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Power play

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Michael Hogue

Played in Quebec City in front of as many as 13,000 screaming French Canadians, the International Pee Wee Hockey World Championship is one of the sport's biggest tournaments. Top-notch teams fly in from Russia, Finland, the Czech Republic, and other hockey powerhouses. Over the years, many of the National Hockey League's all-time greats -- Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur, to name a few -- have played there. This year, 106 teams, including 25 from the United States, are expected to draw more than 200,000 spectators to the weeklong event, which produces some electrifying, highly skilled play.

Astonishing, considering that the players are 12 years old.

In the U.S. hockey belt, which includes a lot of states beginning with the letter "M" -- Minnesota, Michigan, Maine, and Massachusetts -- youth hockey is every bit as competitive as Texas high school football.

In other words, along with the traditional values of sport -- the teamwork, the value-of-hard-work lessons, the simple joy of the game -- comes a big dose of downside. Youth hockey is overemphasized, hyped beyond reason by newspapers and TV, and attended by adults who scream at 9-year-olds, swear at coaches, and generally make life hell for the kids. In his 1990 autobiography, Gretzky recalled how, as a 4-foot-4, 78-pound 10-year-old, parents from his own team would monitor his playing time with stopwatches. Parents from the opposition would "sit in the stands and do nothing but scream at me," telling him he'd be washed up by 11. Not for being bad, but for being very, very good.

As youth hockey has exploded in Dallas during the '90s, adults have been acting in much the same way in the area's burgeoning club leagues, where the Dallas Stars are a large and growing force, and where mothers and fathers pay as much as $7,000 a year so their sons -- and a few daughters -- can travel the nation in search of quality competition.

Take, for starters, the story of who would be invited from Dallas this year to play in the prestigious Quebec City tournament.

For the past three years, a team fielded by the parent-run Dallas Metro Hockey Association has made the mid-winter trip, playing respectably enough to finish in the middle third of the pee wee pack. The winners are often the top European squads, or teams such as those from Detroit with hefty corporate sponsorships from Little Caesar's Pizza (headquarters, not the corner stand) or Compuware.

Joe Sparks, a coach of this year's Dallas Metro pee wee team and president of the league, says he was talking over the summer to Kent Holmes, director of the Dallas Stars' youth hockey programs, about the Quebec tournament and suggested their teams hold a citywide tryout. The Junior Stars -- about 600 kids skating at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Irving -- compete in a so-called "house league," which does not travel, and fields teams in a regional league that includes most of the major cities in Texas and Oklahoma.

Sparks' offer was a generous one, as the two programs operate at entirely different levels of competition. In every age group, the Junior Stars compete at a less advanced level than the DMHA teams, which are picked each year after extensive tryouts and practice three days a week on full rinks. The DMHA teams are elite units. The Junior Stars are not. To get competitive games, 12-year-old DMHA teams will compete with 14-year-olds in the Junior Stars program.

Sparks recalls that Holmes was receptive to his idea of tryouts for the big tournament.

But in the early fall, he came up with a stunning change of heart. "He said, 'Joe, I have bad news for you. We're taking the Quebec invite,'" recalls Sparks, who was completely blindsided by Holmes' power grab.

The problem is, the invitation was not theirs to take. When the Dallas Stars first came to town in 1993, the professional team played some role in helping pick which organization would send the pee wee team, several DMHA parents and coaches recall. More recently, though, DMHA has developed its own relationship with the Quebec tournament. So Sparks got to work calling the tournament's director, Patrick Dom, a sharp-tongued French Canadian hockey veteran. "Patrick told me they've held their tournament for 41 years, and this isn't the first time some NHL team tried telling them what to do."

Dom, reached in Quebec, says he heard from Holmes and another man, Larry Stuart, who would seem to be a little too far up the corporate ladder to be concerned with a hockey contest for preteens. A wealthy corporate lawyer, Stuart is a partner in the investment firm Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst and a part-owner of the Stars.

