On Thin Ice

After giving fans the cold shoulder, can hockey win us back?

Ties were created for Troy Dungan, calf ropin' and Anna Kournikova's brother. So by replacing overtime draws with sudden-death shootouts, the NHL got one right.

One down, infinity to go.

In case you're one of the oblivious millions, the Dallas Stars are back in business and desperately searching for fans to flirt with. Just 536 days since their last game at American Airlines Center, they returned to home ice this week with an extreme makeover boob job, Botox smile and kneeling plea for us to take them back.

But will we?

Five years ago Stars games were the hippest tickets in town. From barbershop clippers in the nosebleeds to topless bar strippers on the glass, hockey was the coolest game and the hottest see-and-be-seen scene.

Contamination preceded the collapse. A lethal combination of dwindling success and escalating ticket prices shaved the Stars' fandom to a loyal but limited group. Then last year, shortly after crowning the Tampa Bay Lightning as its forgettable 2003-'04 champion, the NHL slit its wrist. A labor lockout hemorrhaged into a canceled season, offering fans only dark arenas and bullshit rhetoric.

While everyone south of Ottawa became fixated on important matters--gas prices, hurricane warnings, the Cowboys' back-up deep snapper--hockey was born again, saved by the grace of more scoring and less expenses. More gullible than forgiving, I bit the bait and knocked on the door to Stars training camp in Frisco.

What exactly did I want? In the immortal words of Dave Chappelle, "rep-a-rat-ions, bitch!"

Free tickets. Free hot dogs. My own Zamboni. Mike Modano for my pub-crawling wing man. Cold beer filled to the rim of my personalized Stanley Cup. A permanent ban of Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll, Part 2." Or, just for fun, a snippet from "Part 1."

"We've got to repair relationships with existing fans and cultivate relationships with new ones," Stars general manager Doug Armstrong said early during camp. "We can't be foolish and think there's not going to be a negative impact from what happened."

My Zamboni is in the mail. Modano will call me; don't call him. And although Stars tickets won't be free, they're headed in the right direction. Same for scoring.

Thanks to the league's new "cost certainty" limiting team payrolls to $39 million, the Stars were able to reduce ticket prices by 16 percent. That resulted in $10 seats in the upper altitudes of AAC, and 2,000 new season-ticket holders. (There remain $122 tickets in the ice-level rows and, for a cool $4,250 per game, luxury suites accommodating 20-plus.) The Stars' "sorry" also included a free "Ice-Breaker" fan event that attracted 7,500, practices open to the public throughout the season and an even friendlier, more accessible locker room.

Go to a Rangers game and get a one-on-one with Kenny Rogers. Go to Stars practice and leave with as many cell phone numbers as you want.

"We need the media. We need the fans. We realize that more than ever, and we're going to do our best to cater to them," says Stars forward Bill Guerin. "People love reality TV. We've got to provide as close a look as possible."

Having NHL telecasts on the obscure Outdoor Life Network won't help visibility. But beggars with ratings lower than Knitting Nationcan't be choosers. Moves like the Stars allowing Dallas Morning News beat writer Mike Heika to watch a pre-season game from the bench will, however, restore a small-town feel to what once was a big-time sport.

While hockey's marketing machinations might merely be pandering to fans, the on-ice reincarnation will be deliciously drastic.

In short, the sport's signature talents have graduated from clutch-and-grab to speed-and-shooting. Finally placating American sports fans who enjoy 6-5 more than 1-0, the new NHL is rebranding itself as an offensive league crafted from smaller goalie gear, two-line passes, shootouts and, most important, no impeding the progress of players, with or without the puck.

More skating, less Sumo.

"It's a package of changes that will increase the entertainment while maintaining the competition," says Stars coach Dave Tippett, whose team's eight pre-season games averaged a healthy 7.2 goals. "As a defensive coach I always preach getting the heat out of the kitchen, getting the puck out from in front of the net. Now that's going to be much more difficult. Stanley Cups have been raised by hooking and holding. Traditionalists may not like it, but for the good of the game that era is gone."

Says Guerin, "You can't call us 'soccer on ice' anymore."

Despite one of every four players changing sweaters in the new NHL, your Stars won't look drastically different from the team you last saw--3-2 losers in double overtime of Game 4 against the Colorado Avalanche back on April 14, 2004. Tippett is still the coach, though without his trademark moustache that didn't survive the lockout. Marty Turco is still the defense. And 35-year-old Modano, trying to bounce back from a career-worst season playing like Nodano, is still the offense.

Sports Illustrated, like several publications, isn't buying the aging Stars' thirtysomething approach in a faster, sleeker league, ranking Dallas 21st out of 30.

"Our sport is going to be better, our games are going to be better, and we think our team is going to be better," Guerin says. "We know we have a long way to go with our fans, but we hope that's a nice start."

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