Guys Finish First
by Jason Cohen
from "Texas Monthly," May 1999 issue.
Ken Hitchcock's coffee hadn't even touched his lips
yet when the woman accosted him outside the suburban
strip mall Starbucks. Did she want to say hello?
An autograph, perhaps? Or could she be one of the real
die-hards, eager to tell him how he might do his job
As it happened,
the woman did want to critique his performance:
her floor mats hadn't been vacuumed, and the exterior
shine simply wasn't up to snuff. "She was giving
me hell for not cleaning her car properly," Hitchcock,
who at the time had been the head coach of the Dallas
Stars for just a few months, recalls. "She thought
I was the manager of the White Glove in Coppell there,
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 the reins
of what is currently Texas' most accomplished major
professional sports team. Assuming, of course, that
you think hockey is one of America's major professional
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
which doesn't translate well on TV -- is totally
true, but saying it over and over again still can't
put a happy face on the fact that when it comes to weekend
couch time people would rather watch a balding beer-bellied
guy ponder the intricacies of the 7-10 split than thrill
to the high-speed/high-contact spectacle of unshaven
Canadians on ice skates. Mention the Stars to a random
Dallasite and the response will probably be "it's
a lot of fun" or "my sister/co-worker/fiance
goes to games." A friend from out of town will
go, 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 the Stars practice a few days before a
New York road trip.
So while it remains
cultish to some degree, hockey really is hot, and the
Stars are making more and more people realize that with
every drop of the puck. Gone are the nights when anyone
could just walk up to Reunion before a game, fork out
twenty bucks for a cheap ticket and then mosey down
to the empty, expensive seats. Over the past three years
Dallas has taken its place among the National Hockey
League's elite, in the process expanding its following
from one-night novelty seekers and Northern transplants
to obessive sports radio callers and see-and-be-seen
beautiful people. The Stars have basically done this
without -- let's just get this inevitable linguistic
irony out of the way, shall we? -- stars. Mike
Modano has cheekbones, talent and the respect of everyone
in the league, but despite being the best player on
the NHL's best team he simply doesn't have the superstar
status of an Eric Lindros or Wayne Gretzky. Newcomer
Brett Hull is not exactly an obscure figure, but for
someone who has scored more goals than any other hockey
player in the '90s, while also boasting a bloodline
worthy of Barry Bonds and a personality that rivals
Charles Barkley, it's fair to say he's underappreciated.
The Stars, posterboys
for the sum-of-its-parts concept, wouldn't have it any
other way. Instead of providing Dallas with spectacle,
flash and celebrity, the Stars have given the city a
winner, and that's better. Texans have never been much
for fateful masochism (Red Sox and Cubs fans) or secret
glee at the chance to bitch and moan (all Philadelphia
fans). In Dallas, you either win or you're the Mavericks.
And since we're on the subject, let's not underestimate
the extent to which lack of competition from the world's
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 AC
Green's consecutive games streak) has been joined by
the Star's '96-'97 division title and three flags from
97-'98: the division championship, the conference crown
and the President's Trophy for the league's best regular
That brings us
to the one reason the Stars remain a notch away from
universal acceptance: the playoffs. In its last two
seasons the Stars have authored a painful postseason
legacy that, if conventional wisdom is to be believed,
is an inevitable character-building prelude to the ultimate
goal. In the spring of 1997 a heavily favored Dallas
club was 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 Stanley Cup champions, the depth and
experience of the Detroit Red Wings put an end to the
Stars' season two weeks early.
Until that happened,
however, the bandwagon was rolling along mightily, and
with 30 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 Bulls-like --
they have been that much better than the rest of the
league and they've made it look easy against some very
good teams. The Dallas media has been reduced to asking
questions like "are there any weaknesses on this
team," while the players grin and polish their
Of course, the
one about the games not being played on paper is still
true. The Stars are favored by many to win the championship,
but a lot will have to go exactly right. The Stanley
Cup 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 Detroit and Colorado,
collectively the winners of the last 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 from the Stanley Cup.