 

"I wondered why the Dallas Stars wanted to bring their own team after they've been supporting DMHA all these years," says Dom, a Quebecois who speaks in heavily accented English. "I received a letter from Larry Stuart saying they want to start their own program, and they want us to begin inviting the Dallas Junior Stars. Then I find out that Larry Stuart's son plays on that team. The fact that they want to start their own program I can understand. But I should invite them because Larry Stuart's son is on that team? I hate that." Those last three words -- pronounced indignantly in a clipped Gallic accent -- come across as "I het dat."

Dom says he has "one of the most beautiful jobs" in the hockey world, except for those few weeks every year when he has to tell 150 teams they won't be coming to the tournament. "When I saw all this from Dallas, I think minor hockey is more political than the NHL...A lot of people use their names to try to get a team here. I have nothing against the Dallas Stars organization. But it is unfair what Larry Stuart tried to do to DMHA."

Thus, DMHA got the invite again this year and the Junior Stars did not.

Stuart, in an interview at Hicks, Muse's 16th-floor Crescent Center offices, says the Stars organization had mistakenly thought it was their invitation to dole out. When they found out it wasn't, they put in their own application and made no effort to "muscle out" DMHA, Stuart insists. He is emphatic in saying his interest in the tournament had nothing to do with his son. Stuart also says Junior Stars teams such as his son's are as good as or better than their counterparts at DMHA.

It is an opinion nobody else in the local kid-hockey world would support. Quite a few Dallas-area hockey parents, in fact, aren't buying what Stuart and the Stars say these days.


The leaders of the Dallas Metro Hockey Association, which includes some of the most committed parents and respected coaches in Dallas youth hockey, say they used to revere and respect the Dallas Stars corporate organization. Now, they say, it has become the source of trouble and opposition.

In the past four months, the Stars have warned DMHA against using the team's logo; canceled DMHA's ice time at the StarCenter six weeks into the season; and installed a new rule in the Stars-controlled Southwestern Bell Metroplex High School league that effectively bars from competition a dozen of the area's top DMHA players. Many of those are the sons and daughters of parents who helped get the high school league off the ground four years ago.

Warren Nugent, a coach of two DMHA teams, exchanged several pointed faxes with Stuart about some of these matters earlier this fall. "Frankly, we're disgusted," he says. "I used to be a big Stars fan. Now I don't even want to watch their games."

Bill Herting, one of the chief architects of DMHA and the Southwestern Bell high school league, says it appears the Stars' economic interests are driving the decisions.

"In the macro sense, the development of youth hockey in Dallas over the past six years has been nothing short of incredible," says Herting, who moved earlier this year to San Francisco with his job in the movie theater business. "The main problem is, as the rinks expand, everybody has a different agenda, and they lose sight of the kids.

"The system set up three years ago is breaking down. We created the Dallas Metro Hockey Association to create a pyramid. The idea was to create a citywide team in each age group to compete at the top levels. What seems to be happening now is that the Stars want to control more than they did before. I'm not sure where they're coming from, but a lot of it seems to be economic rather than altruistic."

Indeed, the Stars this year embarked on a building boom, breaking ground in Euless on the first of four or perhaps five skating complexes they plan to build in the area over the next several years. Each of the $10 million complexes will have two ice rinks, a Stars merchandise store, and concessions.

Aided by suburbs willing to provide free land, low-cost municipal financing, near-total tax breaks, and millions of dollars of infrastructure, the business plan appears to be to cash in on the hockey energy and buzz created by last season's Stanley Cup winners. In turn, by fostering youth hockey, the club creates new generations of fans who one day will be tipping beers in the stands or skyboxes, going on about their own days on the ice.

 

In Euless, where a new StarCenter is scheduled to open in April, city subsidies include a cost-free six-acre site, $1 million for a parking lot and road improvements, municipal financing that cuts the Stars' cost of borrowing money by at least one-third, and an arrangement in which Euless will own the complex and lease it to the Stars, according to the contract, which was signed in September. City ownership exempts the facility from real estate taxes. One private businessman in the development world estimated the breaks are conservatively worth $6 million to $8 million over the 20 years of the lease arrangement.

