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Dino soars in hockey comeback

Don't look now, but dinosaurs are making a big comeback in Minnesota. The prehistoric rascals will take over the Met Center in Bloomington this weekend when the beloved North Stars return home for the third game of their Stanley Cup final series against the defending champion New York Islanders.

This stampede from extinction to modern prominence stems from the sudden success of 20-year-old Dino Ciccarelli, whose arrival in the National Hockey League late in February turned Minnesota into a contender -- and a colorful one at that.

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The chunky, choppy-skating right wing from Sarnia, Ontario, scored 18 goals in the last 32 games of the regular season and has carried right on in the playoffs. Counting the one he scored in his team's 6-3 loss in the opener of the best-of-seven series, he had already amassed an even dozen goals in the playoffs, easily smashing the previous rookie record of eight set last year by teammate Steve Christoff.

Every time he scores, Dino's already amiable Italian mug lights up like a fireworks display and he breaks into a spontaneous dance step, waving his stick in unmitigated delight. The North Star fans love it.

To reciprocate, they wave a herd of plastic dinosaurs. The team's alert promotion department bought a warehouse full of the inflatable green toys from an oil company that uses Dino dinosaur as a symbol of something or other.

During the semifinal games against Calgary, 400 of the miniature beasts were sold at $8 apiece. The promotion people are trying to reorder before the team's first-ever home finals game Sunday night.

"It's hard to believe," says Ciccarelli, who officially pronounces his name Siss-ah-rel-ee but will settle for any well-intentioned attempt that comes close so long as you add that he's in the finals. "I let my enthusiasm show, and they let their enthusiasm show back. It's fun. It's terrific."

Minnesota coach Glen Sonmor uses those same adjectives to describe Dino (the hockey player, not the dinosaur).

"He has a great, infectious spirit," says Sonmor, relaxing in the press dining area, of all places, shortly before a Stanley Cup showdown. "He's taken to writing poems, all ending with the line 'We're just happy to be here' -- a takeoff on Lou Nanne's comments before the finals started. Lou wanted to be sure everyone knew we were the underdogs."

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What of Ciccarelli's scoring exploits?

"First, he has the quality all great scorers share -- an immense hunger to get his chances and put the puck right through the back of the net.

"Also he has great hockey sense, which it's easy to think is luck, but isn't. He's over here and nothing's happening, so he goes over there and the puck comes to him.

"He has a very quick release. He gets rid of the puck before the defense and the goalie are ready.

"And finally he gets most of his shots on net, which many strong shooters don't do consistently. Most of his goals are garbage collector jobs in close, but he can beat you from outside the blue line. He's accurate from out there, and he can really gun it.

"When we called him up from our farm team in Oklahoma City he was scoring well, and he kept up the pace and accelerated it. And he came up at a time when we were having a terrible time scoring, so you can see how important he's been to us."

To the general public, Ciccarelli may seem to have exploded upon the scene this spring from nowhere, but in reality his is a remarkable story of a determined comeback.

Dino had been one of the game's hottest young prospects as a teen-ager; in his first junior season of 1977-78, in fact, playing in the same league with Wayne Gretzky, he outscored the current Edmonton Oilers superstar, 72 goals to 70. But the next season their careers took markedly different turns. Gretzky turned pro and signed with the World Hockey Association, while Ciccarelli returned to his junior team and promptly sustained a broken leg.

The injury was a serious one, keeping him out of action for quite some time, and when he did return he seemed nowhere near the same player as before. He scored only eight goals for the season, and was ignored in the draft. But Nanne , the astute general manager of the North Stars, decided any player who once had that much potential was worth a chance and signed him as a free agent.

Nanne's assessment of the situation turned out to be correct. Playing one more year of junior hockey, Dino scored 50 goals and 103 points in 62 games in 1979-80, moving up to Oklahoma City at the end of the season. He started the current campaign there, too, but by February Nanne decided -- again correctly -- that Dino was ready for the NHL.

Ted Hampson, the coach at Oklahoma City and a former North Star, concurred.

"He has good hands and the hunger to score," Hampson said.

"He's improved the other areas of his game to make it in the NHL. He's learned to play the body better and finish his checks, and his back-checking is much sounder.

"He's a smart player as well as a gifted one, and he's a good passer in the offensive zone. Coming up ice he won't carry the puck --checked in the other team's end he can find the open man.

"His strength is scoring, though, and that's something you don't really teach. The goal I remember best came against Wichita when he was playing with a sore shoulder and didn't think he could do much. I told him to go out only on the power plays.

"Well, late in the third period we're down a goal and he's having trouble raising his arm. Then a pass comes across toward him and hits a stick. The puck pops way high in the air. A glove shoots up, knocks the puck down, and the next thing you know it's slapped past the goalie. He made that play with his sore arm --that's how much desire he has to score.

"He was a real crowd-pleaser. Our attendance fell off when he left."

In Minnesota attendance is up with Ciccarelli, and that's counting just people, not dinosaurs.

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