Ice Guys Finish First

How the Dallas Stars—yes, the Dallas Stars—got to be the most successful, most exciting sports team in Texas.

May 1999By Comments

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 nothing less than a chance to drink Shiner Bock from the Stanley Cup. Here’s how it’s gotten to this point.

The Brain Trust

In canada jim lites is the enemy. He doesn’t mean to be, but while the American South is enjoying hockey in record numbers, the boom has come at the expense of the old Canadian markets. “Without our success here, I’m not sure there would have been owners moving to Phoenix or Denver,” the president of the Stars says. “Nor do I think they could have sold the franchises in Atlanta and Nashville.”

In Dallas, however, Lites is something of a local hero, even if he isn’t really a local (he spent years in the Red Wings organization before moving to Big D in 1993, when the Stars did). With him in the lead, the team’s front office staff has done well at generating enthusiasm. They started with six thousand season-ticket holders, a fan base of expatriates from colder climates, and various Texans who’d followed hockey in the seventies, when the Metroplex had two minor-league teams and Gordie Howe skated for the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. They then expanded into the grass roots, getting involved in hockey at every level. For instance: The team got into the business of building local rinks, and suddenly fathers who’d played up north had a place to take their sons. There were four high school hockey teams in the Dallas—Fort Worth area in 1997; now there are forty.

The Stars’ on-ice development has been just as important. They came to Dallas intact, a winning rather than rebuilding club the first year, with a respected coach and general manager in Bob Gainey. Gainey, who is still the general manager, is a former captain of the Montreal Canadiens and a Hall of Famer, not for his numbers but because of his unrelentingly physical style. He is one of the greatest defensive forwards of all time, and it’s fair to say that the Stars have been created in his image. An old-fashioned hockey guy who works out of an office overlooking the practice rink, he keeps sheaves of statistics and scouting reports on a shelf behind him. Largely because of him, the Stars are respected by old-timers (i.e., Canadians) who might otherwise view them as tradition-trashers ripped from the north and catapulted to success by the almighty dollar.

The almighty dollar, however, doesn’t hurt. History and savvy got the Stars to a certain point, but owner Thomas O. Hicks’s deep pockets have taken them one step further. “He’s a guy who wants to be the best at everything he does, in either business or sports,” Modano says of the takeover ace, who bought the team in 1995. His open checkbook, for instance, made it possible for the Stars to acquire Hull and goaltender Ed Belfour. But being the best isn’t all he cares about. Down the road, when the pertinent broadcast contracts expire, Hicks—who owns a large number of TV and radio stations—would like to start his own regional sports network, showcasing the Stars, the Texas Rangers (which he also owns), and the Mavericks (it could be just a matter of time on that one).

The Boss

Ken hitchcock is the best possible confirmation of the old expression “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” The man known to many as Hitch is a career coach. He never played the game professionally, and although he is an avid golfer, he was anything but an athlete for a good portion of his adult life, tipping the scales at more than four hundred pounds.

What Hitchcock does is teach and win, parlaying his phenomenal success coaching teenagers into his current status in the NHL. Back in Edmonton, Hitchcock spent more than a decade working as a hockey equipment salesman while coaching midget hockey on the side. The latter is serious business in Canada; though it involves thirteen- to sixteen-year-olds, in terms of pressure, attention, and the role it plays in shaping a career, Triple-A Midget is tantamount to Texas high school football.

After Hitchcock’s Sherwood Park team went an astounding 575—69 in ten years, he finally quit the sporting goods store and made the move to major junior hockey in Kamloops, British Columbia. That level is the equivalent of college football, a stepping stone to the pros for both players and coaches. Hitchcock next worked for the Philadelphia Flyers as an assistant before signing on as head coach of the Stars’ minor league affiliate in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In Michigan he took off the weight (career coach or not, players had trouble taking him seriously), and soon after, halfway through the ’95-’96 season, when Gainey decided it would be best to concentrate on being general manager, he got the top job.

The locker room at the Stars’ practice facility has a sign over the exit door with six principles, among them “Never let yourselves get outworked” and “Pay the price necessary to win.” Most teams give only lip service to such mantras, but the Stars take them seriously. When they lose, it’s usually because they get outplayed or run into truly superior opposition; it’s almost never because of stupid mistakes or simply not showing up. Credit Hitchcock. That’s coaching.

In conversation, or even at the press conferences, it is difficult to imagine him raising his voice. Maybe it’s just that Canadian geniality: the easy pace of his sentences and the way he says “been” with that firm e sound (like “bean”). But this season the hockey world was abuzz about trouble in the Stars locker room, about Hitchcock and his players supposedly butting heads. Such stories would be more intriguing if the team wasn’t doing well. Hitchcock’s deadpan comment about it some months later was, “There’s times when there’s been some adversity, some of it coach-created”—but reports of an actual insurrection, he said, are “a bunch of crap.”

