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Zulgad: Al Shaver ‘Was The North Stars’

Columnist Judd Zulgad pays tribute to North Stars broadcasting legend Al Shaver.

Al Shaver (right) was the voice of the Minnesota North Stars. He died this week at age 96. (Photo courtesy of Vintage Minnesota Hockey)

In the days before nearly every sporting event was televised, before smartphones provided the ability to keep up on in-progress scores and before headphones (and now earbuds) allowed us to listen without disturbing anyone, the transistor radio served as our most-important conduit to games.

Most importantly, it was the voices that came out of those small radios, sometimes crystal clear, sometimes filled with static, that served as the soundtrack to a team. The passing of Al Shaver at the age of 96 this week served as a reminder of just how lucky I was to come of age listening to Shaver describe my favorite team, the Minnesota North Stars.

The tributes to Shaver that were published Wednesday after his family announced his passing will refer to him as the voice of the North Stars. That’s selling Al short. Shaver wasn’t just the voice of the North Stars, he was the North Stars.

The franchise had plenty of star power in its 26 seasons in Minnesota, and a few household names, but no one was identified with the North Stars like Shaver. The North Stars and owner Norm Green left for Dallas after the 1992-93 season — Shaver declined to make the move — so there might be some who wonder if the following statement is a bit of hyperbole, written after someone’s passing?

But it was Shaver who was in charge of describing those magical springtime runs. His voice booming from the press box at Met Center provided comfort on a cold night, and there was nothing better than sneaking that transistor radio under your pillow on a weeknight for a West Coast game that was played while your parents thought you were asleep.

Al Shaver was the best at describing hockey fights, Zulgad writes. (Photo courtesy of Vintage Minnesota Hockey)

The years I was most passionate about the North Stars, Shaver would work the home games with an analyst but would go solo on the road. Shaver was a pro’s pro. He knew when to let the broadcast breathe and his description of each play was like listening to an artist paint a verbal picture.

But it was more than that.

Shaver might be the all-time best at describing a fight. This was in a day where hockey fights were common and Shaver didn’t take any shortcuts when it came to describing the exchange of punches. A boxing announcer couldn’t have done it better. “There go Plett and Secord,” Shaver would tell us from the Chicago Stadium before describing exactly when Al Secord or Willi Plett got in another jab. Bench clearing brawls were Shaver at his best as he visually sifted through the action on the ice to focus on the best bouts.

It always was clear that Shaver was the North Stars voice and that he wanted the team to win. But unlike so many announcers today that didn’t make North Stars players immune from his criticism. If the team wasn’t playing well, Shaver had no problem telling you that and his disgust reflected his passion for the team far more than the excuses spewed today.

Al’s description of the action not only kept you abreast of what was going on, but it also resulted in so many of us doing play-by-play of the street hockey games we would play in the driveway on weekend nights. A big save by the goalie would result in the Shaver-esque: “boh-PRAY with the glove save!”

That would be North Stars goalie Donnie Beaupre, who had the perfect name for Shaver to elongate. Shaver also worked three seasons of Gophers hockey after he left the North Stars and occasionally worked the State High School hockey tournament. Any game Shaver did took on more importance simply because he was calling it. 

Meeting the legend
I had probably been listening to Shaver for five years, when I finally got to meet him. My mother, Edna, who supported my passion for sports every step of the way, wrote Shaver a letter explaining how much her hockey-crazed son admired him and wanted to get into the business.

Al invited me to sit in the AM-1500 booth with him for an afternoon game and beforehand took me to the press room to eat with him. I must have been around 14 at the time and the thrill of being with a legend I had only heard through the radio, or looked up at while sitting in Met Center, sticks with me to this day.

It was probably six years later when I joined the North Stars as a public relations intern. At some point shortly after coming aboard, Al asked if I could drop him off at the airport to catch a flight to a road game. Met Center was only a few minutes from the airport but you talk about a surreal experience. A 19-year-old kid with Al Shaver in the passenger seat of the Dodge his parents let him use.

Suddenly the voice I had listened to so many nights on my transistor radio was having a conversation with me. And anyone who had a conversation with Shaver quickly realized he had no ego and didn’t think of himself as being above anyone. You could be an intern or a top executive with the North Stars and Shaver would treat your with the same respect.

Al retired to Vancouver Island after leaving the Gophers job, meaning it had been nearly 30 years since he last called a game. Yet, I can still hear his voice describing a goal by Dino, a huge save by Beaupre or a Brad Maxwell fight. That’s the type of impact Shaver left on so many. And while his voice might have been silenced this week, it will live on with those of us who grew up listening to him on our transistor radios.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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