By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It's audible. But so quiet and muffled, almost tranquil. Is it the refurbished Mercantile Tower clock, silently ticking high above downtown? Two moths texting in a cotton field? Charlie Chaplin espousing the virtues of Roger Clemens?
Nope. Just another winter hot streak by your Dallas Stars.
Admittedly stripped to a die-hard, bare-bones fan base after years of late-season flirtation begetting only playoff headaches, the Stars are at it again. Quietly, efficiently producing successful hockey that begs to be noticed. But for the most part playing to a city that doesn't give a damn.
While most of us were craning our necks to see exactly when and where Barack Obama would appear in town, the Stars—thanks to last Sunday's 1-0 victory over the rival Detroit Red Wings—won nine of 10 games to solidify their standing as the National Hockey League's second-best team.
"We're down to the core," says Stars president Jeff Cogen, charged with regenerating a hockey buzz in our disappointed, disjointed sports town. "It's not 'Woe is me.' It's just that, compared to who we once were we've fallen off quite a bit. We admit that, and we're reacting to it to get those fans back."
Since their Stanley Cup championship in 1999 and finals appearance in 2000, the Stars have slowly sucked into oblivion. They've won a majority of their games, lost a minority of their fans and now basically exist in a vacuum. In terms of attendance, TV ratings, merchandise sales and significance, they have dropped 25 percent since their peak.
Given that we're already emotionally bankrupt after the playoff collapses by the Cowboys and Mavericks, another successful Stars regular season generates merely a shrug of indifference. Honestly, sports fans are more affected by the beef recall than the meat of the hockey schedule.
"The buzz," Cogen admits, "isn't quite there."
It will be. Because we're stubbornly loyal. Because we're resiliently naïve. Because we're downright desperate for a parade. And most of all because—one way (on the ice) or another (in the stands)—the Stars are going to win us back.
It won't be easy. Already preaching to a jaded congregation, the Stars' sermon was stifled last week. The same day the team announced unprecedented ticket-price reductions, Clemens and Brian McNamee faced off on Capitol Hill. The same day the team earned its measuring-stick victory over Detroit, the Mavs resurrected their trade for Jason Kidd.
But at the risk of accelerating down the same tantalizing, dead-end road, it's easy for us to giddily project this Stars team capturing a Cup. Dallas is again winning with impenetrable penalty killing, timely scoring-by-committee and a goalie determined to validate his résumé.
Sound familiar? 2008 meet 1999.
Stumbling to a 7-7 start on the heels of three consecutive first-round playoff exits, the Stars turned appropriately proactive. They replaced President Jim Lites with Cogen and dismissed general manager Doug Armstrong in favor of an unorthodox Brett Hull-Les Jackson duo that almost immediately gave a contract extension to coach Dave Tippett. On the ice, Dallas allowed for—actually relied upon—major production from minor players such as Mike Ribeiro, Niklas Hagman and Antti Miettinen. Three months later, despite having more GMs than All-Stars (Ribeiro), the Stars are the NHL's biggest surprise. Brenden Morrow and Mike Modano are buzzing around the ice, Marty Turco is standing on his head and, despite playing without injured stalwarts Phillipe Boucher and Sergei Zubov, the team recently rattled off one of the quietest franchise-record winning streaks (seven) in the history of organized sports.
"Since the All-Star break we've really hunkered down," Tippett says.
The familiarly pungent stench in "the room" and the wins piling up in the standings announce that it's officially hockey season in Dallas. Before only the 10th sellout crowd of the year at American Airlines Center, the Stars shut out the Red Wings in a crucial game, mid-February notwithstanding. Turco improved to 2-9-5 in his career against Detroit, and the Stars beat the league-leading Red Wings for only the fourth time in 15 games spanning four seasons.
After Hagman's rebound goal allowed Dallas to melt away the final seconds of the nationally televised showdown, the crowd chanted "mar-DEE!...mar-DEE!" Not quite the collective throat that serenaded goalie Eddie Belfour a decade ago, but you could almost hear the echoes awakening.
"Our level of hockey is high," Turco says. "We're at the top of our division, but that's not what is going to satisfy this team."
Or management. Not unlike The Beverly Hillbillies inviting "Y'all come back now, ya hear?," Cogen has a second strategical component aimed at tricking us into investing in his team this spring and beyond.
"We've got to rekindle our lost fan base," says Cogen, who helped bring the team to Texas in '93 and returned last November after a stint with the Rangers. "Take them back to a happier time."
In conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the franchise's only title, fans buying full-season tickets for 2008-09 will be afforded 1999 prices. Wow. Tickets which this year cost $53 per game will next year cost $33; the $33 ticket down to $21. Other bargains will permit existing season-ticket holders to move down 10 rows for the same price.
"It's a bold strategy," Cogen says. "We're basically cutting-and-pasting ticket prices right from Reunion Arena 10 years ago."
Something needs to be done, and kudos to the Stars for doing it.
The fans still shout "Stars!" during the National Anthem and pump their fists to Pantera's hard-rockin' theme song. Modano's shirttail still trails in the breeze on breakaways. The team's game-day production crew still nails it with video bits like "Finnish or Gibberish" and music from Flight of the Conchords. And just ask the players: It's still "aboot" winning.
But it's all not quite right. The allure has diminished. Craziness has been replaced by complacency.
The Stars once had 14,000 season-ticket holders backed by a waiting list, TV ratings above 3.0 and a sellout streak of 238 games. Now, season tickets are down to 11,000, ratings below 1.0 and their longest sellout streak this season is four.
Why? Pacific Division banners and President's Trophies no longer jazz us any more than NFC East titles and 13 Pro Bowlers, or 67 regular-season wins and Southwest Division championships.
Detroit is Hockeytown; Dallas is Cockytown.
Says Cogen, "We're a victim of our own relative success."
In the late '90s the Stars rode the perfect wave, an intoxicating blend of their grand success before Mark Cuban bought the Mavericks and after Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin passed their prime.
But now? Hockey has suffered a betting scandal, a near-fatal lockout and a cable TV banishment to Versus. The Mavs trade for Hall of Famers, the Cowboys have mega-watt winners and the Stars never make it to May.
How then, do you re-create the novelty? How do you duplicate your first time with a virgin?
By reaching back, in order to reach out.
"Some of the fans that were with us in '99 have stopped coming and stopped watching, but I don't think they hate us," Cogen says. "With a healthy playoff run and rolled-back pricing, we're speaking directly to them."