Coaches are tacticians, shrinks, and motivators, but in this day and age they are mostly CEOs, bringing all the parts of the machine together. The Stars are a study in contrasts, with a lot of variety among the players in terms of age, experience, and ego. Seven of the older veterans have been captains of other teams; the actual titular leaders are younger guns like Modano and defenseman Derian Hatcher, and there’s a group of younger players who are not yet established either on or off the ice. “There’s no coaching clinic for working with so many people with so many strong opinions,” Hitchcock says. “‘My way or the highway’ doesn’t work anymore. These people are set in their ways. If you go to a player every day and say, ‘Do you have any complaints today?’ you’re going to hear a lot.”

But even that has its value. Coaches may not be dictators anymore, but Hitchcock, a Civil War buff who participates in reenactments during the off-season, knows that sometimes a battle-ready unit needs something to fight for, and sometimes they need something to fight against. During one hellish stretch of consecutive games, he robbed the players of a much-anticipated off day. “They all were bitchin’, so we practiced. We needed them together, and we got them together—all complaining.”

The Boys

MIKE MODANO HAS TAKEN SO MUCH guff for it that you’d think it would have been expunged from the official record. But there it is on page 52 of the Dallas Stars media guide: “Has participated in photo shoots for Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Mademoiselle.” Somehow they left out the “At Home With . . .” feature in People.

Yes, he’s young (age 28), he’s charismatic, he drives a Range Rover and a BMW, and he’s regarded as one of Dallas’ most eligible bachelors (by everyone but his girlfriend). But in a transformation that has been tirelessly documented in sports pages from Minneapolis to Dallas to his hometown of Detroit, Modano didn’t get famous until he started doing things that actually made him less noticeable. Once a goal scorer, he’s at least a partial convert to the church of defensive hockey. And he’s not the only one. This year, there’s a new guy in the midst of his own transformation, and he describes it in his own unique way: “A few years ago if you told me to come back and play defense, I’d tell you to go f— yourself.” Brett Hull, come on down!

Famed as both a loudmouth and a guy who cared only about putting the puck in the net, no matter what happened to his team, Hull was the last guy anyone expected to see in a Dallas Stars uniform. But while he did manage to take part in one flare-up over playing time early in the season, the 34-year-old—who like Roger Clemens has taken on the role of aging star chasing after a championship—has been a model citizen. Now he talks about how he’s more interested in his plus-minus (a statistic that factors in how many goals your team gave up when you were on the ice as well as how many it scored) than the fact that he has 554 goals and will likely pass his father’s career total next year. “I want to score,” he says evenly, “but the game has changed.” Recently Hull was injured for a few weeks, and the team won five games out of six without him. “Not very good for my ego,” he joked to ESPN.

“He’s totally different from what everybody reads about and talks about,” Modano says. But Hull’s still a bit of a loose cannon, and thank God for that. Last season he angered the league by dissing the game’s current style: At a time when hockey is trying to sell itself as the best thing out there, he griped, it’s not as good as it should be because there’s too much defense and uncalled interference, which hinders goals and other offensive excitement. When Canadian TV came to do a story on ice quality (which is not great in Dallas, but now that the Toronto and Vancouver teams share their facilities with the NBA, it’s not so great up there either), an NHL official stood by nervously, hoping Hull wouldn’t be too forthright. “Nobody likes a guy with a mind of his own,” Hull says. At the same time, it seems clear that it’s partly persona; he talks to journalists with the same dash and daring that he wrists a puck into the net.

With Hull’s arrival and the ever-swelling celebrity of Modano, the Stars are no longer invisible around the Metroplex. It’s been said that Modano used to be able to go grocery shopping undisturbed. Not  anymore. “There was a time when Mike Modano couldn’t get arrested here,” Jim Lites says, invoking the familiar aphorism.

But more important, Modano still can’t—or, rather, won’t—get arrested. While the NHL has certainly had its share of drunks and ruffians, pro hockey players are, as a species, the last Boy Scouts. Okay, okay, why mince words? The Stars may practice at Valley Ranch, but they are not the Dallas Cowboys. They sign autographs for free and make nice with the media. One recent day center Joe Nieuwendyk could be seen frolicking on the ice with his two dogs (he was filming a public-service spot for the SPCA). Even at practice, hockey players seem more like regular guys, or at least guys who are still in touch with the I-would-play-for-free gestalt of their game. The day Hitchcock got the whole team bitching, six or seven of them remained on the ice long after the rest of the team, peppering Belfour with shots, razzing him when the puck went in, and oohing appreciatively when he made a save. Another day, Nieuwendyk and right wing Pat Verbeek played rock-paper-scissors to see which one of them would have to participate in a defensive drill (Verbeek lost).

