If the art of storytelling is the mating of simple language with subtle but profound emotion, Lou Nanne is a Rembrandt of the form.
Take the story he tells about his wife, Francine, when I ask Nanne how they met. “I was 14 and she was 12,” he says. “She moved in right around the corner from me. She didn’t speak English. When I first asked her out, I had to ask her mother. She told her daughter’s friends who I was. That’s how I met her.”
So was it an unbroken romance from then on?
“Yeah. We got married seven years later and it will be 54 years this August.”
So you knew what you had right away?
“She was beautiful. She’s still beautiful.”
Everyone you know seems to want to tell me she is a saint, I say.
“Yeah, she’s terrific,” he replies. “She comes from a family of 11, second oldest. I’ll never forget the day I went over to see her, and she was 16 at the time and I was 18, and I went over to her house and I was watching her just take care of the kids. Her mother and father were gone. And I said, she’s really a special person.”
So, aside from beauty and compassion, I ask, what was it about her that made it click for you?
It was an unfortunate question, tone-deaf to the character tableau Nanne had just presented.
“She’s just a great person,” he replied, his voice tinged with a hint of exasperation.
Then, sensing that I was berating myself for the pushy question, he shifts gears.
“And she couldn’t speak English!” he says with a guffaw as he gives a slight push on my shoulder with his arm. “So she couldn’t give me any aggravation.”
If you insist on being a yahoo in the museum of the verbal arts, it turns out, Lou Nanne will gracefully do his best to accommodate you.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Nanne and I sit in Suite 13 of the Xcel Energy Center watching the Minnesota Wild play hockey against the Florida Panthers. Although he is 74 years old, Nanne is still active as a senior managing director and national sales manager at RBC Global Asset Management, an investment advisory firm, which means he’s often out of town for the Wild’s home games. But when he can make it, he invites a dozen or so of his clients and their families to join him.
In the intermission between the first and second periods, a man approaches Nanne with a new jacket bearing the insignia of the old Minnesota North Stars franchise. Nanne is wearing one just like it. Nanne takes off his jacket, accepts a sharpie pen from the autograph-seeker, and signs his name on the shoulder patch. The guy hands Nanne the replacement jacket and tells him the autographed one will either hang in a trophy case or be auctioned off for charity.
The nonchalant exchange is typical and telling, displaying the interwoven fabric of hockey, business and celebrity that accrues to Nanne more organically than a second skin, and conferring a status that might seem odd for someone born and raised in the steel town of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario: the quintessential Minnesotan.
Some of our claim on Nanne’s identity is circumstantial, of course. He was one of the rare Canadians recruited by legendary coach John Mariucci to play for the University of Minnesota, where he capped his collegiate career by being named the MVP of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for the 1962-63 season, the only defenseman to ever lead the league in scoring.
He made headlines when an act of Congress enabled him to become a U.S. citizen in time to represent the country in the 1968 Winter Olympics, and pivoted from that fanfare to inaugurating his National Hockey League career with the Minnesota North Stars during the franchise’s first year of existence. He remained with the team for his entire playing career, through the 1977-78 season, at which point he simply moved upstairs to become the team’s general manager. He would stay in the role for another decade, guiding the franchise to seven straight playoff appearances, including an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. It is fair to say that no one is more closely associated with the North Stars, who moved and became the Dallas Stars in 1993, than Nanne.
But those past laurels are merely the backdrop for Nanne’s current local profile. Along with his day job at RBC, he’s been the point person the past two years for the University of Minnesota’s ambitious $190 million Athletic Facilities Fundraising Campaign, his innate charm and amiability even more important since the disgraceful exit of U of M Athletic Director Norwood Teague last fall. “He brings humor, history, storytelling, passion, business smarts,” says Associate Athletic Director Randy Handel, who oversees the campaign for the school. “We’re blessed to have him.”
He is a regular guest on Dan Barreiro’s KFAN radio show, where his ubiquity and peripatetic ways are something of a running bit. “Louie gives me instant hockey credibility,” Barreiro says, “but what I’ve discovered is you really can talk to him about anything. There’s a reason he’s probably had more sports talk radio appearances than anybody else in this market.”