Euless City Manager Joe Hennig says the incentives were relatively painless because the park land being used, in a city recreation area called Texas Star, never would have generated tax revenue; the $1 million in direct city costs would have been used on some type of park-related facilities; and the city acquired the site for about $1.5 million because of a tax default. Those costs are financed by a half-cent sales tax approved by city voters for the Texas Star park project. Under the deal, which was approved unanimously by the Euless City Council, the Stars receive all revenue from the facility and all profits above their lease -- which is equal to the city's bond payments -- and operating costs.

According to a letter of intent signed by the city and the Stars last spring, Duncanville is moving forward with the same general arrangement. The Stars have also been talking to Southlake, Garland, and Arlington, team and city officials say.

Whether the Stars are inspired by a thirst for control as they plan how to fill their new rinks, or by one executive's personal pique with a rival league, or by a little of both, some of the most avid and firmly committed parents and coaches are wondering why the Stars are jerking with 80 of the best 17-and-under players in town and trying to put their league down, if not out of business.

They are people like Debra Baker, whose son Josh plays on the DMHA midget squad, the 15-17 age bracket. Baker and her husband pony up the ugly money, at least $7,000 a year, so Josh can play on a club that competes at the highest level -- AAA -- under rules set down by USA Hockey, the governing body that fields the U.S. Olympic team.

Playing under the name Dallas Stars, Baker's team is in first place with a 9-1 record in its six-team division of the Southwest Youth Hockey League. The league consists of teams from Phoenix, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and elsewhere across the Western states. Last year, Dallas placed first in the league tournament and went on to the nationals in Dayton, Ohio, where they lost in the early rounds.

Josh, a handsome 16-year-old with dark brown hair whose name was on the lips of more than one teenage girl at a recent home game, is currently the division's eighth leading scorer. "I'd love to eventually play college, maybe at UNH [University of New Hampshire]," he says.

Says his mother, "Unless you are talking to another parent in the elite hockey community, people think you're absolutely nuts to commit this kind of time and money to anything, but it's cheap compared to having a kid in drug rehab. I have two sons, and the other one's gone that route. If Josh weren't doing this, he'd very well be hanging out. This is his incentive to pull good grades, to do what Mom asks, to meet curfews, bring the car back alive, all those basic things." Her husband, recently retired from the military, is a beginning pilot, and the hockey fees are steep, she says.

A savvy, eyes-wide-open hockey mom, she says she knows how difficult it is to play hockey at college, particularly at the Division 1 level. Josh will no doubt need a year or two past high school to develop physically and mentally to make a college team.

Baker says she would have expected the Stars to want to be more closely associated with the area's elite youth hockey organization. "They could have thrown some money our way, maybe supported a scholarship or something, but they never have," she says. "We try to raise money all the time, but it's a hand-to-mouth organization supported by the parents. I know we just lost a kid because of a financial situation," she says.

At this early stage of the sport's development in Dallas, there is nothing equivalent to a Little Caesar's sponsorship, although an occasional youth team can strike it rich if a dad happens to be wealthy and takes a shine to his kid's team.

 

This year's DMHA bantam team, which includes the sons of former Stars defenseman Craig Ludwig, is being underwritten by a $100,000 gift from Doug Miller, chairman of Coda Energy Inc., several parents confirmed. Last year, when the pee wee team his son was on had trouble making a plane connection, Miller rented the team a private jet.


"You're a cocksucker! You're a son of a bitch!" Lewisville hockey parent Neil Wilner yelled as Kurt Kruger, coach of the Coppell high school team, slipped from behind the boards and neared the StarsCenter lobby one Wednesday night late last month.

Kruger had just committed the sin of trying to put Coppell High's five best hockey players on the ice to play for their school. He later learned he had forfeited the game because of a Dallas Stars rule imposed on the high school league this year that takes aim at DMHA players.

"These fans get pretty emotional," someone said to Kruger as he began paging through the league's rules to show he was in the right.

"Not always," Kruger replied. "That's just how some of these parents act when their kids lose."

