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Walter Bush was always a great friend, not just to me but to hockey, the game we both loved. When word came that Walter had died at age 86, a lot of indelible memories came rushing back.
Everybody in hockey knew Walter Bush. He grew up in Minneapolis and played a little hockey for Breck, and then Dartmouth, but his efforts were best served in the managerial levels of the game. He is in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the NHL Hall of Fame in Toronto, and the International Ice Hockey Federation’s hall of fame, and who knows how many others?
My relationship with Walter came when he was one of the prime architects of getting the Minnesota North Stars to join Minnesota’s major league sports array that already included the Twins and Vikings. But despite all his awards, and all the important things he had to attend to, he was always humble and honest.
As president of the North Stars, I had a pleasurable time interacting with him in my duties covering the team for the Minneapolis Tribune. Dealing with the fiery Wren Blair as general manager was a hoot, and Bush was the soothing element behind the scenes.
At one point, things had fallen apart with the team, and Blair was pretty much going off in all directions trying to get it back together. I recall walking along with Walter and a couple other men in the corridor underneath Met Center, and I asked Walter about a couple of things coming up. He talked about how they would be dealt with, and I said, “Wait a minute. Isn’t that the general manager’s role?”
Walter recoiled, and was speechless. I could tell from his demeanor, for just that instant, that something major was coming down. I went to my office and had a long talk with my sports editor. Along with game coverage, I wrote a Sunday column that was supposed to be a collection of tidbits from the NHL beat. I told him I had reason to suspect that the North Stars were going to fire Blair. The boss said that he trusted my instincts, and I could go ahead and write a prediction column that one time.
It was flimsy evidence, but I knew Walter well enough that when he flinched at my question, having admitted he was going to handle something the GM should be handling, I went with it. I didn’t say why, but I wrote the prediction that Blair would be fired, and then laid out a half-dozen reasons why it would happen.
My “close personal friend” Sid Hartman wrote a rebuttal and said on the radio that the story of Blair’s dismissal was hogwash, and he pretty well lit me up. Less than two weeks later, the news hit, and the North Stars fired Blair.
I never knew whether my hunch was right, or that my column laid out a pretty convincing case why it would be a good idea and gave the board of directors reason to make the move. I did cheat on that column, by the way. Since I had a one-time license to editorialize, I also predicted that the Philadelphia Flyers would win the Stanley Cup, outslugging the Boston Bruins at their own game to do it. That one took a little longer, but the Flyers came through for me, too. Wish I could find that column, come to think of it.
My favorite Walter Bush story was sitting around one day and having him explain how the franchise was obtained in the first place. There were several places fighting for the franchise rights, and they needed a new arena to get it. The board of directors who would run the North Stars got together, planning that the ideal site would be right next to Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington.
Walter, always the crafty and subtle politician, came up with the scheme. The group hadn’t been able to finalize the deal for the land or the arena, so they faked it. Walter called a press conference, and all the top media types in the Twin Cities came out to Bloomington so that Walter and his gang could take turns with a shovel, turning the dirt that would be the start of the foundation of the new arena.
The picture went national, helping the group not only finalize the land deal, but convincing the NHL they meant business. Shovels started in earnest after that, and Metropolitan Stadium grew in record time. They raced to get it done in time to start the 1967 season, and the league allowed them to start with a few games on the road before coming home. Crewmen were still bolting in the last of the seats on the afternoon of the home opener.
It was a great arena, site of many great hockey memories, and an intriguing franchise. As is often the case in hockey, the game and the facilities and the competition were at the forefront – but the stories are the legend of the game.
The same could be said for Walter Bush, who will live forever for all he’s done for the game, and for the stories he could tell.