Here's how it's got to this point.
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. If we had failed
I think it would have really killed southern hockey."
When the Stars
first dropped the "North" and came from Minnesota
in 1993, the ad campaign was all about the rough stuff.
"COLD WAR," they called it. "We took
the one really tough player that we had, Shane Churla,
and we made him bigger than he actually was," Lites
remembers. "We wanted to emphasize the phsycialness
of the sport."
Churla is gone,
and so is fighting to a certain extent -- it's possible
to go to three or four Stars games in a row without
seeing guys throwing real punches, thus putting to rest
one of the world's best-loved one-liners. Back then,
though, Dallas got the message. Churla was the Stars'
most popular player for a long time.
That was the team's
symbolic public overture. Behind the scenes, the club
has worked every possible angle in the community, with
a front office staff headed by Lites, who spent years
in the Red Wings organization before coming to Dallas
at the same time the team did. The Stares started with
6000 season ticket holders, a fanbase of expats from
the Northeast, plus the various and sundry Texans who'd
followed hockey in the '70s, when Dallas and Fort Worth
both had minor league teams and Gordie Howe (with his
sons) skated for the Houston Aeros in the World Hockey
Association. They also romanced the corporate community,
and the corporate community romanced them back -- in
Lites' office hangs a pair of black cowboy boots affixed
to skate blades, a gift from a local ad agency when
the team first arrived.
The Stars also
worked the grass roots, getting involved in hockey at
every level. Soon, fathers who'd played in up North
in the '60s or '70s had a place to take their sons.
Soon, the Stars were actually in the business of building
local rinks. There were 4 high school hockey teams in
Dallas Fort Worth in 1993; now there are 40. Every sheet
of ice in the area has people using it well after midnight,
The team's on-ice
development has been just as important. They came to
Dallas intact, a winning club the first year, with a
respected coach and general manager in Bob Gainey. Gainey,
who is still the GM, is a former captain of the Montreal
Canadiens, a Hall of Famer not for his numbers but because
of his hard working, unrelentingly physical style. He
is one of the greatest defensive forwards of all time,
and it's fair to say the Stars are a team in his image.
It is also a team he has made and remade, both via the
farm system and through a series of judicious trades.
Gainey is an old-fashioned hockey guy who works out
of an office overlooking the Stars practice rink, sheafs
of statistics and scouting reports on a shelf behind
him and a black board listing all the organizations
players, from Stars to teenage prospects, to his right.
Largely because of Gainey, the Dallas club has a lot
of respect from hockey old-timers (i.e, Canadians) who
might otherwise view them as another tradition-trashing
Yankee team, ripped from the North and catapulted to
success by the almighty dollar.
The almighty dollar,
however, doesn't hurt. Tradition, history and savvy
got the Stars to a certain point. Tom Hicks' open checkbook
has taken them one step further. "He's a guy who
wants to be the best at everything he does, in either
business or sports," Mike Modano says of the takeover
ace and broadcast mogul, who bought the Stars in 1995.
Hicks made it possible to obtain players like Hull,
and goaltender Ed Belfour, who signed up in '97.
Of course, Hicks
doesn't just want to win a Stanley Cup -- he's in the
TV business. When the Stars first came to Dallas the
team had to pay a station $12,000 to air a game. Now
Lites says the games are worth six figures in rights
fees, and those fees will be paid by another Hicks-controlled
company -- when the pertinent contracts expire Hicks
will start his own regional sports network, showcasing
the Stars, the Rangers (which he also owns) and the
Mavericks (it could be just a matter of time on that
Ken Hitchcock is the best possible countermeasure to
the old expression "those who can, do, those who
can't, teach." The man most call "Hitch"
is a career coach. He never played the game, professionaly,
and although he is an avoid golfer, for a good portion
of his adult life he was anything but an athlete, tipping
the scales at over 400 pounds.
does is teach and win, ultimately parlaying his phenomenonal
success coaching teenagers into his current status in
the the NHL. Back in Edmonton Hitchcock spent over a
decade working as a skate and hockey equipment salesman
while coaching midget hockey on the side. The latter
is serious business in Canada; though it involves13-16
year olds, in terms of pressure, attention and the role
it fills in a player's career, Triple A Midget is tantamount
to Texas high school football.