Kruger's Coppell team is part of the upstart Southwestern Bell Metroplex High School Hockey League, which has grown to 54 teams in its short four-year life. Run by the Stars' Holmes, the league is not officially associated with the high schools and is not sanctioned by the University Interscholastic League, which governs high school sports. In other words, it's really a club league, albeit one loosely affiliated with the schools.

Late last summer, in a move a member of the league's advisory board claims was ramrodded by Holmes, the league barred players who also played for the DMHA's midget squad, its oldest team of 15- to 17-year-olds, as well as players on the first-year Texas Tornado, a nationally recruited team that may include one or two players still of high school age. The Tornado team, which plays at the Junior A level, has begun playing at the new Blue Line Ice Complex in North Richland Hills.

The banning of the newly arrived Tornado players made sense, because the team is designed to be a squad of nationally recruited players. But coaches and parents say they don't see any point -- beyond punitive -- in kicking kids such as 16-year-old Justin Tcheng off the local high school ice.

Tcheng, one of the guns of the DMHA midget team, would have been playing his fourth year on the Coppell squad were it not for the ban.

"It's my senior year, and I want to be part of the high school and remembered for something I'm good at," he says one afternoon before practice. "I don't play any other sport."

Tcheng began skating in Southern California six years ago after he saw his first Los Angeles Kings game and his role model, Gretzky. When his father, Terry Tcheng, transferred to Dallas, his family made the commitment to let Justin play on the DMHA's travel teams.

"I thought it's kind of boring here in Texas. Nothing else to do, so I might as well get him involved with it," says Terry Tcheng, who runs the data processing department at a bank.

In high school hockey, Justin scored the league's very first goal and received a plaque from the Stars to commemorate the moment. Now that that same management has barred him from playing, he says he can't even explain to his friends why he's not playing for his school. "You can't say, 'I'm too good'...It's unfair. I mean, we helped start the league, and all we are trying to do is boost the level of play. By banning us, the league is gonna stay at a low level."

With new rinks to fill, it would make sense that the Stars' goal is to nurture the high school league, which has grown to 1,000 players and has the potential of getting much larger.

"When you own rinks, you want to get bodies on the ice," says Tony Curtale, coach and general manager of the Tornado, who has watched the DMHA-Stars brouhaha from a distance. "That doesn't always mean spending time developing the small number of kids at the top."

Holmes, who coached a high school team for Plano High last year before going to work for the Stars, says the ban had three goals: to prevent the recruitment of players from outside of Dallas, to level the playing field for wider competition, and to promote player safety.

Technically, DMHA's top team plays under rules that allow it to recruit players from Canada and Michigan, although that has not happened and isn't likely to happen until Texas hockey gets far more advanced.

 

As for leveling out the competition, Holmes says his Plano High team had five DMHA players on it last year and outscored the competition 238 to 17. "I guess you can draw your own conclusion, but that's a fairly lopsided score for a season. There is no question it's more competitive this year."

Holmes argues a somewhat contrary view, however, when he claims the quality of the hockey in the league has not suffered following the ban. "There may be [only] three or four players who are gems, real skilled players. But I don't think that the caliber has gone down that much."

One hockey parent, who declined to be named, says that he has talked to Stuart -- the Hicks, Muse partner -- about the issue and that Stuart told him he believes Dallas- and Fort Worth-area kids will choose high school hockey over programs such as DMHA's. "His opinion was pretty clear that he wants to grow the high school league at the expense of the travel teams."

In a fax to DMHA coach Warren Nugent, Stuart said he does not even believe his program harbors the area's best players. "I take issue that DMHA is the highest-level hockey," Stuart wrote Nugent in early November. "Many of the best players do not participate because their parents cannot afford [what it takes to play]."

Stuart echoed those sentiments in his interview with the Dallas Observer. "From the perspective of what's in everybody's best interest, do you want a hockey program that's broad-based, or do you want to have a very elite program for a bunch of rich kids?" he said.

Parents such as Baker and Tcheng, and coaches such as Kruger, say the high school program has one big thing going for it in young male teenage minds, and it has little to do with hockey.

