The Dallas Stars are struggling to be noticed- despite a winning record.
Surveying the current sports landscape dominated by Jason Garrett's staff, Dirk Nowtizki's knee, Michael Young's role and, oh yeah, the imminent arrival of Super Bowl XLV, it's difficult to fathom a time when hockey mattered. But there was a period—back when Garrett was a quarterback, Nowitzki was a rookie, Young was a Toronto Blue Jays minor leaguer and we were all bracing for global chaos via Y2K—when the Dallas Stars owned this town.
Hard to remember 1999, but it's the last time a Dallas professional sports team won a championship. The Stars skated the Stanley Cup that year, then advanced to the Finals again in 2000.
Then: Good ol' days. Now: Better new days?
Suddenly the Stars are turning back the clock. Under the worst of circumstances, they are playing some of the franchise's best hockey. Not that anyone—so far, anyway—is noticing.
Like you, I dismissed this hockey season before it began. Coming off an uninspired, non-playoff season, the Stars released popular and productive veterans Mike Modano and Marty Turco and decided to wing it with basically a group of bargain-basement 20-somethings. While head coach Marc Crawford failed to display anything remotely resembling charisma in 2009-10, former boss Dave Tippett won the NHL's Coach of the Year in Phoenix. The franchise—still owned by Tom Hicks—entered the season up for sale and teetering on bankruptcy. Still is, in fact. Team president Jeff Cogen left to take a job with the Nashville Predators over the summer, and a new president won't be named until a new owner takes over. With a budget $15 million less than the National Hockey League's salary cap, general manager Joe Nieuwendyk was asked to field a solid team on a shoestring budget. And, in the stands, the Stars were drawing embarrassingly low crowds for preseason games, some nights struggling to top 11,000.
No identity. No chance. No buzz.
Then the Rangers went to the World Series, the Cowboys fired their coach and the Mavericks sprinted out to their usual fast start. If possible, the Stars sunk to unprecedented depths of irrelevance.
But something happened on the way to oblivion.
Long removed from the tops of our heads and tips of our tongues, the Stars started playing good hockey. They turned hard-working shifts into good periods and transformed great games into one of the best records in the league. Conveniently around the same time, the Cowboys cratered, the Rangers whiffed on signing Cliff Lee and Nowitzki went down with a knee injury that derailed the Mavs.
Hockey, we need you. And what do you know, the Stars are here for us.
Last Saturday night at American Airlines Center, the Stars crushed the Atlanta Thrashers, 6-1, to improve to 4-0-1 in 2011 and pad their lead in the Western Conference's Pacific Division. Picked to be one of hockey's worst this season, the Stars are currently one of its best. Over a 26-game stretch they won 17, lost five and tied four. And it was actually fun to watch. Didn't recognize a lot of the names against Atlanta—these days it's goalie Kari Lehtonen instead of former forward Jere Lehtinen—but the energy and work ethic looked refreshingly familiar.
Brenden Morrow is still the relentlessly passionate captain. Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson are All-Stars. But otherwise the Stars are being powered these days by guys named James Neal and Mike Ribeiro and Trevor Daley and Steve Ott and Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric and Jamie Benn. With Modano's legendary offense now in Detroit and Turco's superior goaltending in Chicago—both were deemed too old to be a part of Dallas' youthful rebuilding program—the Stars are winning via unconventional methods. Against Atlanta, for example, it was Daley, a defenseman, who scored two goals in a game for the first time in his 461-game NHL career.
They're successful. And they're spunky. These days the Stars consist of guys who play as if they have something to prove instead of something to rediscover. Before the puck even dropped, they got into skirmishes with the Thrashers. And in the stands were 17,702 robust fans, some of whom waved cutout head shots of long-time TV/radio announcers Ralph Strangis and Daryl Reaugh.
Everything, it seems, has changed since the Stars where champs. Except, well, that looks a lot like...
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little strange being back here, but it's great," Langenbrunner told reporters last week at the team's Frisco practice facility after Dallas brought him back in a trade with the New Jersey Devils. "I have a great relationship with Joe and I really like this team. It's different than in '99 and those teams, but there's a real positive vibe here and I'm excited to be a part of it. Feels like something special is building and I'm happy to be a part of it."
No. 9 isn't coming back, nor is former coach Ken Hitchcock's mustache or Ed Belfour or Derian Hatcher, but it's impossible not to equate Langenbrunner's return with past success. He's back, and he should have never gone away. In one of the worst trades in Dallas/Fort Worth history—thank you, former general manager Doug Armstrong—Langenbrunner was traded to New Jersey nine years ago along with Nieuwendyk for Jason Arnott.
Langenbrunner's return adds a savvy veteran with playoff experience to this talented team of overachievers. But will it be enough to, say, make anyone notice?
These subtle Stars have bite, you see, but little bark.
Stripped to a die-hard, bare-bones fan base after years of playoff flops, a near-fatal league lockout and the NHL's TV banishment to the cable channel Versus, the Stars are struggling for attention. Or TV ratings. Or, for that matter, fans. Add it all up and hockey significance in Dallas has dropped more than 25 percent since the turn of the century. There was that brief rally in 2008 when the Stars pushed the Red Wings in a scintillating six-game Western Conference Finals, but the next year crumbled beneath a season-ending knee injury to Morrow and an ill-fated dalliance with the notorious Sean Avery.
Once with a season-ticket base over 14,000, a waiting list and nightly crowds flirting with 19,000, the Stars have had four gatherings under 15,000 this season and have drawn over 18,000 only twice—both for Modano's returns as a member of the hated Red Wings. TV ratings that once topped 3.0 on Fox Sports Southwest are now failing to attract even a 1.0.
Simply put, the Stars are playing their best hockey in 10 years. And they're doing it before the smallest audiences since the team arrived from Minnesota in 1993.
There are signs of life. The on-ice success. The crowd last Saturday night. The fact that NHL commissioner repeatedly says there is no chance of the Stars leaving Dallas. With the Mavs' season in jeopardy because of Nowitzki's health and Caron Butler's season-ending injury and the NFL's looming lockout that could threaten a 2011 season, there is a window for the Stars to regain some fame.
Don't look now, but the Dallas Stars are winning.
Is it just a matter of time before hockey again matters?
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