Park went an astounding 575-69 in 10 years. Finally,
he 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
took the step, working for the Philadelphia Flyers as
an assistant before joining the Stars organization as
head coach of their 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 1995-96 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," "take pride
in following the game plan" and "pay the price
necessary to win." It ought to be textbook stuff
-- every time in the history of ever flogs such concepts,
but few actually put them in effect with true effort
and consistency. The Stars do. 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.
or even at the press conferences, it's difficult to
imagine Hitchcock raising his voice. Maybe its
just that Canadian geniality: the easy pace of his sentences
and the way he says "been" with that firm
"E" sound ("bean"). But this
season the hockey world was rife with rumors that there
was troulbe in the Stars locker room, about Hitchcock
and his players supposedly butting heads. Such rumors
would seem 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." Reports of
an actual insurrection however, are "a bunch of
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 contrasting collection
of people, with a lot of variety among the players in
terms of age, experience, ego and role playing. Among
the older veterans, seven have been captains of
other teams; the actual titular leaders are twentysomethings
like Derian Hatcher and Modano, 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 went to a player every day and
said, do you have any complaints today?, you're going
to hear a lot."
that has its value. Coaches may not be dictators anymore,
but Hitchcock, a Civil War buff who participates in
reenactments during the offeason, 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' about practice today, so we practiced.
We needed them together, and we got them together --
Mike Modano has
taken so much crap 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, he's charismatic, he drives a Corvette
and he has been named one of Dallas's most eligible
bachelors (to everyone but his longtime girlfriend,
at least). But, in a process that has been tirelessly
documented in sports pages from Minneapolis to Big D
to his hometown of Detroit, Mike Modano didn't get famous
until he started doing things that actually made him
less noticeable. Once a goalscorer, Mike Modano is a
convert to the church of defensive hockey.
That's an old
story. This year, there's a new guy writing the exact
Here's the pertinent
quote: "A few years ago, if you told me to come
back and play defense, I'd tell you to go fuck yourself."
Ladies and Gentleman,
Famed as both
a loudmouth and a guy who only cared about putting the
puck in the net, 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, Hull, who, like Roger Clemens has taken
on the role of the aging star chasing 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 Bobby's career total next year. "I want
to score goals," he says evenly, "but the
game has changed." Recently Hull was injured for
a few weeks and the team won 5 out of 6 without him.
"Not very good for my ego," he joked to ESPN
during a game broadcast.
diferent from what everybody reads about and talks about,
" Mike Modano says. But he's still a bit of a loose
cannon, and thank god for that. Last season he angered
the league with his comments about the game's current
style -- the prevailing wisdom, which Hull endorses,
is that at a time when the game is trying to sell itself
as the best thing out there it's not as good as it should
be because there's too much defense and uncalled interference,
hindering goals and other offensive excitement. When
the CBC recently came to do a story on ice quality (not
great in Dallas, but now that Toronto and Vancouver
share their buildings 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 personality or a mind of his own,"
Hull says. At the same time, it seems clear that it's
partly persona -- he gives good quote with the same
dash and daring that he wrists a puck into the net.
Could it be that Brett Hull sees himself as an entertainer?
"That's all I am," he says.
With Hull's arrival
and 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
unperturbed. That is no longer the case. "There
was a time when Mike Modano couldn't get arrested here,"
Jim Lites says, invoking the familiar aphorism.
But more importantly,
Mike Modano still can't -- or rather, won't - get arrested.
