This year marks a personal milestone for this writer as I have been following professional sports in Minnesota for the past 50 years. There have been some great moments over the years, but also a lot of heartbreak.
My interest started as an 11-year-old youth growing up in St. Cloud in 1971, pro sports were gaining popularity in the state as the Vikings were in the middle of a streak of four Super Bowl appearances in seven seasons. The Twins had reached the American League championship series in 1969 and 1970. And the North Stars were having some success despite being a fairly new expansion franchise.
I closely followed all three teams - mostly listening to the games on my small radio. The Vikings were on TV each Sunday, but I became familiar with the voices of Herb Carneal doing the Twins on radio and Al Shaver covering the North Stars. The box scores in the next day’s newspaper helped me keep statistics on the teams.
Following the sports was a daily routine, even though postseason success was minimal for two of the teams as the Twins would not return to the playoffs until 1987 and the North Stars didn’t advance past the quarterfinals until 1980. But the Vikings continued to reach the postseason, despite the Super Bowl losses in 1973, 1974 and 1976. I remember waiting two weeks in anticipation of the Super Bowls only to have the purple gang lose each championship by double digit scores. They were heartbreaking losses, but at least the Vikings made it to the Super Bowl - something they haven’t returned to over the past 45 seasons.
After moving to the Brainerd Lakes area in 1983, I went from a fan to a sports reporter who was lucky enough to cover some of Minnesota’s biggest sports moments - like the Twins World Series wins in 1987 and 1991, the North Stars surprising Stanley Cup run in 1991 and the Lynx clinching their fourth WNBA title in 2017.
I haven’t attended a professional sports event for two years now (mostly because of COVID). So I’m back to watching the games on television or on my computer. And I sometimes think about my favorite memories over the past 50 years:
A memorable home run derby
One of the first big events I covered as a sports writer at the Dispatch was the 1985 All-Star Home Run Derby in the Metrodome. It was the first MLB home run derby, and the media was allowed to watch from the dugouts. The format had the American League, led by the Twins’ Tom Brunansy, against the National League. It was pretty neat to get up close and talk with players like Pete Rose, Sandy Kofax and Jack Morris.
St. Cloud Apollo High School’s baseball team had just won the state championship that year and was chosen to retrieve baseballs in the field during the derby. One of the Apollo players reached over the fence to take away a home run. It made the difference as the American League edged the National League 17-16. The fans enjoyed the derby, which has grown into a televised prime-time annual event.
Two of the most intimidating coaching figures in NFL history were the Vikings’ Bud Grant and the Chicago Bears’ Mike Ditka. I had a chance to come close both while covering more than two dozen VIkings home games for the Dispatch from 1984-1994.
Back then, the coaches would answer questions from the media right after games before walking to the locker room. Grant finished talking, but I didn’t get to ask a question about a player I was writing my column about that week. I followed him, and asked if I could ask a question. He turned around and stared at me. He was intimidating. Then he said, “Where are you from?” I answered “Brainerd” as my voice cracked. He kept looking at me and said “OK.” Apparently he liked Brainerd.
A national TV game in the Metrodome in 1992 featured the Vikings against the Bears. Chicago’s quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, called an audible that resulted in an interception for a Vikings’ touchdown. The play helped the Vikings rally from a 20-point deficit to defeat the Bears. It was an interesting press conference. Coach Ditka’s face turned red and was furious as he talked about his quarterback’s mistake and his frustrations with “players who know more than the coaches.”
A favorite superstar
I came across a few national superstars as a reporter covering Minnesota sports. One of the most humbling stars was Wayne Gretzky, who I had a chance to interview after the Edmonton Oilers played the North Stars in 1986. Gretzky was at the peak of his stardom and I figured my odds were slim to interview him after the game.
I found him sitting on a trainer’s table. I slowly entered the room and asked if I could interview him. The trainer said, “you can’t be in here.”
So Gretzky stood up and walked out in the locker room. About a dozen media members gathered around one of the greatest to play in the NHL. Soon the reporters left, and I didn’t get to ask my handful of questions. Gretzky stopped walking and said “That’s right, you didn’t get to ask me your questions.” He answered all of my questions and shook hands when we were done. He was a class act.
Interviewing local connections to professional teams was always fun - like taking photos of former Nisswa Elementary student Joe Haeg when he played for the Indianapolis Colts against the Vikings at US Bank Stadium in 2016. I also had a few chances to interview and take photos of Timberwolves head trainer Gregg Farnum, a Pine River-Backus graduate.
But interviews were always special with Glenn “Chico” Resch, a long-time NHL goaltender who lives part-time in the Brainerd area. In my first year as a Dispatch reporter, Resch agreed to a story about his unique summer training where he dressed in his full New Jersey Devils equipment and faced shots from a tennis machine while sliding on a sheet of plexiglass.
It was always great seeing the friendly Resch face the North Stars at Met Center. One time, late in his career with the Devils, Resch was mostly a backup to a younger goalie. My story was focused on Chico, so I asked New Jersey coach Doug Carpenter if Resch was going to be playing more in the future? The coach seemed irritated that I was questioning his goaltending decision. I was just trying to find out Chico’s role for my column. Resch often joked that I got him in trouble with his coach. He did join the Philadelphia Flyers the next season.
Poetic justice with the Stanley Cup
The North Stars were the team I probably liked the most. I was a loyal fan, even during the bad seasons. My first date with my wife, Julie, was attending a North Stars game.
The North Stars finally reached the Stanley Cup finals against the New York Islanders in 1981. I really wanted a ticket and sat in lawn chairs overnight with friends in the Met Center parking lot to have a chance when the sales window opened the next day at 8 a.m. We were in the middle of a long line of people. The problem is the back of the line charged to the front at the last minute and we didn’t get tickets.
I did get some revenge 10 years later when the North Stars once again advanced to the Stanley Cup final to face the Pittsburgh Penguins. I had a press pass and covered the surprising playoff run by the North Stars for the Dispatch and found an open camera hole in the plexiglass along the goal line. That was my spot for two of the home games in the finals - including the 8-0 loss in Game 6 to give the Penguins the title.
The defeat hurt, but not as much as owner Norm Green announcing he was moving the North Stars to Dallas in 1993. That should never have happened. We did get the Wild in St. Paul seven years ago, and that slowly became our team.
Timberwolves had some success
I probably have the fewest memories from the NBA’s Timberwolves since they debuted in Minnesota in 1989 - maybe because they’ve only won 39% of their games all-time. The team was fortunate to draft eventual superstar Kevin Garnett in 1995.
Garnett helped the Wolves improve and on April 22, 2003, my son and I watched from Target Center as the Wolves dominated the Los Angeles Lakers 119-91 to even the first-round playoff series. The Wolves lost that series in six games, but came back the following season to reach the Western Conference finals. That April 22 night was also special for another Minnesota franchise as we listened to the Wild’s Game 7 playoff against the Colorado Avalanche on radio on our ride home. Andrew Brunette’s overtime goal gave the Wild their first playoff series win and they went on to reach the Conference finals against Anaheim.