Modano, Hull, Belfour, and Hatcher are the team’s frontline faces, but guys like Verbeek are what the Stars are all about. “Glue guys,” Hitchcock calls them. The five-foot-nine-inch Verbeek is nicknamed Little Ball of Hate, and he will soon be the first player in NHL history to amass both 500 career goals and 2,500 penalty minutes. He doesn’t fight much, though; what he does is buzz around, pecking and poking and hitting and circling until something happens, either to him or the other guy. “I get under the skin of opponents to try and get them off their game,” he says. “You are either going to draw a lot of penalties or you’re going to take a few.”

Another glue guy is center Guy Carbonneau, who won two Stanley Cups with the Canadiens. A former teammate of Gainey’s, he’s a face-off specialist and a penalty killer. He’ll never do anything fancy—he has only three goals thus far this season—but imagine if basketball had a jump ball every minute and your team had a guy who could win 70 percent of them on a good night.

The Fans

KAY LYNCH HAS ATTENDED EVERY home game for the past four seasons, largely because of her devotion to defenseman Craig Ludwig, one of four players who were with the team before it moved to Dallas (the others are Hatcher, Modano, and left wing Richard Matvichuk). Lynch owns three Ludwig jerseys and works a second job solely to support her hockey habit. Last season, when it looked as though he was going to retire, she cried. She cried again when she heard he was to return for another season. Why such passion? “It’s the way he stage-dives in front of the puck,” she says. “He stage-dives!” It’s true: Ludwig has been known as one of the league’s preeminent shot blockers for years.

Lynch finally got the chance to meet her hero this year, during a preseason game. “I knew that he wasn’t playing, so I put the word out: Ludwig’s on the concourse somewhere! And then somebody ran up to me and said, ‘I know you’re the major Ludwig fan. Here’s my ticket. He’s sitting next to me.’” Ludwig happily signed all her paraphernalia. On her next birthday, which is August 25, Lynch plans to use computer software to scan a picture of Ludwig and have his face put on her cake in icing.

Lynch is one of the many regulars on the Hoffbrau bus, which shuttles folks from the West End steakhouse of the same name to Reunion Arena on game night. The bus is a rabid, rowdy, and perhaps slightly tipsy but always profanity-free pep rally on wheels. Driver Big John Larkin is head cheerleader and keeper of the famous Moo Horn, which goes “mooooooo.” (Screams of “Hit the Moo Horn!” are almost as common as “Let’s Go, Stars!”) When Hoffbrau first started running the bus, there were a dozen people on it; now there are two buses that drop fans off well into the first period of a game. Alas, latecomers are common, and they drive the real devotees crazy. “They don’t care what happens during the game,” fan Sean Montgomery says of the “cocaine and boob-job crowd” and the corporate season-ticket holders who populate the lower level. “It’s the people upstairs who watch the game develop and then go hassle Hitchcock.”

Montgomery and his pal Trip Watson own several Stars jerseys between them, some authentic ($200 to $265 each) and some replicas ($79 to $144). More than any other sport, hockey has a culture of the jersey—traditionally, they are called sweaters—and at those prices, most teams have been quick to introduce special third jerseys to augment the traditional home and away models. The Stars have one that is very green and very sharp, and in two seasons the team has only lost one game while the players are wearing it.

Lower or upper level, everybody shouts out “Stars!” both times the word appears in the National Anthem. They also clap along to “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” when it comes over the P.A. and do the Chick-Fil-A chicken dance without much prompting. One lower level fan whose bona fides are not in doubt is Randy Kamin, a.k.a. Signman. When Belfour makes a save, Kamin is right there behind him in section 107, holding up a big placard that reads “Denied.” When the Stars score, it’s “Yeah Baby.” Kamin also has a Stars jersey, but his is a little different. “Most people have their favorite player on the back of their jersey,” Kamin says. “The back of my jersey says ‘Zamboni.’” Zambonis are a hockey cult object unto themselves, the machines that maintain and resurface the ice. “I figure if you’re going to lay out that kind of money for an authentic jersey, you might as well make sure it’s going to be around for a while,” Kamin reasons. “They’re never going to trade the Zamboni.”

Fans like these have the team raving about Dallas. “These people may have lacked knowledge of hockey early on,” Hitchcock says, “but when they get into something, they put both feet in. The whole game—the intensity, the aggressive action—just fits with the Texas personality. And they know when you’re putting out and when you’re not. I have never seen a crowd that wills the team to win the way this one does.”

Zamboni Rodeo, contributing editor Jason Cohen’s book about minor-league hockey in Texas, will be published later this year.

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