By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
While the Washington Capitals shuffle to their hotel, still suffering from a sound thumping absorbed not long before, a Stars fan talks with friends. Clad in his team's colors, he stands near a concession stand where the floor is sticky from spilt beer. You expect he's thrilled with the win, pleased that Dallas now has put together a modest two-game win streak. That's what you expect, until he speaks.
"I dunno," he tells his chums, "they don't look as good as last year."
(Insert throaty scream of columnist here.)
He is the case study, the embodiment of a particular faction. They've been going through withdrawal lately, these area hockey fans. It's a product of their overactive imagination, perhaps, or the cumulative effect of reading too many newspaper stories or listening to too much talk radio. Maybe it has to do with the team meeting last week, the one caused by coach Ken Hitchcock's criticism to the media that his players "lacked sincerity." Whatever the reason, a contingent of fans, looking predictably forlorn, have convinced themselves that their cloistered world--where everyone has miniature Stars flags waving proudly from expensive cars and the team is bound to flirt with Lord Stanley's favorite hardware--is radically changing. And not for the better.
They've pointed to a lack of scoring, an absence of effort, a sluggish start. Hovering near .500, as Dallas has in these first couple of weeks, isn't acceptable to its supporters. They've fretted that victories won't be as plentiful as last year or the year before, when the Stars averaged a robust 108 points. They've worried that they'll be resigned to hanging their hopes on a "resurgent" Mavs squad. Or, gasp, the rapidly deteriorating Cowboys.
All this just a few games into a season longer than Rapunzel's locks. All this despite the Stars waking from their slumber recently, dispatching Philadelphia and Washington with ease (seven goals scored against one allowed in those two contests).
Doesn't matter, though. Not to the moron spewing stupidity near the concession stand, anyway. Worst part? He's not alone. There are more of them. A lot more.
This is madness, don't you see? An epidemic. What, exactly, are they looking for? If you recall, this isn't a new development but rather a bout of déjà vu. Last season, the Stars were listless from jump too, with only nine wins as late as November 26. These fans struggled along with them. And that's what they hate, the struggle. They want points and goals and defense and domination.
They want the impossible.
"The last few days have been a little dismal around here," admits Ted Donato to a gaggle of reporters about the team's 1-2-1 start (Dallas was 3-2-1 as of Tuesday). The fans' unhappiness, it seems, hasn't escaped the players. Nor has that unhappiness subsided among the rabid.
In the upper reaches of Reunion, where once-white paint is now dulled and the section numbers are drab green, two such fans cheered loudly, incessantly, that the Stars' two-goal lead in the third period against the Caps wasn't enough. Two nights before, it took an empty netter to send the obsessed scurrying joyfully into the night. If this doesn't scream trouble, what does? Because their Stars won't be stars every night. They can't be. And what if the "unthinkable" becomes reality? What if the Stars don't make another run at a championship? What then? Will the city be forced to employ a 'round-the-clock suicide watch?
Clearly, the Stars aren't playing with the same seamlessness they displayed in June, but it's not as if they are playing poorly, either--seventh overall in goals scored, fifth in penalty killing. But even if the Stars had found a nadir, wouldn't the fact that the season is still in its infant stage temper those concerns? Shouldn't the breadth of talent, and the organization's history during the past four years (more than 40 wins and 100 points in each season, equaled only by the Jersey Devils) be some kind of consolation to the deluded? This isn't Tampa Bay or Long Island, where the fans are bereft of hope and the playoffs are a fanciful notion. Lots of good, skilled players here, lest you forget. Players named Hull and Modano, Hatcher and Belfour, Nieuwendyk and Zubov, Morrow and Sydor. These are high-caliber athletes, guys who played significant roles in parts of four consecutive division championships, guys who constitute the meat of this team.
Still, some would have you believe those bones have been gnawed raw. In their minds, they are martyrs, lost souls forced to watch the gradual, painful demise of their heroes.
"It's good that the fans expect a lot from us, because we expect a lot from ourselves," winger Brenden Morrow says slowly, so you get it. "But it's early. There are so many games left."
Surely, there is no collection of addicts quite like right here in Dallas, where wins are a powerful opiate for the citizenry. But that's not the problem, when it comes down to it. They hardly can be criticized for adoring winners, can they?
No, the crux of the issue is how they deal with the downtime, how the hooked fare when the situation is less than stellar--when they can't cop a hit. Because you can be sure Dallas will have plenty of shining moments in the months to come, but the pratfalls will be just as inevitable, especially for a team with an influx of youth--see twentysomethings Richard Jackman, Brad Lukowich, Roman Lyashenko, and Morrow.