The Minnesota Fighting Saints was the name of two professional ice hockey teams based in Saint Paul, Minnesota that played in the World Hockey Association (WHA).
The first team was one of the WHA's original twelve franchises, playing from 1972–76.
The second team was relocated from Cleveland, Ohio and played for part of the 1976–77 season. Neither edition of the franchise completed its final season of play.
Founded in November 1971, the first Fighting Saints team played four seasons beginning in 1972–73 under the ownership of nine local businessmen. (St. Paul attorney Wayne Belisle purchased the team late in the 1973-74 season. Belisle was the front man for a group of owners that included Jock Irvine.)
The Saints' first game, a 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, was played October 13, 1972, at the St. Paul Auditorium. The team moved to the new St. Paul Civic Center, which opened in January 1973. The first game in the new arena was on January 1, 1973, a 4-4 overtime tie with the Houston Aeros.
The team colors were royal blue, white and new gold. The name was taken from the St. Paul Saints of the Central Hockey League, who had used the nickname "Fighting Saints" in promotional material.
The team originally had three sets of jerseys--white, blue and gold--all bearing the Saints "S" logo on the front, with the word "Saints" across the middle of the "S." (The gold jerseys were rarely used & were worn only in the first season.)
When the Saints left the St. Paul Auditorium for the new Civic Center on January 1, 1973, the familiar "little saint" logo replaced the "S" on the white and blue jerseys. While a halo was part of the team's "little saint" logo in promotions and advertising, the halo was never used on the jersey.
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 (in the case of former Team USA players Keith Christiansen, George Konik and Carl Wetzel) American citizens. This was almost unheard of in the early 1970s, when few NHL or WHA teams had even a single American player.
Among the players the Saints selected in the inaugural WHA draft in 1972 was a defenseman who had played for Team USA at the 1956 Winter Olympics, Wendell Anderson. Anderson said he was flattered, but he chose not to join the Saints and instead stuck to his day job—as Governor of Minnesota.
The Saints never missed the playoffs nor had a losing record and the team always drew more fans than the WHA average. On a few occasions, the Fighting Saints drew more attendance than their NHL rivals, the Minnesota North Stars.
They also boasted a handful of expensive marquee players such as Mike Walton, Dave Keon and John McKenzie, but the Saints were unable to secure a lucrative television deal that could have relieved their growing financial woes.
In 1975-76, the Saints had a record of 30-25-4 and were second in the West behind the Houston Aeros when they ceased operations because of financial struggles. Saints officials announced on December 31, 1975, that the team was broke, and the players would continue to play without pay. (Belisle's group withdrew its backing at the start of the season.)
A permanent buyer was never found and the players received one paycheck in the final two months.
The decision to fold the franchise occurred February 28, 1976, in the lobby of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, moments before the team was scheduled to board a flight to Cincinnati for a game that night.
The Fighting Saints' last game was played February 25, 1976 at the Civic Center, a 2-1 overtime loss to the San Diego Mariners in front of an announced crowd of 6,011.
After the NHL's California Golden Seals moved to Cleveland to become the Cleveland Barons, the WHA's Cleveland Crusaders moved to St. Paul for the 1976–77 season.
Like their predecessors, this second version of the Saints (called the "New Fighting Saints" in advertising and promotional material) had a winning record through their first 42 games (19-18-5), but owner Nick Mileti was unable to sell the team to local buyers. The franchise officially folded on January 20, 1977.
The team's logo and uniforms were identical to the first team's, but with scarlet replacing royal blue.
The "New" Fighting Saints played their final game on January 14, 1977, a 9-5 home win over the Indianapolis Racers.
|1972–73||78||38||37||3||79||250||269||1134||4th, Western||Lost Quarterfinals (Jets)|
|1973–74||78||44||32||2||90||332||275||1243||2nd, Western||Won Quarterfinals (Oilers) |
Lost Semifinals (Aeros)
|1974–75||78||42||33||3||87||308||279||1233||3rd, Western||Won Quarterfinals (Whalers) |
Lost Semifinals (Nordiques)
|1975–76||59||30||25||4||64||211||212||1354||DNF||Did not finish season|
|1976-77||42||19||18||5||43||136||129||600||DNF||Did not finish season|
Ted Hampson was the Saints' captain in their first four seasons.
Among the Saints' notable players in their brief history were Wayne Connelly (the team's career scoring leader), Mike Walton, Mike Antonovich (the team's career games leader), Ted Hampson, Hockey Hall of Famer Dave Keon, John McKenzie and Rick Smith, tough guys Jack Carlson, Gord Gallant]], Curt Brackenbury, Bill Butters & Paul Holmgren and goalies Mike Curran & John Garrett]].
In the 1974 WHA semifinals against Houston, controversial forward Bill "Goldie" Goldthorpe played three games for the Fighting Saints, compiling no points and 25 penalty minutes.
Also, veteran NHL coach Bruce Boudreau made his professional debut with the Saints, playing 30 games in the 1975-76 season and scoring three goals and six assists. He later became head coach of the Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks.
On May 7, 2016, Boudreau was named head coach of the Minnesota Wild, who play in the Xcel Energy Center, which rests on the site of the Saints' former arena, the St. Paul Civic Center.
Glen Sonmor was the Saints general manager throughout their history. Sonmor coached the Saints for the first part of their inaugural season.
When Sonmor gave up his coaching duties, assistant coach Harry Neale took over as head coach (his first game was February 17, 1973).
He coached the Saints again during their final season (in the 1976–77 season). Neale had become head coach of the New England Whalers after the original Saints folded in 1976.