as co-owner and general manager of the minor league Minneapolis Bruins, and on joining the North Stars, Blair wasted little time in shaping the roster.
The expansion draft began with two rounds that provided each new club with two goalies. Blair avoided the difficult decision of whether to draft one of two veterans well into 30s, Toronto starter Terry Sawchuk (37) and Chicago stalwart Glenn Hall (35), future Hall of Famers who many feared would not want to join expansion clubs. After the Kings selected Sawchuk first overall and the Blues chose Hall with the third pick, Blair drafted New York Rangers prospect Cesare Maniago, who was a fixture in the North Stars net for nine seasons. In the second round, Blair picked Gary Bauman to back up Maniago.
At the time, the Canadiens were the league’s elite team, deep in talent they had to make available to the new franchises. Blair and Canadiens general manager Sammy Pollock were old friends who had climbed corporate ladders together, and in the weeks leading up to the draft, they began working on draft-day trades that would benefit both clubs. Pollock didn’t want to lose promising wing Claude Larose, and according to the Minneapolis Tribune’s Dwayne Netland, told Blair to “pick anyone else and we can make a deal.”
So, with the second pick of the third round, Blair chose Canadiens wing Dave Balon, allowing Pollock to pull back Larose and add him to his protected list. The Habs general manager compensated by dealing center André Boudrias, defenseman Mike McMahon and wing Bob Charlebois to Minnesota. Interestingly, a year later, the trade-happy Blair dealt Balon to the Rangers and acquired Larose and Danny Grant for a first-round draft pick and two players who had little impact in Montreal. That trade had a huge payoff for the North Stars, as Grant was the club’s leading goal-scorer in three of his six seasons in Minnesota.
Blair and Pollock executed another deal on draft day, and a third the following day during the amateur draft. When the dust had settled. Blair had added 39 players to the roster. Exactly one-third—13—had been acquired from Montreal, including center Bill Masterton, who scored the franchise’s first goal in a 2-2 tie with the Blues in St. Louis on October 11, 1967. Among those selected from other organizations to make a significant impact included center Ray Cullen (fourth round from Detroit), and wings Wayne Connelly (seventh round from Boston) and Bill Goldsworthy (11th round from Boston). The flashy, exciting Goldsworthy led the club in goals six times in 10 seasons.
In the North Stars’ inaugural campaign, sharpshooter Connelly led the way with 35 goals and 56 points. That first North Stars team beat five of the Original Six clubs and came within a goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. While the Canadiens advanced from the East Division made up of the Original Six, the North Stars, loaded with former Canadiens, lost in double overtime to the Blues in Game 7 of the conference finals.
Four of the seven games required overtime. The Scotty Bowman-coached Blues won three, including the finale. In the first extra session of Game 7, Connelly skated in alone on Hall when he was pulled down from behind by the Blues’ Jimmy Roberts, which didn’t draw a penalty shot or even a two-minute minor penalty.
Then, early in the second session, Ron Schock beat Maniago on a breakaway for the 2-1 win, setting up the expansion Blues for a four-game sweep at the hands of the mighty Canadiens. After limiting heavily favored Montreal to one-goal victories in all four games, the 36-year-old Hall, who was known to vomit before every game later in his career, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the league’s playoff MVP.