Minnesota is known as "The State of Hockey." With notoriously frigid winters and countless frozen lakes, ponds and streams to play on, hockey was as natural to Minnesotans as it was for Canadians. For the longest time, hockey in the United States was more or less affiliated with Minnesota. The life of smaller towns revolved around the rinks and ponds. High school hockey has as much interest as the pro game. And the college rivalries are as intense as any pro rivalry.
Like many families in Roseau, Minnesota, hockey was a birthright for the Broten family. Neal and his brothers Aaron and Paul would all be state high school and college stars, and go onto the National Hockey League.
But few would argue that Neal was not the best. In fact, in a state that has produced more hockey superstars than virtually every other state in the country, most consider Neal to be the best player the state has ever produced.
Neal had been skating and playing hockey since as long as he could remember. He grew up playing shinny, mastering his puck handling and skating skills. He went on to become a high school sensation in his hometown of Roseau, just minutes away from the Canadian border. After that he embarked upon one of the most successful college careers in hockey history with the University of Minnesota. He scored 38 goals and 104 assists for 142 points in just 76 career games.
Broten started with the U of M in 1978-79 but took the 1979-80 season off to play with the US National Team. As America's up and coming superstar, Olympic coach Herb Brooks included the 20 year old the now-famous 1980 "Miracle on Ice" Olympic team. Brooks, who coached Broten at the University of Minnesota, was not concerned about his lack of experience or size. He knew that his incredible skill package was undeniably impressive. He called Broten the greatest athlete he ever coached at the University.
The fabulous "Miracle on ice" story is well known to even non-hockey fans. A bunch of upstart US college kids knocked off the might Soviet Union national team, considered by many to be the most powerful hockey team of all time. In a showdown of politics, societies and idealogies as much of sport, the Americans pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in athletic history. Broten contributed nicley with 2 goals and 3 points in 7 Olympic contests.
Neal returned to University the following season. Playing on a line with brother Aaron, Neal was considered the best player in all of college hockey, winning the Hobey Baker award.
At the completion of his school year he immediately joined the NHL's Minnesota North Stars, who drafted him 42nd overall back in 1979. Broten scored twice in three games to finish he season, and then played in 19 playoff games as the North Stars surprisingly made a Cinderella run at the Stanley Cup, only to fall short to the New York Islanders. Broten added speed and creativity to the team, as well as 1 goal and 8 points in the playoffs.
Broten started his official NHL rookie season of 1981-82 by representing the United States in the 1981 Canada Cup tournament. He played well, scoring 3 goals in 6 games. He then went on to have a great rookie season, scoring a career high 38 goals as well as 60 assists for 98 points.
Broten would enjoy 11 more productive seasons in Minnesota, including a career high 76 assists and 105 points in 1985-86. By scoring 100 points, he became the first American born player to score 100 points in National Hockey League history. But never managed to take his game to the next level of superstar point scorer like the Gretzkys, Lemieuxs, Hawerchucks and Yzermans of his day. Other than that unexpected run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1981, the North Stars never really accomplished much during Broten's long tenure either. As such the understated Broten was forever in the shadows of other stars, except in Minny where the whole state revered him.
Another highlight in Broten's storied career in Minnesota came in 1991 as the North Stars again went on a Cinderella-like run at the Stanley Cup, this time to once again fall short to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Broten played exceptionally, scoring 22 points in 23 games..
However 1993 would be a bad year for Minnesota hockey and it's favorite son. The North Stars franchise was moved to Dallas. There was much speculation that Neal, coming off of two sub-par years, would retire and remain in Minnesota. However Neal went south with the rest of his team. By this time Broten was no longer the steady point producer that he was best known for. He was a wily veteran who became more a defensive forward/penalty killer. He spent a season and a half in Dallas before being traded to New Jersey for Corey Millen. He spent a little over a season and a half in Jersey, and picked up a Stanley Cup ring in 1995, allowing him to join Ken Morrow as the only 1980 Olympians to win the Stanley Cup. Broten would briefly join the Los Angeles Kings, but 19 games later he was traded back to the Dallas Stars where he finished his career in 1997.
Broten, a super skater and playmaker, played just one game shy of 1100 in the NHL. He scored 289 times while setting up 634 others for a career total of 923 points. He added another 35 goals and 98 points in 135 playoff games. He retired as the franchise's all time record holder (since broken) for career games, points, goals, assists and playoff games. His jersey #7 retired in 1998 by the Stars. Two years later he was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.
Minnesota's favorite son now lives on a horse farm with his wife Sally in River Falls, Wisconsin.