This is a test. It's tougher than one with Rorschach ink blots, harder than a post-grad LSAT. It's not a pop quiz like the ESPN "Game of the Week" or last Friday's home letdown against Western Conference foe Detroit. For the Stars, for these Stars--a group remarkably different from recent, more dominant versions--this will prove to be bigger, more daunting.
The incident--the Eddie Belfour defection, when he got mad at coach Ken Hitchcock and left the team for a few days--wasn't isolated. And it isn't over. The team may try to sweep their annoyance under the rug, but it won't be easily forgotten. It can't be. It will linger--possibly on the surface, more likely beneath--and how Dallas handles itself henceforth will determine whether the Stars return to what too many of you dolts consider a birthright or whether they fall short of Lord Stanley's prize.
This is a test.
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Belfour--the one whom you fans so unashamedly, and naively, welcomed with open arms before the loss to the hated Red Wings just days ago--is back. After a soap opera worthy of midday TV, the Eagle flew home. Returned to his pals, the same ones he'd deserted a week before in a sort of prepubescent huff. He was a bit rusty on Reunion's ice, allowing three goals on 28 shots, but he looked more or less the same in "the room" following the defeat. His hair was curly and matted from sweat. His face was forlorn, his eyes as icy-cold and hollow as ever.
The day before, Belfour, in a loquacious statement to ESPN.com, sought atonement in an abstract way, saying: "Anytime you leave your team like that, I feel you're in a situation where you maybe didn't think what's best for [the team], and you're a little bit emotional and you're not thinking straight."
"Maybe" didn't think what was best for the Stars? A "little bit" emotional? Surely Belfour wouldn't be allowed to downplay the incident like that without being grilled. Remarkably, however, his media interrogation wasn't one at all. It shook down innocently. A few innocuous questions from a once salivating pack of reporters. A few answers from the previously vilified goaltender to pacify said pack. And then it was over, finished before it began.
"You just try to learn from it and get better," Belfour tells the submissive crew--straight-faced, no less. "It's definitely been tough these past few days."
Poor, poor Eddie. (Insert sobbing sounds here.)
His teammates also refused to fan the fire, saying all the right, expected, clichéd things. Saying it was over, that they had to move on. Ah, such pearls...cough...
"We're happy to have him back," says left wing Brenden Morrow, amazingly without the slightest hint of sarcasm. As of Wednesday, the Stars were 1-2 (1-1 with Belfour in goal)since the prodigal son's return. "We wanted to play hard for him."
Of course. Of course. And why wouldn't they want to play hard for a guy who put himself first? Why wouldn't they give their all for a guy who gave them the figurative finger by hopping that plane?
But this isn't about one temper tantrum, damn it! This is about yet another obstacle for a club aimlessly trudging through an already fatiguing season.
Remember that it's not as though the Stars were carving up the NHL, slicing through the competition like skilled butchers through sides of meat. Through Wednesday, more or less the season's halfway point, the Stars lacked luster, mired in sixth place in the Western Conference and second in their division. The path back to the finals was already covered with bramble patches and thorns grown from multiple injuries and sporadic defense.
Publicly, the players say that it's forgotten, that it was really no big deal, that they're behind Eddie. For some, that's probably true, especially considering that Belfour's beef was with Hitch, who hasn't exactly endeared himself recently to certain Stars--like Mike Modano and Brett Hull--with scathing criticisms of team play to the press. But don't you think there are other factions lurking? Sects not so pleased with their netminder's theatrics? Think about it: When everything hockey-related is put on hold for unnecessary drama, in a season when everything hockey-related is much more taxing than in recent years, in a season when winning requires much more concentration and effort, doesn't it stand to reason that all this bothered someone? Or multiple someones?
So now, rather than just worrying about closing the divide in points between the club and teams they're pursuing, the Stars must also worry about mending relationships torn by the impromptu defection.
"It's going to be tough for them from here on," says an NHL beat writer. "They were having trouble as it was. This isn't the same team that won the Cup, or reached the finals last year. They can't just go out and dominate like they did. And now they have to deal with more of Eddie's bullshit."
But they're professionals, you say. They don't need to be friends, you say. It shouldn't affect their hockey, you say. It shouldn't, but it likely will in some way. And if you believe it won't, in some way, then send $10, care of the Dallas Observer, to Fair Game in return for eternal happiness, a la Homer's Happy Dude.
Now, this isn't the mark of a hockey apocalypse for Dallas. Not necessarily. This doesn't have to be the beginning of a drawn-out end. If Eddie can make amends, if his act of contrition is eventually accepted by the teammates he alienated, if his troubles with Hitchcock can be ultimately, and finally, resolved, if he can return to the form that helped the Stars hoist that eyesore of a trophy two seasons ago (has it been that long?), then things might be all right. Maybe.
If Dallas can get healthy.
And if it can inspire an often uninspired defense.
You see, though, that's a lot more "ifs" than this team needs.
Hitchcock, for one, knows as much. Following the Red Wings loss, he shed his gray, nondescript suit jacket and lumbered into a makeshift conference room in the bowels of Reunion Arena, where he addressed scribes and boom mikes alike. Hunched a bit--maybe from poor posture, maybe from the weight of the season--Hitch fielded a question about the recent upheaval with typical aplomb. And honesty.
"Cohesive?" he asked, appearing desperately in need of a nap or a glass of Johnny Walker Red. "I don't know that we are cohesive. If we were 100 percent there in that respect, we'd play better. I don't know that we're there yet."
A test, then. A test to regain their composure, their winning, dominant ways again. A test to become a true team again.
A test, clearly, they could have done without.
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