Dallas is a hockey town. Not “again,” or “finally,” or “for a place in Texas”—just a straight up hockey town.
Sure, this season is the first time the Stars have been to the playoffs since 2008, and the team’s average attendance at the American Airlines Center during the regular season was 14,658—twenty-eighth in the National Hockey League, ahead of only Florida and Phoenix. And yes, that’s a big drop from the glory years of Mike Modano, Brett Hull, and Joe Nieuwendyk, when the Stars won the 1999 Stanley Cup, fell just short of another in 2000, and enjoyed a 238-game sellout streak (at both Reunion Arena and the American Airlines Center, which opened in 2001), lasting until October of 2003. But this week the Stars saw the return of sold-out crowds, and the team won its first two home playoff games, putting them in a 2-2 tie with Anaheim in the best-of-seven, first-round series of the National Hockey League playoffs (Game 5 is tonight in California). The volume’s back, too, from the trademark shouts of “STARS” during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to the ecstatic din that greeted every goal.
The Stars aren’t necessarily expected to go far into the NHL postseason—with two of the next three games in Anaheim, the number-one seeded Ducks remain the favorite—but just getting to the playoffs was a win. After Wednesday’s Game 4, the Stars players stood at center ice, the way you would at the end of a series or a season, acknowledging the gravity of the moment, the power of the restored spark between team and fans. The biggest cheer of all came in response to the public address announcement that there would be a Game 6 back in Dallas Sunday.
This is all very heartening, but it’s not doing much to stop hockey fans’ eternal hand-wringing. Hockey’s partisans believe they have the greatest game around, with good reason, but no sport has a base that’s more prone to insecurity and judgment. Their passion is accompanied by internal nagging: Are we good enough? Why aren’t we on Sportscenter more? Has soccer replaced us as the “fourth” team sport? And when it comes to hockey in non-traditional markets, like the south and southwest, there’s still a lot of rhetoric about which fans “deserve” to have a team, particularly when a place like Quebec City (which lost its team to Colorado in 1995) doesn’t, or it seems like half the building doesn’t know the rules of icing.
Let’s be fair to Dallas. It is no more germane to ask if the city can support a hockey team than it is to ask if Dallas can support a baseball team or a basketball team. There’s no denying the city has a hockey fan base, and the explanation for the Stars’ fluctuating attendance numbers is actually very simple: the sport struggled in Dallas for the past six years not because it’s hockey, but because the combination of a so-so team and faltering owner leads to empty seats for almost any sport (with one obvious exception).
“Everybody’s from Missouri, right?” says Stars president Jim Lites, who held the same position during the Cup era and is now on his third stint in the front office. “You’re saying all the time, we’re gonna be better, we’re gonna be better, we’re gonna be better. But until you’re better, it doesn’t matter.”
During the late-2000s, it was not looking better. Things went from disappointing to disastrous, due largely to former owner Tom Hicks’ bankruptcy. Hicks’ profligacy is what made the Stars great—high-dollar additions like goaltender Ed Belfour, Hull, and Nieuwendyk giving Dallas hockey fans what Rangers fans never got out of of Alex Rodriguez—but the Hicks Sports Group defaulted on its loans in 2009. After a process that was more protracted than the Rangers sale, including a formal bankruptcy declaration, the team was sold in 2011 to half-Canadian, half-Texan Tom Gaglardi (his mother is from Longview).
After a year-plus in transition (during which—and this part is definitely hockey’s fault—the NHL had its second lockout in a decade, shortening the 2012-2013 season to 48 games), Gaglardi shook up nearly everything about the franchise prior to the current season: he replaced the general manager, playoff hero Nieuwendyk, with longtime Detroit Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill; he hired new coach Lindy Ruff, who was the coach for the Buffalo Sabres when the Stars beat them for the ‘99 Cup; and he commissioned a new logo and color scheme for the sweater. Now, like the Mavericks in 2000, and the Rangers in 2010, the Stars are poised for relevance again, both on the ice and in the stands.
“I’m not somebody that necessarily subscribes to, the solution to your problems is hanging in your rafters,” says Gaglardi, though Modano (whose number was retired in March) remains with the team in an advisory role, as does Cup-winning former general manager Bob Gainey. And the owner praises Nieuwendyk for stockpiling many of the draft picks and young players that are now starting to pay off.
If the team wasn’t quite ready to move forward before, the passing of time left them with no choice. Nobody on the current Stars roster played in Reunion Arena (the last was former captain Brenden Morrow, a rookie in 1999, who was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013). Defenseman Trevor Daley is the only guy who was a member of the Stars’ last playoff team; only Daley and current captain Jamie Benn were on the ice for Modano’s last game in 2010.
That’s especially fitting, as it’s Benn’s #14 you see everywhere inside and around the AAC now (followed by Tyler Seguin’s #91). Where some teams like to create playoff atmosphere with a “blackout” or a “whiteout,” often by handing everybody who steps inside the building a free t-shirt, the Stars have managed to achieve a playoff “greenout” more organically (while also raking in a fair amount of green). The bright green jerseys pop on television, and are as good a dipstick for the state of hockey in the Metroplex as the actual attendance numbers. People felt good enough about the season that they wanted new gear, and it’s not the bandwagon types who shell out more than $100 for a jersey. These are the Dallas hockey fans. They’ve been here all along.