His connections to the game remain inextricable, especially in Minnesota. His son is a scout for the Minnesota Wild. Two of his grandsons have already been drafted by NHL teams (including his namesake, Louis Nanne, by the Wild). And his granddaughter works as the community relations coordinator for the Wild. As an old hockey player, Louie can’t resist mentioning another connection. When the air horn sounded celebrating a goal by Wild center Charlie Coyle in the game we watched together, Nanne turned to me and said, “That is my granddaughter’s boyfriend who just scored.”
And last but never least, if you turn on your television set this week to catch the wall-to-wall coverage of the iconic Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament, you will once again hear Nanne providing just the right mixture of savvy analysis and compassionate enthusiasm for Minnesota’s rendition of March Madness. This will be Nanne’s 52nd year behind the mic, a continuous string that began in 1964.
At this point, it is not a question of Nanne being in or out of vogue — he’s simply embedded in the culture.
And yet, even this irrepressible résumé doesn’t fully explain why, when the state looks at itself in the mirror, it likes to see Lou Nanne. The attraction stems from the way Nanne seems to operate, paying forward his profound enjoyment of life with a sixth sense of how to make the prevailing events around him hover right where they should be, like the bubble between the lines of a level. It’s a refined appreciation for balance, an equipoise, and when Nanne is in the room or on the air or in your thoughts, it’s infectious.
Let’s just call it the Nanne State.
The beauty of Nanne’s balancing act is that it is often uproarious. For example, take the inherent friction between one’s desire to win and one’s compassion for his fellow man.
On the one hand, Nanne is, by all accounts, a cutthroat competitor. After graduating from the U with a degree in business administration and shunning a contract offer from the Chicago Blackhawks, he signed on as a salesman for Harvey Mackay’s envelope manufacturing company.
“I knew right away he was a potential superstar, and he proved it in spades,” Mackay raves. “There are three qualities you look for in a salesperson — a hungry fighter, a hungry fighter and a hungry fighter. The way he views a competitor, he not only wants to run him over, he’ll put it in reverse to make sure he’s dead.”
(For those who haven’t already guessed by now, Mackay is also a best-selling author of motivational business techniques.)
“The competition is the same for me in business as it was in hockey,” Nanne says, almost sheepishly. “It is like I once told a consultant, ‘I just loved to play hockey. I’d still like to play hockey — all I would like to do is play hockey. But I’m too old. I can’t play hockey. So this is my game. Now it doesn’t matter if I get $5 million or $500 million from you, I just gotta win. That is just my nature. The money is irrelevant.’”
But this Darwinian maniac is counterbalanced by Nanne’s reflexive need to identify with the underdogs, and do right by them. Many of his clients are unions, and he takes pride in working the levers of financial bureaucracy in their favor.
Ask him his politics and he answers, “Independent. I vote more on what the end result is going to be. I go split ballot all the time.” Later, in answer to a question about wages, he adds, “Right now I think everybody is realizing that — or at least I know that — people need more money to live. I see what they make and I shake my head.
“I know small business — both of my parents had small businesses. My father had a small grocery store and my mother had a small clothing store right across the street from him. So I know what they had to go through. My grandfather was in construction, and I used to do his books. He never passed eighth grade, but he was a smart son of a bitch. But the one thing everybody always felt — you have got to make sure people are taken care of.
“My mother, every every week, after the store closed on Thursday night, she used to go to my father’s store and take all the food and the vegetables that were left over and take some clothes that weren’t sold and she’d go down to the hospital and go to people she didn’t know and give it away. I’d say, ‘Mom what are you doing?’ And she’d go, ‘They have got to be taken care of.’
“I know it has to be done judiciously, because you have to have those small businesses succeed. But you have to make sure people can afford to live.”
The cutthroat competitor in Nanne is also rooted in his childhood. Television didn’t make it to northern Ontario until he was a teenager, so as far back as he can remember, he and his friends played sports, mostly hockey. They’d throw up sawhorses at either end of the street and lay out three or four rinks to a block.