"They get to play in front of the girls, the hockey groupies," says Baker. When the travel teams fly to, say, Phoenix, the only people watching them are Mom and Dad, or just as likely, nobody but their coach and teammates.

"The kids are coming out in droves to watch high school hockey," confirms Scott Wenning, coach of the Episcopal School of Dallas team. "When I drive down LBJ or 183 and see all these Southlake Carroll hockey stickers, it shows how hockey has continued to grow. But the Stars are forcing the more accomplished players to make a choice: Play top-flight travel hockey or high school."

Wenning, a district manager of a technology-services company, says he sees the Stars using a "divide-and-conquer strategy. In business you would call it incrementalism, trying to acquire enough critical mass. I don't know if they can corner the market on youth hockey, but it seems they want to own the lion's share, as much as possible."

As for Holmes' argument that the more skilled skaters present a safety risk to the less accomplished players, Wenning offered the example of a game his team played recently with W.T. White, the only hockey squad in DISD, as proof that unskilled hockey players pose a much greater safety problem.

"We have lost two players [to the ban], but we still have one of the more competitive teams," says Wenning. "Some of these squads are stocked with Rollerbladers and first-time hockey players. The league is so diluted that there are few teams with the haves and a lot of have-nots, and nobody likes getting beat five-nothing, six-nothing. So they resort to what they can do best, which is getting physical. At the W.T. White game [in mid-November], their coach couldn't hold 'em back. The play was so goonish, there were 18 penalties. The officials called the game off with more than three minutes left, and the police were called. The crowd was like at an English soccer match. They were egging the fights on and cheering the violence."

Besides the name-calling hockey parent, the Coppell-Lewisville match was a somewhat more sedate affair. Rumors of a post-game parking-lot brawl never materialized after the penalty-rich game.

Kruger, the Coppell coach, says his team was affected more than any by the new rule. He lost a full line of top players. "I'm loyal to these kids. I've loved working with these kids. My philosophy is that you look at someone who is good and you set the bar. I always thought the idea was to push yourself and set your goals against that example."

Kruger says his faith in the five banned kids -- and some clear wording in the high school league by-laws -- convinced him to suit up the banned players against Lewisville. The written rules, which a Stars attorney handed out to parents this fall, clearly include a "grandfather clause" allowing players who were eligible last season to continue to play this season.

 

The first of the banned players to play -- Tcheng and two others -- didn't even set foot on the ice until Kruger's team had a 3-0 lead, which grew to 6-0 by the end of the game.

Kruger's protest and reading of the rules got as much consideration as an ice cube in front of a runaway Zamboni machine. Kent Holmes, who holds the titles of president of the high school league and president of the Texas Amateur Hockey Association's high school hockey section, says it doesn't matter what the printed rules state. "The rules are being rewritten. Everyone knows those players are ineligible players. The rules say all eligibility matters will be accounted for by the commissioner, which is me."

Kruger says he learned later that the Lewisville coach was informed even before the game began that Coppell would forfeit if the banned players dressed. He ended up taking as much heat from parents with kids still on the squad as from anyone else, but some came around after he explained the principles behind his stand. "I want to develop a program," says Kruger, "where kids have the chance to learn about teamwork and camaraderie, not about politics that says this guy can play and this guy can't."

Some parents and coaches are so upset over the player ban that they are exploring starting an alternative high school league. The interesting thing is, the Stars have such a monopoly that the new league would have to work through Holmes, who is head of the statewide governing body over such leagues.


Around the same time the Stars were attempting to cut DMHA out of the pee wee tournament in Canada, they came up with some more bad news for the league.

The StarCenter could no longer sell them the six hours per week of ice it had been furnishing -- at about $250 per hour -- in the first months of the season. DMHA would have to find another place for their 80 or so kids to play.

"A lot of strange things have been happening," says DMHA head of coaches Ron Regenscheid, who has been coaching youth hockey in the area since 1988, back when there were a total of 135 kids in the programs. "Now we get this growth, this surge in the number of kids into the thousands, and all of a sudden they want to put us out of business."

