"Slap Shot" meets "A Season on the Brink" in this twisted tale of minor league hockey in the place with more pro teams than any place in North America: TEXAS!

Ice 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 better?

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 sports.

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 season record.

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 clichés.

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.

THE BRAINTRUST
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, every night.

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 one).


THE BOSS
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.

What Hitchcock 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.

Hitchcock's Sherwood 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.

In conversation, 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 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 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."

 But even 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 -- all complaining."

THE BOYS

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 same chapter.

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, Brett Hull!

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.

"He's totally 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.

THE FANS

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.")

Montgomery and 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.

 


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