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before the beginning '72 - '73 '73 - '74 '74 - '75 '75 - '76 '76 - '77 '77 - '78 '78 - '79 wha news ... such as it is ...

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  • Home: St. Paul, MN
  • Stadium: St. Paul Auditorium (8,500) 1972, St. Paul Civic Center (16,180) 1973-76
  • Team synopsis: An initial franchise, club built itself around tough, gritty, and often dirty play. Fans didn't care usually if the Saints won or not, as long as there was a good brawl. Team gained notoriety for having the Hanson brothers from 'Slapshot' modelled after their real-life team. Other noteable players included future TV broadcaster John Garrett and Mike (Shakey) Walton. Club folded after 59 games in the '75 - '76 season. Came back the next season briefly as the reincarnation of the Cleveland Crusaders. The club kept the name and logo of the Fighting Saints, but changed their jerseys from blue and gold to red and gold.

Unquestionably one of the most chameleon like teams in the WHA, the Fighting Saints went through three jersey makeovers, and also had two totally different incarnations - one a transplanted franchise from next door in Ohio. One of the original choices to begin play in '72-'73, they made St Paul, Minnesota their home. The NHL's North Stars were playing out of Minneapolis and were a sub-par team, so the WHA was putting high hopes on the Saints. Owned by local business mogul Wayne Belisle, shrewd thinking saw the drafting of Governor Wendell Anderson, a former junior league all star. Although the Governor never did suit up, he did manag to stick-handle his way through the state legislature, getting the initial deposit fee for the team. The building process began with the hiring of Glen Sonmore as head coach. They put NHLer's Peter Mahovlich, Dale Tallon and Bill Goldsworthy on their initial draft list, but were unable to lure any of them to the new league. They did however sign the Bruins' Wayne Connelly and built around his explosive and gritty 2-way play. By mid season Sonmore had left the coaching duties to concentrate on the job of general manager, and the team had moved from the Auditorium to their newly built home, the Civic Center. One of their first games in their new digs was the first nationally televised game, a 6-4 win over Winnipeg. New coach Harry Neale rotated goaltending duties between three players, and the Saints finished the inaugural season tied for fourth in the West with 79 points, despite possessing a GAA of over 4 per game. A one game tie breaker was played against the Oilers (held in Calgary), which the Saints won 4-2. Their first round playoffs opponents were the Winnipeg Jets. Despite winning the first game, the Saints dropped the next four and were out in 5.

The second season began with a new logo, one of the best in the entire league of all-time. A major step in solving their on again-off again defensive woes was taken when they signed rookie goaltender John Garrett, who was touted by several NHL clubs. An off-season trade saw Fran Huck come over from Winnipeg, who'd also seen duty with the St Louis Blues, followed by Mike Walton defecting from the Boston Bruins. Attendance continued to grow, partly due to the North Stars lacklustre play in the NHL. Averaging well over 8,500 a game, the Civic Center was sold out when St Paul hosted the second annual all-star game in January of '74, which Walton was awarded the game MVP award. Though the team's goals against actually increased, so did their offense, due largely to Walton leading the league with with 117 points and 3 others netting at least 30 goals. They finished second in the West, and tied for second overall, facing off against the Oilers in the first round. After 5 games, they'd thwarted the Oil's playoff dreams for the second straight year. They squared off against Houston in the second round, but fell to the eventual Avco Cup champions in 6.

The '74 - '75 campaign was pretty much a continuation of the previous season. Again attendance was one of the better stories in the league. They came to terms with Toronto Maple Leafs' star Dave Keon, who was expected to provide some leadership in both the dressing room and on-ice. On the back of Connelly and Walton having 35+ goals runs again, they finished the season third in the East under the new 3 division alignment. Though only 3 points off last year's mark of 90, improved parody in the league had the Saints finish tied for 6th overall. 2 shutouts by John Garrett helped them take out the heavily favoured Houston Aeros 4 games to 2 in the first round of the playoffs. Again the underdogs, the second round saw the Saints up against Quebec, losing despite a valiant 6 game effort.

During the off-season, they tried unsuccessfully to lure Bobby Orr from the Boston Bruins, who was co-owner in a hockey camp with Mike Walton. The season began amid an air of uncertainty for the Saints. Though they consistently sold more tickets than most other clubs during the league's first four years and hosted arguably the best all-star game in either league for years in 1973, money problems were surfacing. The NHL's more aggressive marketing strategy was allowing the North Stars to gain the dominance of the Twin Cities market. Without a truly 'name' player like Orr, the Saints couldn't secure the sort of tv deal that Houston could with Gordie Howe on the team. But by mid-season, the Saints were battling Houston for top spot in the WHA West. Garrett was among the top goalies and Walton and Connelly were both on their way to 40 goal seasons again and the team looked like contenders again. But Belisle's financial woes finally peaked and in late February of '76, it was announced the game on the 27th would be the team's last. After a 2-1 overtime loss at home to San Diego, after 59 games, all players were declared free agents and open for bidding.

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The off-season in '76 was a turning point in the WHA - as were many. Minnesota had folded earlier that year, as had the league's second try in Ottawa, which had begun the year as the expansion Denver Spurs. And now the Nick Miletti wanted his Crusaders out of Cleveland, despite finally getting a playmate in the Cincinnati Stingers. Although his original choice was the Miami area, the WHA remembered their last attempt at the Florida market and wooed him to St Paul instead. But with Gerry Cheevers and Gerry Pinder both going back to the NHL that summer, the relocated Crusaders weren't the contenders they once were, despite persuading Dave Keon to stay in Minnesota and dawn a red Saints' jersey. Although 30 goal man Al McDonough remained with the team and they landed veteran John McKenzie, goal production was off greatly from their last year in Cleveland. Paul Shmyr was still one of the league's best defencemen, but it was evident the true value of Cheevers. Mike Curran and Louis Levasseur were both sporting heavy GAA. Sparse attendance was always an issue for the second incarnation of the Saints, averaging less than 5000 per game. A 9-5 win over Indianapolis on January 14, '77 was the last game for the Minnesota Fighting Saints, for the second time.

The second incarnation of the team never really stood a chance, as the original Saints were a better team, though never living up to their potential. However the same could be said for the team while in Cleveland. And although they adopted their predecessors' logo, only changing the colours from blue and yellow to red and yellow, fans just didn't seem interested. Though the North Stars were widely regarded as inferior to the original Saints, they were better than the transplanted Crusaders. And although Nick Milletti openly wanted an NHL team, in hindsight it would've been beter to keep his team in Cleveland. Though the NHL had moved the Golden Seals to Cleveland that season, they folded two years later. Another note of disinterest the NHL had in a second team in the Twin Cities area was made clear. Although the Saints were never part of the WHA-NHL exhibition games, the North Stars were in 7, only winning 2 and tieing 1 of them.