There's not much easy about being the coach of an expansion team, let alone combining those duties with that of a general manager. But by all accounts, Minnesota North Stars coach Wren Blair accomplished the job with a combination of passion and humor.
Blair, who passed away at his home Wednesday at the age of 87, was the first coach and general manager for the North Stars franchise when the team entered the league as part of the 1967 NHL expansion.
While he was never a figure in the Dallas organization - indeed, his tenure with the North Stars ended in 1974, nearly two decades before the team moved south - he was instrumental in helping the team establish a culture and fanbase in its initial years.
He didn't only make an impact in the NHL via the coaching ranks, either. As a scout in 1961, Blair came across a junior player he reportedly described as "a combination of Doug Harvey and Eddie Shore."
After a year of visiting that player's family and an investment of $1,000 by the team into a junior hockey program, a young Bobby Orr signed with a Boston Bruins affiliate. Think of how different the hockey world might have been if a scout from Toronto or Montreal had been the one to establish that crucial first relationship.
Blair also spent a little more than a year as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Stars issued this statement Friday about his passing.
The Dallas Stars learned last night that the franchise's first general manager and head coach, Wren Blair, passed away at the age of 87.
Blair coached the Minnesota North Stars in two stints from 1967-1970 and was the team's general manager until 1974. He was instrumental in building the Stars in those early years, and put together a team that included franchise legends like Cesare Maniago, Bill Goldsworthy, Bill Masterton, Lou Nanne, J.P. Parise, and Gump Worsley.
We are sad to learn of his passing, and extend our deepest sympathies to his family.
There are several delightfully vintage hockey anecdotes about his tenure with the North Stars in the Minnesota newspapers.
The first, which you can just envision happening, comes courtesy of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press.
During training camp at Wakota Arena in South St. Paul one day, Blair became heated about what he saw as ineffective play by Reid, then a young defenseman, and veteran forward Tommy Williams. He shouted at everyone to get off the ice and, to put an exclamation point on it, hurled Reid's stick at the boards. The stick hit the boards and caromed back, striking Blair between the eyes.
As the trainers tended to Blair's bleeding face, Reid had to laugh.
"The next day I was sent to Waterloo for disciplinary reasons," he remembered. "I was down there for nine days."
He wasn't afraid to criticize the crowd either, as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune recalled.
"I had to do something to get some attention," Blair told the Star Tribune in 1991. "The Twins, the Vikings and the Gophers football team owned the town.
"One night, a reporter asked me about the crowd. I said, 'Ah, they are nothing but a bunch of phlegmatic Swedes, sitting up there on their hands like pieces of stone.' [Jim] Klobuchar wrote a column in the Minneapolis Star, saying he was offended because I had ignored all of the phlegmatic Norwegians, Italians, Germans and Irishmen.
"By Christmas time, that building was full."
Wouldn't it be great if coaches could get away with saying things like that today? I highly encourage people to read both full stories. There are so many more great anecdotes.
On a more serious notes, while Blair came well before the time any of us here at DBD had ever turned into hockey fans, I think I can speak for all of us in that he seems to be one of the genuine hockey characters of the 1960s and 70s, and he obviously changed the course of hockey history both through his association with the North Stars and his keen scouting eye.
Our condolences go out to his family, and we are proud to have him associated with this franchise.