"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 ON THE BLOCK

FROM "TEXAS MONTHLY"

by Jason Cohen

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.

 


Site designed by Rusty/CMW Consulting ©2002 Content ©2002 Jason Cohen