Which is to say that while the NHL has certainly had
its share of drunks and ruffians, as a species pro hockey
players are the Last Boy Scouts. Ok, ok, why mince words?
- the Stars may practice at Valley Ranch, but they are
not the Cowboys. They sign autographs for free and make
nice with the media. One recent day Joe Nieuwendyk could
be seen frolicking on the ice with his two dogs -- he
was filming a PSA 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, 6 or 7 of them still remained on the
ice long after the rest of the team, peppering Ed Belfour
with shots, razzing him when the puck went in and oohing
appreciatively when he made a save. Another day, Nieuwendyk
and 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 Derian Hatcher are the team's
frontline faces, but a guy like Verbeek is what the
Stars are all about. "Glue guys," Hitchcock
calls them. The 5'9" Verbeek's nickname is "Little
Ball of Hate" and he will soon become the first
player in NHL history to amass both 500 career goals
and 2500 penalty minutes. Verbeek 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. "My style is what we call
either an agitator or a pest," he says. "I
get under the skin of opponents to try and get them
off their game. 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, 38. A former Canadiens teammate
of Gainey, he is a face-off specialist and penalty killer.
He'll never do anything fancy (he had 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% of them on a good night. As the fans have gotten
to know the game and the team better better, they've
come to appreciate the supporting cast, guys like Verbeek,
Carbonneau and defenseman Craig Ludwig.
In fact, one fan
*really* appreciates Craig Ludwig.
Kay Lynch has attended every home game for the last
four seasons, largely because of her devotion to Ludwig,
one of four players (Hatcher, Modano and defenseman
Richard Matvichuk are the others) who was with the team
before it moved to Dallas. Lynch owns three Ludwig jerseys
and works a second job solely to support her hockey
habit. Last year, when it looked as though Ludwig was
going to retire, she cried at the last game. She cried
again when he opted to return for another season.
Why Ludwig? "It's
the way he stagedives in front of the puck," Lynn
says. "He stagedives!" This is true -- Ludwig
has been known as one of the league's preeminent shotblockers
for years. Lynch finally got a chance to meet him 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!," she says. "And then
somebody ran up to me and says, we know you're the major
Ludwig fan, here's my ticket, he's sitting next to me."
Ludwig happily signed all her paraphenalia. On her next
birthday, which is August 25th, Lynn plans to us computer
software to scan a picture of Ludwig and have his face
put on her cake in icing.
Lynn is one of the many denizens of the Hoffbrau Bus,
which shuttles folks from the West End steakhouse of
the same name to Reunion Arena every 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 ever 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 run well into the
first period of a game. Alas, Latecomers remain 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
corporate season ticket holders who populate the lower
level. "It's the people upstairs who watch the
game develop, and then go ask Hitchcock why we keep
giving up odd man rushes. ("These people study
the game," Hitchcock says. "The questions
at the luncheons are very detailed.")
his pal Trip Watson own several Stars jerseys between
them, some authentic and some replicas. More than any
other sport, hockey has a culture of the jersey (traditionally,
they are called 'sweaters'). With so much money to be
made, most teams have introduced 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 yet to lose a game while
wearing them. (Editor's note: They finally did lose
a game, and then, beginning with the 1999 postseason,
the green jersey became the team's official road uniform).
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 PA, and do the Chik-Fil-A
chicken dance without much prompting.
One lower level
fan whose bonafides are not in doubt is Randy Kamin,
aka "Sign Man." When Ed Belfour makes a big
save Kamin is right there behind him in section 107,
hold up a big placard that reads "DENIED."
When the Stars score it's "YEAH BABY," an
"Austin Powers" reference that has made it
on to CNN and Sportscenter. 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. They're never
going to trade the Zamboni."
Fans like these
that the team raving about Dallas. "These people
may have lacked knowledge of hockey early on,"
Ken Hitchcock says, "but when they get into something
they put both feet in. The whole game just fits with
the Texas personality, the intensity, the agressive
action. 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.