People shouldn't call us Cinderella. We didn't get here because we can dance. We got here because we can play hockey." -- Steve Christoff
If there are two subjects that Steve Christoff is qualified to speak on as an expert witness they are Cinderella and hockey.
In February, as a member of the U.S. Olympic hockey team, he helped write the quintessential Cinderella story when the young Americans stunned the Soviets and eventually skated off with a gold medal.
Now, as a member of the Minnesota North Stars, Christoff appears to be involved in another glass slipper epic. But he and his teammates don't see it that way. They say their seven-game upset of the defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens wasn't such a big deal. And, after beating the Philadelphia Flyers, 6-5, here Tuesday for a 1-0 lead in their semifinal series, they only laughed at those who wanted to see their magic wand.
"What does this mean?" asked Al MacAdam, the team's resident philosopher, who was its leading scorer with 42 goals. "It means we have one game less to win."
As team captain Paul Shmyr pointed out with a wave of a hand (not a wand) at his teammates, "You don't see anyone in here going crazy, do you? We know we've got a good hockey team. Winning doesn't surprise us any more."
Smyr's last two words are significant. Because while this is a team with superb young talent, it is also a team that two years ago won just 18 of 80 games, a team that as recently as January still didn't believe in its ability to win on the road.
It was at that point, 45 games into the season, that Coach Glen Sonmor decided his team was too good to be 17-2-4 at home, but only 5-11-5 on the road.
So, when the players came in individually for their regularly scheduled meetings with Sonmor and Assistant Coach Murray Oliver that are held every three weeks. Sonmor asked each player the same question: "Why are we so good at home and so bad on the road?"
"I kept getting the same answer in different words," Sonmor said today. "We're not aggressive enough, we get intimidated; we don't work as hard.
"We took notes on what each player said. Then we got them all together and told them what they were saying. That way it wasn't us getting on them. We were just repeating their own words. I told them we had to become more aggressive. And, I told them we might not see immediate results. It's a good thing I said that because we went out the next night and got shut out in Chicago."
Eventually the team's new willingness to take the body on the road, at least part of the time, paid off. The rest of the regular season, the Stars were 7-9-3 on the road. In the playoffs they are 5-1, including three wins in Montreal, a feat somewhat akin to lighting a fire by rubbing two sticks together.
After the disastrous 18-win season in 1978, two things happened that turned the floundering franchise around. First, Lou Nanne retired after 11 years as a North Star to become the team's general manager. Second, Minnesota merged with the Cleveland Barons, another bad team but still one with some talented players including MacAdam and goalie Gilles Meloche.
Nanne, a naturalized U.S. citizen who captained the 1963 U.S. Olympic hockey team, immediately cleaned house, getting rid of deadwood on and off the ice. He also drafted wisely -- picking center Bobby Smith and winger Steve Payne in the 1978 draft, and wing Tom McCarthy and defenseman Craig Hartsburg in 1979. Smith and Payne teamed with MacAdam this season to score 111 goals. Hartsburg, 20, and McCarthy, 19, were both regulars as rookies.
"I knew we were going to have a good hockey team," said Nanne, described by friends as a talkaholic. "I said two years ago that we could be a contender this season if things went well. I guess you could say they've gone well."
A major reason for things going so well is Sonmor, 51, who is as loud as most of his players are quiet. When the North Stars practice, two sounds are constant: the scratching of skates against the ice and Sonmor's voice, yelling instructions and encouragement to his players.
"We've only got three guys here over 30 and only two guys with more than five games of Stanley Cup experience," Sonmor said. "But if isn't like you would expect. I don't have to keep on them every minute. They know what to do and how to handle situations."
Perhaps Christoff exemplifies that attitude as well as anyone. At 22, he is one of a dozen members of the team 25 or under. Yet his Olympic experience seems to have provided him with a maturity and serenity which has rubbed off on his teammates.
Even Sonmor, the ultimate optimist, admits he has been surprised by how quickly Christoff has adapted to the NHL. "I knew he could play," Somnor said, "but I didn't know he'd be this good this fast."
Which about sums up the rest of the NHL's feelings about the North Stars.
"Now they're calling us Cinderella," Christoff said with a wide smile. "Next year they're just going to call us good."
Sonmor said today that he will start Gary Edwards, who stopped 21 of 22 shots in relief of Giles Meloche Tuesday, in goal for the second game . . . Philadelphia Coach Pat Quinn wasn't nearly as open about his goalkeeping choice. Rookie Pete Peeters, who gave up just seven goals in five quarter-final games, was shaky Tuesday and there is speculation Quinn will turn to backup Phil Myre. "Haven't decided yet," Quinn said, puffing on a cigar.