DEAR PROSPECTIVE OWNER OF THE Dallas Stars,
So, you’re no doubt wondering, exactly what kind of hockey team do you get for $300 million? If it seems like it was only yesterday that the Stars were the hottest thing in town, that’s because it was. No sooner had the 1999 Stanley Cup winners and 2000 Cup finalists packed up all that goodwill and left Reunion Arena behind than the on-ice action turned to slush.
Last year was the Stars’ first since 1996 without a playoff appearance, a dismal finish for a team with one of the National Hockey League’s highest payrolls and a particularly unacceptable one in Dallas. The city’s core hockey fans may be legion, but dominance in sports bars and TV ratings comes with winning. When I wrote about the team in these pages in May 1999 (“Ice Guys Finish First”), I observed that in Dallas, “you either win or you’re the Mavericks.” Things change.
The good news is, with 190 consecutive sellouts and all sorts of revenue-producing bells and whistles built into their new home, the American Airlines Center, the Stars made a profit without making the playoffs, or so Tom Hicks claims. Next to his tenure as the owner of the Texas Rangers, Hicks’ stewardship of the Stars seems downright masterful—and heroic. He didn’t buy the franchise because he was a fan or to give himself an ego boost. He bought it as a business. He signed every check his hockey people asked him to, gave the team’s marketers free rein, and won both on the ice and off. Things went bad last season, but the consensus around the NHL is that Hicks did everything he could to put the Stars on top again, from restaffing the front office to restocking the team with pricey free agents.
The bad news is, since those bills haven’t come due yet, most of that money will come out of your pocket, not his. Here’s what it will buy.
The front office. Not since Jerry Jones cut loose Landry, Brandt, and Schramm has there been such a big makeover at Valley Ranch. First out the rink door was general manager Bob Gainey, who had held that job since before the move to Dallas, in 1993, when the team was still the Minnesota North Stars. Last year the 48-year-old Hockey Hall of Famer (he won five Stanley Cups in sixteen years as a forward with the Montreal Canadiens) announced plans to resign at season’s end, then fell on his sword sooner than expected, on January 25, after first using it on taskmaster coach Ken Hitchcock. Just like that, the Stars were without their longtime architect and their best bench boss ever.
Gainey named his own successor in 38-year-old Doug Armstrong. In his first months on the job, the youngest general manager in the NHL was neither timid nor sentimental. His first big move, in March, was to send away onetime playoff MVP Joe Nieuwendyk as part of a trade for Jason Arnott of the New Jersey Devils, the man responsible for every Stars fan’s lowest memory: He put a puck past goalie Ed Belfour in double overtime to take the Cup away from Dallas in game six of the 2000 finals. The temperamental but talented Belfour was let go as a free agent in July. Counting 2001 free-agent departure Brett Hull, who helped his new team, the Detroit Red Wings, win the Cup in 2002, the three players most associated with the Stars’ glory days are gone.
With Hicks’s blessing, the new boss made his biggest impact on the open market, pursuing free agents with the careful determination of a Fortune 500 CEO roping in Harvard MBAs. This was to make up for last year, when a couple of top names didn’t give the Stars a second thought, and the players that did were busts. The team produced a special recruiting DVD, with the entire brass, big sticks like Mike Modano, and a certain high-priced Rangers shortstop singing the praises of the organization and the city. It was sent to five players, three of whom—Bill Guerin, Scott Young, and Philippe Boucher—are now Stars stars. To land Guerin, Hicks led a private-jet expedition to Boston to make the pitch in person. The power winger, whose contract is reportedly worth $45 million over five years, scored 41 goals for the Bruins last season, more than any Star has managed since 1993. “Hopefully these players will make the hockey department look like geniuses,” Armstrong told me, “the way Brett did for Bob.”
The locker room. The man Armstrong chose to oversee the next great Dallas hockey era is Dave Tippett, who won a minor league championship as the head coach of the Houston Aeros before paying his NHL dues as an assistant with the Los Angeles Kings. A hot name in the springtime coaching grapevine, Tip took the Dallas job before any other team could talk to him, including the New York Rangers. “It goes back to the five years I spent in Houston,” says the 41-year-old native of Moosomin, Saskatchewan. “I loved Texas, my family was very comfortable here, and we always looked at Dallas as a first-class team. It was a no-brainer.”
Tippett figures to ice a higher-scoring team compared with Hitchcock, whose conservative coaching philosophy was sexy only when it came with Cup contention. In football terms, Hitchcock’s game plan was a prevent defense with a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust attack; Tippett will give his players a bit more room to run-and-gun. That should be interesting for Modano, who historically has sacrificed personal stats for selfless team play (though he has still scored at least seventy points—goals plus assists—in each of the past ten seasons, one of only five players in the league to do that). “As an opposing coach against Dallas, you just hated to see when Mike Modano had a full head of speed and had the puck with him,” Tippett says. “That terrifies you. Now that I’m the coach here, the more times I can get him the