One of the better games always took place right outside Louie’s house and he took it upon himself to be a “stick boy,” gathering up the broken sticks and putting them back together with small nails and a roll of tape. “I’d get four or five sticks a day and hand them back out the next day.”
“We all worked at the steel mill and lived on the west end of town,” says Phil Esposito, another resident of “the Soo” who would go on to become a first-team NHL All Star and who — along with his goalie younger brother, Tony — was eventually elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. “You never crossed over into the east end, and the east end didn’t come over where we were. When east played west, those were some of the most intense games I ever played.”
When I asked Nanne whether people ever underestimated him because of who he was and where he was from. “Oh yeah,” he replied. “All the way through. I was always the smallest guy on my team. I was 5-foot-2, 92 pounds playing defense in Bantam hockey and the next closest guy was 125 pounds. That happened wherever I went. And then when I went into business, it was like, ‘This is a sports guy — what makes you think you are going to do well here?’ I like that kind of thing.”
Within the vast storehouse of Nanne stories, one of the subthemes is Nanne sticking up for himself and his principles. Despite graduating from the U as a bona fide collegiate hockey star, he refused to sign a contract with the Blackhawks because they wanted him to cut a deal before he could arrive at training camp and perform well enough to improve his bargaining position.
When they told him then-Blackhawks star Bobby Hull always signed before camp, Nanne retorted, “Bobby Hull doesn’t have a wife or a kid or a college degree to fall back on.” He was insulted by Chicago’s $8,000 offer, saying he was earning three times that amount with Mackay.
Incredibly, Nanne held out for five years, wiping out a third of his playing career. He only signed when his rights were granted to the North Stars — and even then pulled out at the last minute, calling his financial advisers on the phone while North Stars management were Xeroxing the final paperwork.
“Wren Blair,” the team’s coach and general manager at the time, “told me I would never play for him if I didn’t sign right then,” Nanne recalled. But Nanne held fast. He ended up playing for Blair — under better terms.
Then there was the time the North Stars ownership was trying to persuade Nanne to become the general manager. Nanne said fine, and told the owners that he was going to make Glen Sonmor his coach. The owners countered that Sonmor had fairly recently jumped to the WHA, an upstart competitor to the NHL, and they wouldn’t stand for his hiring. Nanne countered by telling them they should get somebody else to be their GM, then. He didn’t need the job. The owners relented. Nanne hired Sonmor.
But there was one competitive battle Nanne was destined to lose, and perhaps stands as the key to his sense of equipoise. All his life, he had surmounted obstacles and vanquished his competitors via relentless work and calculation. Inexorably, the work and calculation became too relentless. He tipped over into obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“It drove me out of hockey,” Nanne says. “It led me to do things you normally wouldn’t do as an individual — just mounted up and got more and more. As a player I had a few [obsessions]. But every year there were more. I’d get to where before the game I’d go around a chair four times one way and four times the other way; and if [the opponent] scored I’d go two times one way and two times the other way.
“After a while it affected everything: what I wore when I got up; how I held a spoon; what seat I listened to the radio; what route I took to work; what time I’d come down; which team I’d look at first on the ice. A thousand things. And I remembered it all.
“By the time I was into being the general manager I went right off the deep end. During the playoffs I had even heard if you find an empty toilet roll it was good luck. Every playoff game I’d go through the stalls and find an empty toilet roll and put it in my pocket. And if we won the game I’d do it again. Crazy.
“If you lose, you can’t just wipe the slate clean. You’d try to think what did you do when you were winning that you didn’t do now. And it just gets to the point where it is affecting everything you do.
“I went to the doctor at Mayo and he looked at everything and said, ’You either have got to change the way you do things, or change jobs. I’ll give you two years to do it.’ I tried for a year and a half. I had some pills, but I really didn’t give them much of a chance. I started thinking. ‘What, I’m taking pills to do my job? That makes no sense. I’ve got to do something different.’ ”
That was in 1978. More than 37 years later, Nanne concedes that the compulsions haven’t disappeared. Casting glances at the ice and the suite’s television feed of the game during our interview, he moved his hands and played with the tags from his new North Stars jacket. “If I rap twice here,” he says, hitting the table with his right knuckle, “I’ve got to go here twice,” he adds, following suit with his left knuckle.