In Dallas, where demand for ice time has outpaced the building of rinks, and where most rinks are booked solid, losing guaranteed ice time is a major blow.

What ticked off the DMHA organizers most is the understanding they say they had with the Stars, which was a guarantee of ice for the season.

DMHA president Sparks and others say Holmes made that commitment at an association board meeting in late June. Some DMHA parents and coaches say they had personal assurances from Holmes that the ice would be available for the season, which lasts until April. Greg Kraus, whose son plays for a DMHA team, says he was interested enough in the issue before the season to talk directly with Holmes and was assured the league would play out its season at the Irving center. "For some reason they decided to renege," says Kraus, a real estate investor.

Holmes, however, says he did not make a full-season commitment of ice. "If you are dealing with parents and their kids, they hear what they want to hear. They read in what they want to read in."

In any event, there was no written agreement, so the DMHA went scrambling for ice in late October. Some squads missed practices. Others did not. Sparks says his league was saved by the opening of two rinks at the half-completed Blue Line facility in Tarrant County -- a first-rate facility that is far less convenient for parents, who must drive their kids to practice three times a week.

"I've been in youth hockey all my life, and I've never seen anything like this," says Sparks, whose own hockey career included playing on a national champion team at Michigan Tech in 1975. "It's sad to me and shocking, the narrow-mindedness of it, the ego, the self-interest."

Warren Nugent, the DMHA coach, was so upset by the Stars' ice decision that he used a personal connection and obtained Tom Hicks' home fax number. Nugent outlined what he said was the Stars' verbal commitment to his league and asked for further consideration of the issue.

 

Stuart responded for Hicks in a November 3 fax to Nugent. He told him he was "puzzled that you apparently believe I have some issue with DMHA." He described as a "false rumor" the idea that the Stars had broken a commitment and said the Stars needed to use all of its ice time for its own programs, particularly the rapidly growing high school league.

After Nugent sent yet another fax asking for reconsideration, Stuart replied from his house in Preston Hollow: "Several people told me you and your wife have been making negative comments not only about me but about my son. I hope this is not true...This type of conduct represents everything that is wrong with parent-sponsored hockey."

As a coach, Nugent says, he gets asked all the time to evaluate the players -- who are reviewed by panels of evaluators before they are cut by DMHA or given a spot on a team.

In Stuart's last fax to Nugent, sent on November 5, he reiterated that DMHA was being moved out of the StarCenter because of the growth of the high school program. "We give priority to our teams over independent teams such as yours. Is this clear? We wish your program well but do not endorse it as we do not think it is the best way to improve the quality of hockey in our area."

There it is. Stuart, a corporate lawyer-turned-partner in a very successful leverage-buyout firm with a kid in youth hockey, is clearly calling the shots in the program, and he has little good to say about DMHA.

"They're not accomplishing the purpose of developing hockey to a higher level," Stuart says, although he insists he wishes the league all the best.

The youth league's leaders say that lip service hardly jibes with moves such as an August 30 letter from the Stars' corporate counsel saying the league's use of the Stars name and logo "constitutes unauthorized uses of the trademarks of the Dallas Stars."

Sparks says his organization's teams have worn Stars sweaters for three years. They buy them from the Stars, which have team-logo equipment for sale all over the area. "They sell them at Target, but all of a sudden there's a problem...It would be a joke if it weren't so serious," says Sparks, who sent a letter asking for authorization and has not heard back.

What troubles some of the area's more knowledgeable youth hockey people is that DMHA has built a program that has begun to break, ever so tentatively, into the national youth hockey world, and that the program is now under attack by a Stars power play.

"We're starting to have a program that is good enough that our kids are getting into junior camps and getting college coaches looking at them," says Regenscheid, the DMHA head of coaches, who also coaches the team at Plano East. "It's taken a lot of volunteer support, people willing to make practices at 4:45 in the morning. It's tough building a program. It doesn't happen overnight. Now we're faced with these big-business decisions by the Stars. I'm not sure interest in the kids is there."


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