Leading up to the merger in 1978, the Barons had actually been the better on-ice team. In their last 3 seasons the Barons’ franchise posted a record of (ties omitted) 74-129, while the North Stars posted a 3-year record of 61-145 over the same period.
The two franchises were merged for a total of 13 seasons, and the benefits of the merger were seen right away. The new North Stars made a 23-point improvement in the NHL standings during the first-merged season in 1978/79. The following season, the new North Stars made a surprise run to the Conference Finals. Then, in their 3rd season following the merger, Minnesota made a Cinderella-run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
In the late 1980s the Gund brothers began asking the NHL for permission to relocate the North Stars to the ‘Bay Area’ of Northern California. After all, this is where the Gunds’ ownership had started with the California Golden Seals franchise and they wanted to the return their team to their initial fan base. The NHL declined their request to relocate the North Stars, primarily due to not wanting to abandon a tradition northern hockey market like the Twin Cities. This is ironic because the North Stars ended up relocating anyways- to Dallas in 1993.
The NHL worked with the Gunds to construct another unprecedented set of arrangements to satisfy the owners’ wishes of returning pro-hockey to the Bay Area. Former Hartford Whalers owner Howard Baldwin would buy the North Stars from the Gunds, and the Gunds would be given an expansion team for the Bay Area. In addition, they would be permitted to take a good chunk of the North Stars’ organization with them – in essence, undoing the merger that had occurred 13 years earlier.
1990/91- Final Minnesota North Stars Season before the ‘Un-Merger’
Ironically, in their final season prior to the ‘un-merger’, the Minnesota North Stars made a truly shocking run to the Stanley Cup Finals. To my knowledge, it could be regarded as the mostly miraculous and inexplicable playoff run to a League Finals in the history of the ‘Big Four’ North American team sports.
Despite a record of 27-39-14, for 68 points, Minnesota was very fortunate to qualify for the playoffs.
In arguably the greatest upset in NHL history, the North Stars knocked off the President’s Trophy winners- the Chicago Blackhawks in only 6 games. The Blackhawks had posted a record of 49-23-8 for 106 points during the season.
In the second round Minnesota defeated the St. Louis Blues 4 games to 2. The Blues were only 1 point behind the Blackhawks for the President’s Trophy. St. Louis was 47-22-11 during the season, for 105 points.
In the Campbell Conference Finals the North Stars ran into the Dynasty that was the Edmonton Oilers. Although the Oilers had only been a .500 team that season; they had won 5 of the last 7 Stanley Cups and were the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Furthermore, they had defeated 2 very good teams in order to get to the Conference Finals.
In truly shocking fashion, the North Stars prevailed by winning this series 4 games to 1.
Stanley Cup Finals
The North Stars went onto play the Wales Champion, the Pittsburgh Penguins, yet again as massive underdogs for the 4th time in the playoffs. The Penguins would win their first of back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships, but the North Stars held their own and won 2 games in the Cup Finals.
It’s very possible we never see another run quite like this by a Cinderella-darling. The victories over the Blackhawks, Blues, and Oilers were truly unbelievable for a team who was 12 games under .500, and with the knowledge that the franchise would be torn apart after the season concluded. Perhaps it was the looming dispersal of the organization that ignited the North Stars’ historic run.
Why has the Sharks’ remarkable true history been forgotten?
One theory I can offer as to why this unique and fascinating NHL history has been mostly forgotten may be due to the fact that there were many significant league distractions during both the merger of 1978, and the dispersal of the North Stars in 1991.
One year following the Barons/North Stars merger, the NHL essentially carried out a hostile take-over of the WHA and brought 4 of their franchises into the NHL- (the Jets, Nordiques, Whalers, and Oilers). The rivalry between the two leagues was hostile and fierce, and the consolidation of the two leagues was major news.
13 years later when Minnesota was ‘un-merged’, it was another time of major change for the NHL in the form of significant expansion. Only one year following the dispersal of the North Stars/ creation of the Sharks, the NHL welcomed 2 new expansion teams- the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning. The following season 2 more teams entered the League- the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Florida Panthers.
Perhaps on both ends of this fascinating NHL history, these other monumental league happenings may have been so notable, that both the merger and un-merger of the Barons/North Stars / Sharks got lost in the mix.