Quitting hockey and its stark markers of success and failure has mostly kept the self-defeating side of the obsessive-compulsive beast at bay. “After I quit, my wife said, ‘Maybe [it] will stop now.’ And I told her, ‘I reserve the right to revert. I want it to stop, but if I need it, I’m using it,’” Nanne says. “So when I have a big presentation or something, I’ll revert to it. It helps me feel less stress because in my mind I have done everything I can do to make things right.”
If the art of storytelling is the mating of simple language with subtle but profound emotion, then perhaps the reason Nanne engenders nearly as many stories as he tells is because of the affection he tends to inspire in others.
His former business employer, Mike Dougherty, tells of the time their small plane was diverted at the Canadian border simply so the customs officials could chat with Louie and get his autograph.
Longtime Twin Cities journalist, PR man and radio personality Dave Mona remembers when the men were bitching at a board meeting of Louie’s golf club about putting in extra bathrooms for women along the course. “Lou stared at them and said ‘Goddamnit, someday you will be 70 years old with a huge prostate hanging down and you’ll need those bathrooms more than the women will.’ They didn’t say another word.”
Mackay remembers Louie getting in a brawl with a local hero at a minor league hockey game in Rochester and reporting back that someone yelled at him, “You’ll never sell another envelope in this town.” And Phil Esposito recalls when Louie fixed it so that the North Stars would allow Esposito to score a meaningless goal during the last game of the season to achieve a salary bonus — except that Esposito didn’t believe him, reneged on the plan and ended up screwing himself over.
But the best Lou Nanne stories are from Lou Nanne. Yeah, some of them are about Nanne as the triumphant underdog, or ribald tales like the one about skater Peggy Fleming getting hammered at a party during the Olympics.
But the ones that stick have heart and soul and often pathos as much as humor — scrounging for empty toilet rolls to win a playoff game.
Some of them are indelible tributes, like the one about growing up with his wife. There is a great yarn about Mariucci, who Nanne said became “a second father to me,” showing him around the U campus. It ends with an underage Nanne ordering a beer at McCarthy’s in St. Paul — in violation of a dozen rules and a risk to Mariucci’s livelihood.
You hear Nanne talk about working summers and after school in the steel mill in Sault Ste. Marie, backbreaking work amid blistering heat, and how it spurred his desire to go to college. How that plan led him to choose Minnesota because it had the best dental school of any college that recruited him. Which leads to him holding up his stubby fingers and revealing that he dropped dentistry after botching the dissection of a frog. He then recounts all the members of his family across three generations who have gone on to become dentists, before admitting that he can’t even operate a drill for chores around the house as well as his wife.
All of which leads to what he did learn in getting his business degree at the University of Minnesota; how much value it has put in his life, concluding with an endorsement of the place so stirring that you find yourself tempted to reach for your checkbook.
At Xcel Energy Center, after the autograph exchange and the mention that the Nanne-signed jacket might be auctioned off, I asked him about his favorite charities. There are many, he allowed, but two in particular.
One is the University of Minnesota. “The other is the American Brain Tumor Association, because my son passed away from that,” he says. “Nobody should have to go through it,” he said quietly. “Unfortunately too many people do. You don’t realize it until something tragic happens. People are so nice, but then they start talking about their situation and it is unbelievable how many people it has affected.”
I mentioned that I had learned his other son had lost his leg in a motorcycle accident.
“No, that was the same one,” Nanne corrected. He could sense my horror at being wrong, so clumsy on such a sensitive topic. And he instinctively filled the void, trying to put me at ease, restoring the balance. “He was a tough son of a gun,” he says. “A very unique kid. Very unique.”
“The thing about Louie is, you want to please him,” says Dan Barreiro. “I guess I should say, I want to please him. I want to make him feel good about what I am doing.”
The Nanne State in full effect.