Dave Barr is from Toronto. He’s been in Frisco for the past two weeks as head coach of Team Canada, chasing a gold medal in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) under-18 world championships. But Barr has also been around the Texas hockey block. He finished his NHL career as a member of the Stars during the 1993–1994 season—the team’s first in Dallas—and he also coached the Houston Aeros.
“It’s neat coming back here all the time,” says Barr, who’s also been an NHL assistant coach with six teams. “Texans love their sports, and they love winners. My year [in Dallas] we had a pretty good team, and I remember how excited the fans were about a different sport in Texas. Not a lot of people played it, so it was kind of new: the speed, the energy, the physicality. It was a really neat experience to be here for that.”
The U18 tournament is basically hockey’s version of the World Cup, although it’s annual and split into three age groups (under eighteen, under twenty, and over twenty). The best U18 players go on to become NHL draft picks who continue playing at the junior or college level for the next few years. Team Canada’s breakout star this year is Connor Bedard, who’s only fifteen (and therefore not even eligible to be drafted until 2023); its captain, Shane Wright, is seventeen.
“Their skill level is elite,” Barr says. “We’re probably gonna have ten guys drafted in the first sixty or seventy players [selected] off this team.”
Team Canada beat Russia for the gold medal Thursday night, 5–3; somewhat surprisingly, it was Canada’s first gold in the U18 tournament since 2013. They caught a break along the way in Texas: Team USA, which is not only the host but leads all countries with ten gold medals since the IIHF began holding under-eighteen tournaments in 1999, got upset by Team Sweden in the quarterfinals. “Canada’s always been a hockey powerhouse,” says Barr. “We have expectations for winning the gold.”
The games were held in Frisco because of COVID-19, having originally been scheduled for Team USA’s full-time home of Plymouth, Michigan. The possibility of moving a major international hockey tournament from suburban Detroit to suburban Dallas exists only because of the Stars, who have built not just a hockey fan base but an entire stick-and-puck community.
As Barr remembers it, there was just one place to skate in Dallas when he played there—the team’s practice rink in Coppell. Now he’s played and practiced at two other rinks—the Children’s Health StarCenter in Plano and Frisco’s Comerica Center. And there are six additional Starcenters around North Texas, as well as rinks in Allen (home to the minor league Allen Americans) and North Richland Hills (home to the junior hockey Texas Brahmas). Texas also now produces actual NHL athletes, including Seth and Caleb Jones, who are the sons of former Dallas Mavericks big man Popeye Jones. Blake Coleman, the Plano native who helped the Tampa Bay Lightning win the Stanley Cup last year, had to go through his childhood team, the Stars, to do it.
But back in 1993, legend has it that fans at Reunion Arena tried to leave the first Stars game after the second period, like it was football. That story is apocryphally told in nearly every Southern or otherwise untraditional hockey market. What Barr remembers, though, is something more specific: the crowd didn’t completely grasp the subtleties of line changes, and the way hockey is built around short, intense high-energy shifts, with players “changing on the fly” unless there’s been a whistle.
“You’ve been out there for thirty-five to forty seconds, you’ve been working hard, and you’re waiting for that opportunity to get off the ice,” Barr says. “And so we would start bringing the puck out of our end, towards the opposition goal. All you’re thinking is, ‘I just want to get to the red line and dump it in, so I don’t ice the puck.’ But the fans would think, ‘Oh, another opportunity for us to score.’ We’d get to center ice and you would hear the building, y’know, the aaaaaahhhhhhh. And then we would dump it in and it’d be like, ohhhhhh. Every time.”
Barr also has fond memories of the Star Club, where well-heeled fans would wine and dine inside a tent next to Reunion, with some of them never even going to their seats to watch the game. What he doesn’t have is a ton of memories from specific games from what was then his thirteenth NHL season, for his seventh NHL franchise. “God, I didn’t play hardly at all,” he says. “I played twenty games. They signed me to be the thirteenth forward—the extra guy. I knew that going in, and we just didn’t get a lot of injuries.”
But he still enjoyed playing with teammates like Mike Modano and Derian Hatcher, who were still up-and-comers back then, as well as Miracle on Ice and franchise legend Neal Broten (albeit a legend that was forged mostly in Minnesota). “One of the most underrated players I’ve ever seen,” Barr says. “Just a fantastic two-way player.
Of course, there was also fan-favorite enforcer Shane Churla (“his nickname was Chucky, because he would chuck his fists”). And just last week at practice, Barr found himself citing defenseman Craig Ludwig in a teaching moment, telling a Team Canada blueliner what he could learn from Ludwig’s simple, savvy style as a defenseman.
Barr was with the Stars for just that one season, but Texas hockey had more plans for him. From 1997 to 2003 he made his home in Houston, working for the Aeros as an assistant coach, head coach, and, eventually, president and general manager. The minor league franchise had a small but passionate following, some of it dating back to the seventies-era World Hockey Association team, also called the Houston Aeros, which won two league titles and was best known for featuring “Mr. Hockey” Gordie Howe, who was then in his mid-forties, playing alongside his sons Mark and Marty.
“It wasn’t a huge base,” Barr says. “It wasn’t like it was thirty thousand fans. It was probably three thousand fans who would support you no matter what.” But when Barr and head coach Dave Tippett (who would later take over the Stars) led the Aeros to the International Hockey League’s Turner Cup in 1999, more than 17,000 people packed the sold-out Compaq Center for games six and seven of the series against the Orlando Solar Bears.
The Aeros started a new era in 2001, when the IHL was folded into the NHL-affiliated American Hockey League, with the Minnesota Wild taking control of both the roster and coaching staff. Barr remained in the front office, and the Aeros won the AHL’s championship, the Calder Cup, in 2003. That was Barr’s last season with the team; he spent the next five years in junior hockey before returning to the NHL as an assistant coach.
“It was a great experience,” Barr says of his time in Houston. “My kids basically grew up there.” In his spare time, he helped coach his son’s youth travel hockey team. During our interview, he went out of his way to stress how fondly he remembers the Houston Junior Aeros Hockey Association and Houston Wild Hockey Club, and especially one of his fellow hockey dads and coaches, Steve Genung, who has since died. “Steve and his son Sam were like family to us.”
Barr’s last season in Houston was also the Aeros’ last at the Compaq Center—they would somewhat rockily join the Rockets at the Toyota Center before moving to Iowa a decade later. But that led to one of Barr’s most treasured memories: getting none other than Mr. Hockey to return to the same building—formerly the Summit—where he and his sons had skated nearly three decades earlier.
For “Gordie Howe Night,” Barr and the Aeros wanted to schedule Howe for autographs before the game from 5 to 6:30 p.m., but Howe’s agent said his client, who was then in his seventies, could only do the meet-and-greet for one hour—no more.
“No embellishment, there must have been three thousand people in the line for Gordie to sign,” Barr says. “So we were just letting all the people know: one item. Sorry, so many people.”
An hour later, as instructed, Barr told one of his employees to tell the man who gave birth to the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick”—a goal, an assist, and a fight—that it was time for him to stop.
“And he goes, ‘No, no, no, no. I’m not finished until I sign for that last person way back there.”
Howe stayed until the work was done, not just for an hour and a half, but closer to two hours. Then he sent Barr an autographed picture, personalized for the Barr family. “Your friend, Gordie Howe,” Barr remembers. “Just really class.”