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 puck, the more I know I’m going to scare the other team.”
Modano, Arnott, Guerin, blue-chip defenseman Sergei Zubov, and half a dozen other crucial players are at their athletic peak (they’re all between the ages of 28 and 33) and are under contract for at least two years (the exception is team captain Derian Hatcher, who will be eligible for free-agent status next July). The lineup is so loaded that some have wondered if there’s room for Modano, Arnott, and Pierre Turgeon, all of whom play center and demand equivalent ice time. Will one of them move to wing? Will one of them be traded? All teams should have such problems. “It’s funny how [the media] talk about that here,” Tippett says. “They never talk about that in Detroit, where they have about seven centers.”
The Stars’ x factor is 27-year-old goalie Marty Turco, who has sparkling numbers but just 57 games’ experience as Belfour’s backup. The conventional wisdom is that only experienced net-minders win the Cup (the exceptions are rookie Patrick Roy for Montreal in 1986 and second-year player Martin Brodeur for New Jersey in 1995, each of whom went on to be among the best goalies in the world). “At some point, you have to give [Turco] that opportunity,” Armstrong says. “When we first got Ed Belfour, everyone said, ‘You can’t win with Ed Belfour. He’s never won.'” Tippett agrees: “I know there will be questions at the start of the year. By the end of the year, I think the questions will be alleviated. We feel very confident in him.”
The future. “In the next twenty-four months,” Scott Young said when he was signed, “the goal is to win two Stanley Cups.”
Well, no promises, because the Stars are still in the same conference as Detroit, Colorado, and San Jose. But they do have an honest shot at winning—this season, next season, or both. If you’re in this for the glory, you may as well make a deal with Hicks in time to be in Dallas by the playoffs.
It’s what happens next that might trouble you. See, one reason for this two-Cups-in-two-years talk is the widespread feeling that, come 2004, the NHL will buckle under the weight of economic imbalances, with a labor dispute that could make major league baseball look harmonious and organized. The game’s a mess north of the border, where revenue is in Canadian dollars but expenses aren’t. There are at least a dozen American teams who can’t compete in terms of payroll or ability. Chicago and Boston, both skinflint franchises given their history and market size, are refusing to sign free agents or to extend contracts beyond 2004 in preparation for an expected lockout, one that could drag on until the players’ association agrees to some kind of salary cap.
Meanwhile, the Stars just went for it. “Our best players are in their prime,” Armstrong says. “For us not to give them the best opportunity to have success would be wrong.”
“A team with the tradition the Stars have—their mandate is to win the Cup every year,” Tippett says. “But certainly there’s an emphasis on the next two years. Who knows what’s going to happen?” (He declines to discuss the topic further, mindful that the Toronto Maple Leafs were fined $100,000 this summer when general manager Pat Quinn spoke of a 2004 lockout as if it were a sure thing.)
If there is a future cap, the Stars could exceed it with just half a roster. So, really, what you’re buying is the 1995 Dallas Cowboys. The Stars lost their Jimmy Johnson in Hitchcock (though Tippett is hardly Barry Switzer). Key players have moved on and key players have been added (Guerin equals Deion). They still have their Aikman-Smith-Irvin in Modano-Hatcher-Zubov. And just as the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXX, the Stars are going to try to win the Cup.
Will it be worth it? And what if they don’t win? Those are questions only you can answer. After all, it isn’t my $300 million.