KEN HITCHCOCK’S COFFEE HADN’T EVEN TOUCHED HIS LIPS when the woman accosted him outside the suburban strip-mall Starbucks. Did she want to say hello? An autograph, perhaps? Or was she one of the real fanatics, eager to tell him how he might do his job better? As it happened, the woman did want to critique his performance: Her floor mats hadn’t been vacuumed, and the exterior shine wasn’t up to snuff. “She was giving me hell for not cleaning her car properly,” recalls Hitchcock, who at the time had been the head coach of the Dallas Stars for just a few months. “She thought I was the manager of the White Glove next door. She gave it to me good.”
That was in 1996. “Now,” Hitchcock notes, “I can’t go anywhere.” It’s the price he pays for masterfully guiding what is currently Texas’ most accomplished major professional sports team. Assuming, of course, that you think hockey is a major professional sport.
It remains an open question. The coolest game on ice is still fourth of four in the heart of the American fan. The familiar refrain—hockey is a superior in-person experience that doesn’t translate well on TV—is totally true, but saying it over and over again can’t put a happy face on the fact that when it comes to couch time, people would rather watch a balding beer-bellied bowler ponder the intricacies of the 7—10 split than thrill to the spectacle of unshaven Canadians on ice skates. Mention the Stars to a random Dallasite and the response will be (1) “It’s a lot of fun,” or (2) “My sister/co-worker/fiancée goes to games.” A friend from out of town will say, “Hockey in Dallas? And the team is good?” But mention it to someone in the know and the response is unequivocal. “The best team in the world,” New York Times hockey writer Joe LaPointe called the Stars as he watched them practice a few days before a New York road trip.
So while it remains cultish to some degree, hockey is hot, and the Stars are making more and more people realize it with every drop of the puck. Gone are the nights when you could just walk up to Reunion Arena before a game, fork out twenty bucks for a cheap ticket, and then mosey down to the empty expensive seats. In the past three years Dallas has taken its place among the NHL’s elite, in the process expanding its following from one-night novelty-seekers and Northern transplants to obsessive sports-talk-show callers and see-and-be-seen beautiful people.
Incredibly, the Stars have basically done this without—let’s just get this inevitable linguistic irony out of the way, shall we?—stars. Center Mike Modano has cheekbones, talent, and the respect of his peers, but despite being the best player on the league’s best team, he simply doesn’t have the superstar status of a Wayne Gretzky. Right wing Brett Hull is not exactly obscure, but considering that he has scored more goals than any other hockey player in the nineties and boasts an impressive bloodline (his father is Hall of Famer Bobby Hull) and a snarling personality that rivals Charles Barkley’s, it’s fair to say he’s underappreciated.
The Stars, poster boys for the sum-of-its-parts concept, wouldn’t have it any other way. Instead of individual celebrity, they’ve given the city a winner, and that’s better. Unlike their counterparts in Boston or Chicago, Dallas sports fans have never been much for fateful masochism; unlike Philadelphians, they take no secret pleasure in griping. It’s simple, really: You either win or you’re the Mavericks. And since we’re on the subject, don’t underestimate the extent to which lack of competition from that other indoor sport has helped the Stars’ cause. The ceiling of Reunion Arena was a truly forlorn place until hockey arrived. Now a single lonely Mavs banner from ’86-’87 (plus one retired number and a mention of A. C. Green’s consecutive games streak) has been joined by the Stars’ division title from ’96-’97 and three flags from more recent seasons.
That brings us to the one reason the Stars remain a notch away from universal acceptance: the playoffs. For the past two seasons, the Stars have had a painful postseason record that, if conventional wisdom is to be believed, is an inevitable character-building prelude to success. In the spring of 1997 they were heavily favored to win it all, but when the playoffs rolled around, they were immediately upended by the Edmonton Oilers, and casual fans could only assume the team was just smoke and mirrors. But those kinds of upsets happen in the NHL all the time. Last year the Stars dispatched the Oilers in a second-round series, but when the measuring stick was the defending champions, the depth and experience of the Detroit Red Wings dashed their hopes two weeks early.
Until that happened, however, the bandwagon was rolling along mightily, and with 31 straight sellouts of 16,928 fans (the nightly attendance quiz has become a bit of a joke), it has continued through the ’98-’99 season. The Stars have once again locked up the best regular-season record in the league with a performance that has been almost Chicago Bulls—like; they’ve been that much better than everyone else, and they’ve made it look easy against some very good teams.
Of course, the old saw about the games not being played on paper is still apt. The Stars are again favored to win the championship, but a lot will have to go exactly right. The finals, where the past four series have been 4—0 sweeps, could be the easy part. The trick will be getting out of the Western Conference, where the Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche, collectively the winners of the past three titles, both loom (though it’s fairly certain the Stars will only have to play one or the other). If hockey is truly going to cross over and be the toast of the town from now until September, Dallas will settle for