Former North Star Steve Payne remembers thrill of making St. Louis blue

Steve Payne, like many hockey fans, was glued to his television watching Game 7 of the second-round playoff series between the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues go into double-overtime on Tuesday night.

Unlike many fans, however, Payne knew exactly how Patrick Maroon felt when he scored on Dallas’ Ben Bishop 5 minutes, 50 seconds into the second overtime to set off a wild celebration in St. Louis. That’s because 35 years earlier, Payne had been the last player to decide a Game 7 in overtime between these franchises. Things were far different then. The Stars were called the North Stars and were based in Minnesota, not Dallas. But the thrill of being the hero was the same.

“Obviously, that’s the ultimate, right?” the 60-year-old Payne said Wednesday. “When you’re a kid, you’re playing ball hockey on the street, you’re going, ‘I’m so-and-so and I’m going to score the overtime goal in the seventh game.’ That kind of stuff. Every kid has had that fantasy.”

Payne lived it on the night of April 22, 1984, when he beat Blues goalie Mike Liut for an unassisted goal at the 6-minute mark of overtime to give the North Stars a 4-3 victory at Met Center, putting them in the Campbell Conference Finals.

The North Stars took a 1-0 lead in the first period of that deciding game on Willi Plett’s goal but St. Louis’ Brian Sutter tied it at 15:05 of the first. After a scoreless second period, Minnesota defenseman Gordie Roberts made it 2-1 with a shorthanded goal early in the third, but the Blues stormed back to take the lead on goals by Jorgen Pettersson and Mark Reeds at 8:52 and 14:06, respectively. Reeds’ goal came shorthanded and could have easily deflated the North Stars.

But 15 seconds after that goal Plett let go with a big slapshot from the neutral zone that beat Liut to tie the score and set up Payne’s heroics. Payne doesn’t remember much about that game, but he recalls, in detail, his goal that won it.

“The puck was down in the St. Louis zone, so in that period that was closest to our bench,” he said. “I remember we were getting ready to make a line change. I jumped over the boards, right near the blue line, and a couple of guys were right there. (The Blues) defenseman, it might have been Rob Ramage, he cleared the puck up the boards on our side. It came right to me. I picked the pass off, and I had a straight line right in on the net. I just came in on Mike, came across in front of him, I put it on my backhand and when he moved I put it right through the five-hole. That was it. Game over.”

The North Stars had finished first in the Norris Division that season under first-year coach Bill Mahoney before eliminating Chicago in the opening round. The first-round series was a best three-of-five at the time and the Blackhawks had taken the North Stars the distance before bowing out. Minnesota was up 3-2 in the series against St. Louis, but the Blues won Game 6 in St. Louis.

Payne, who remains in Minnesota and is director of the United Heroes League Outdoors program, remembers being annoyed that the North Stars hadn’t finished off the Blues in six games.

“I was just sour because I thought, ‘There’s no reason for this. We don’t need to play an extra game. We’re a better team,'” Payne said. “I got quoted in the paper stating that, ‘I don’t know why these guys bothered to win tonight, they are wasting their time because when they get to Minnesota they’re done.’ So, no big deal, that’s just me. I used to make comments like that all the time. The press loved it.”

So did Blues coach Jacques Demers, who was a master motivator and saw Payne’s quote as a perfect way to get the best from his team.

“After the (seventh) game, our trainer, Doc Rose, told me, ‘Payner, it’s a good thing you got that goal,'” Payne recalled. “I said, ‘Well, no kidding.’ He said, ‘No, no, for more reasons than just winning the game.’ I asked him what he meant. He told me, ‘The comment you made in the article, the St. Louis coach put that up on the board in their dressing room to remind them of what I said.’

“The next day, after the game, Jacques Demers mentioned that the article had been on the bulletin board. He said, ‘It’s a good thing he scored the goal, basically bailed himself out of what he said,’ or something to that effect. … I actually felt even more gratified then. It was like, ‘Good, I stuck it in their back and twisted it a little.’ It all turned out good for us and me personally.”

Payne’s playoff success that spring — the North Stars were swept in the conference finals — was not a one-time thing. He had scored 17 goals and 29 points in 19 games in the North Stars run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1981 and had 35 goals and 70 points in 71 playoff games with Minnesota.

Somewhere along the way, this earned Payne the title of “Mr. April.”

“I don’t know who the heck started it,” Payne said. “I think it was probably a reporter who came up with the name. I don’t remember any of my teammates saying anything, but somebody may have said something to that scribe and then he used it. I really don’t know. All of a sudden it was in the paper, ‘Mr. April,’ and I’m reading the article and I’m like, ‘Where did that come from?’ I never really questioned anybody about it and then it kind of stuck for a while.”

Payne said it became an annual thing each spring in his early years for longtime North Stars coach Glen Sonmor to call him into his office and make sure the winger was ready to help carry the team. The conversation went like this: “Payner, this is your time to shine, you’ve got to be there for us like you always have been, I’m counting on you,” Sonmor would tell him. Payne’s response would be, “Glen, you know I’ll be there.”

“That was pretty much a short exchange, but it was between him and I and I relished it,” Payne said. It got to the point where Sonmor would insist on having that half-minute chat, probably for superstitious reasons more than anything.

“I loved it,” Payne said. “I just thrived on it. I can’t really put my finger on it, it’s just built into me. I just always wanted to be the guy in the pressure situations. Give me the ball, I’ll get it over the line.”

That night 35 years ago, playing before a packed area in Bloomington, Minn., that’s exactly what Payne did.