On a cold Saturday afternoon, the warm hearts of some of the toughest hockey players to play in the state showed their love for a Minnesota hockey icon. The Fighting Saints marched in as Bill Butters, along with Jack Carlson and Henry Boucha surprised their former general manager, Glen Sonmor, with a recent visit.
Boucha called his time playing for Glen Sonmor as some of the best years he ever played and the Minnesota Fighting Saints team that Somor put together was the best hockey team he had ever played on. To emphasize just how talented this team was, Boucha recalled one game in Phoenix, “We were slow starting out and about midway through the second period were down 6-0. One of the guys said let’s see what we are made of, and we decided to pick it up a notch, and ended up coming back to win 7-6.”
Boucha recalled playing on the team with some of the stars of the team that included David Keon, Johnny “Pie” McKenzie, Mike “Shaky” Walton, Wayne Connolly with Mike Curran and Carl Wetzel tending goal along with Minnesotan’s Keith Christiansen, George Konik, Pat Westrum, Dick Paradise and, of course, Carlson and Butters.
“I have no doubt in my mind that, in a seven-game series, we would have beat the North Stars,” Boucha said confidently.
Butters, now serving as a full time pastor for Hockey Ministries International to serve the hockey community and hockey players, was known for his toughness as a player. According to former Gopher teammate Brad Morrow, Butters was without fear and recalled one fight where he took on a whole team.
“We were playing Colorado College and Billy just went nuts,” Morrow recalled as if it were yesterday. “When he skated over in front of the CC’s player bench taunting the entire team for a fight, when no one came out, Butters jumped over the boards and into the CC players box and then just started swinging, taking on the whole team”.
Morrow is still amazed on the turnabout that Butters has made from one of the toughest rowdiest players he had ever played with to one who is now all about his Christian Ministry.
Carlson, who has also had a major change of character, was known as a fierce hockey fighter who took on the toughest NHL fighters and stood up for his teammates. Ironically, he now can be found as a referee in the Adult Hockey League as well as doing local youth games. Carlson, whose brothers appeared in the hockey movie “Slap Shot” as the Hanson brothers would have been in the movie if not for his playing for the North Stars. The movie, about a fictional professional team in Charlestown, Penn. named the Chiefs whose antics were more thuggery than hockey, was a studio success and featured Paul Newman as its leading man.
Sonmor’s style of coaching was always tough, physically tough. Sonmor had mentors that reflected that mentality. He recalled playing with the legendary John Mariucci for the old Minneapolis Millers, and when it came time for the championship series with Omaha, the Millers GM told the players that it was now up to them.
Mariucci told the guys that in order to win the best of 5 championship series, they would need to take only one game in Omaha, as he was convinced they would win two in Minneapolis on their small sheet of ice. Sonmor recalls literally beating the crap out of the Omaha team the first night, then winning the next three, as the Omaha team played scared the rest of the series. After a serious eye injury, Sonmor made the successful transition from player to coach.
Mariucci’s influence, along with Sonmor’s own physical style, created a coach that just loved the physical game. Sonmor did not disappoint as a general manager either, when in the mid 70’s, the World Hockey Association was birthed, giving St. Paul a franchise, Sonmor did a masterful job in creating one of the best hockey line ups ever to play in the state. At the outset, the Saints had a policy of favoring local players, with the 1972–73 roster featuring no fewer than 11 athletes who were either born in Minnesota or American citizens. This was almost unheard of in the early 1970s, when few NHL or WHA teams had even a single American player..
After starting out as GM and coach, Sonmor handed the coaching reins to Harry Neale. The team put on a far more entertaining show with the Saints games consistently outdrawing their cross city rival Minnesota North Stars. The league in many ways was very futuristic, and took out the center red line for a much faster game that took the NHL almost 25 years to figure out.
The interesting fact with the three men who visited Sonmor on Saturday Dec. 14, was they also played for the North Stars. In fact, Carlson was involved with the turn around, as with the Cleveland Barons folding in the 1978 season and merging with the North Stars, the team had an infusion of talent. Glen’s long-time friend and new North Star GM Lou Nanne, then took a bold step and told management that they needed a new coach, and that coach needed to be Sonmor. The problem was that Sonmor was successful in the WHA, and the NHL and the North Star ownership at that time did not want anything to do with Sonmor.
Sonmor recalled Nanne the negotiator, “Lou knew when he had the upper hand, and always won when he had the upper hand as he was one of the best there was in getting what he wanted.” In this case, Nanne held firm, as he knew the Gunds and the ownership knew they needed to make a change in the culture of the team.
Sonmor did just that, turning around what was considered a soft team into a team that battled the way the hardened Sonmor only knew. By adding tough guys and character people, the Stars were no longer going to be the team that other teams pushed around.
To prove his point, as the Stars were approaching making the playoffs and lining up against the rugged Boston Bruins, two months before in a late February game, the fiery Sonmor came into the locker room prior to the game and said tonight is the night we make our stand. Sonmor recalls telling the team “I don’t care what the score is at the end of the game, but by the time this game is over, Boston will know they won’t be able to push us around anymore. At the first time, not the second or the third, but the first time they pull any intimidating move, WE WILL RESPOND.”
Six seconds into the game, Bruins center Steve Kasper brushed his stick into Bobby Smith’s face. Smith, known as a gentle giant, and a smooth goal-scoring playmaker, dropped Kasper with a few hard rights to Caspers head. According to Sonmor, the first period had over 400 minutes in penalties, and at the end of the game, Carlson recalls both teams having only 7 or 8 skaters left, as the rest of the team was already tossed out for fighting.
The North Stars may have lost that game, but the key was they had stopped the endless losing in Boston as just two months later, the Stanley Cup series would start and have the Stars facing the Bruins in Boston for the first two games. The Stars would win both games in overtime before heading back to the Met where they would take the series leading to their improbable run to the Stanley Cup.
It is with great memories and fondness that the hockey community reaches out in prayers and visits the ailing Sonmor as all know that Sonmor would do the same for them. It is obvious that Sonmor appreciates all the kindness that is being expressed in his time of need.
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