Frozen Assets

The NHL's All-Star Game has come and gone.

So, too, has Dallas' fascination with hockey.

The mid-winter classic arrived last week disguised as an enigma: At once a crowning achievement on 15 years of grass-roots growth and a humbling reality check for a sport skating more toward thin ice than permanent relevance.

"Dallas has always been a football town," Stars owner Tom Hicks crowed from the red-carpeted steps of American Airlines Center. "But now it's also a hockey town."

Someone is dead wrong.

Because while I see hockey settling into its rightful role as a speck in Dallas' rearview mirror, the Stars' loyal but limited fan base claims the rejuvenated sport is fast approaching as one of those objects closer than they appear.

Let the fore-checking begin.

The Stars (it's just soooo cute when they talk in italics) have been Dallas' best team the last decade. Our championship in 1999 was this city's last. We always make the playoffs, just played the 1,000th game in franchise history and Forbes recently ranked us the NHL's fourth-most valuable franchise. We're the best thing on ice this side of Absolut's new pear-flavored vodka.

Granted, there was a time when our Bible Belt blurted "Jesus saves! But Modano scores on the rebound!" But recent first-round flameouts and a ho-hum record this year aren't enough to distract our gaze from the Mavericks, Super Bowl XLI or the Cowboys' searches for head coach and holder. Like Southfork, the Stars' novelty long ago dissolved. Wake us up when Lord Stanley's Cup is hoisted over Marty Turco's head after a Game 7 instead of hauled on the back of Craig Ludwig's Harley for last week's class reunion when the Stars re-aligned and partied like it was 1999.

How 'bout that All-Star week? The NHL's first one in three years and, boy, did we ever re-boot the league and cultivate new fans. Garth Brooks was in town giving money to children's hospitals. Cuba Gooding Jr. Trisha Yearwood. Gordie Howe. There was a charity concert benefiting local firefighters, and All-Star players combined to help build a house in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity. Bottom line: 5,000 visitors, 55,000 fans for the three events at AAC and an economic impact of around $16 million.

Impressive. Until you realize this week's American Heating and Refrigeration convention is expected to pump more than $100 million into Dallas. And though some decent names showed up, once Bill Parcells announced his retirement, All-Star week turned so translucent it should've been sponsored by Ghostbar.

OK, but what about the game, the spectacle? Beloved football stars such as Troy Aikman, Daryl Johnston and even old/new Cowboy Jason Garrett showed up. We had 21 goals. Turco was funny as hell wearing a microphone while playing goalie. The eyes of the hockey world were on us, and we produced a memorable, successful event.

Admittedly, a sporting event with a soundtrack of Fatboy Slim followed by Pantera is entertaining, refreshing even. But the MVP was John Doe, er, Daniel Briere, the fourth consecutive award winner from the losing team. And, other than when the "O Canada" opera chick busted her ass on the ice or we all booed Governor Rick Perry, the joint was about as intense as Jeff Spicoli's "garden." In Dallas we're obsessed by wintry mix, not winter sports. And we prefer our scootin' in boots, not blades.

But now that we've bounced back from the lockout, we're rebuilding our fan base through TV. We're on Versus, NBC is about to get revving with its national weekend games and, eventually, we'll grow into an American version of Hockey Night in Canada.

Don't count on it. Not only is Hockey Night in Canada down 13 percent this season on CBC, last Wednesday's All-Star Game generated an audience on par with Knitting Nation. The national rating was 0.4, translating to 474,000 American homes. In Dallas about 12,000 homes watched the game, about 438,000 fewer than American Idol.

But with shootouts, parity and the new crop of superstars led by Alexander Ovechkin, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalie, it's just a matter of time until we're again threatening the NBA as the No. 3 major sport.

Hockey has atoned for turning a cold shoulder to its fans with the lost lockout season of 2004-'05. The players are media-savvy, and the locker rooms are the most accessible in sports. Still, do you really expect America to embrace a sport in which 80 percent of the players are, well, un-American? Lemme see, Peyton Manning or some kid with a vowel-infested name from Moose Head, Ontario? Of this year's 42 All-Stars, only five are American and exactly zero were born anywhere close to the Mason-Dixon Line. Two words: Foreign embargo. Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby is the league's 19-year-old leading scorer, but—because of asinine scheduling that brings Eastern Conference teams to town only every three years—most of us thought he was Bing's son. We also still see Wayne Gretzky as the face of the NHL, and he's been retired 10 years.

Nitpick if you want. But no one can deny how hockey has grown in Dallas, in North Texas. When the Stars arrived from Minnesota in 1993 there was one rink, no high school teams and a handful of players. Today there are 25 rinks, 70 high school teams and 5,000 amateurs. The NHL is a healthy 30-team, $2 billion industry and Dallas is a big reason. "This week really makes you realize how much the game has caught on here," Mike Modano said last week. "I don't think any team in the South has done a better job of growing the game or becoming a part of the community. To be a part of that feels pretty good."

Thank my lucky Stars, I can now recognize a jersey from a sweater, a soccer mom from a hockey dad. And we no longer paint hockey as soccer on ice, a buzzkill fad we hope our youngsters grow out of. But eight years ago the Stars were producing a tangible buzz in the media and tasty strippers on the glass. Now, it feels more like the team's supporters are small-town, big-time fanatics yelling "Stars" during the national anthem and beholding their team and franchise players as a colder version of Scientology and Tom Cruise. The legends aren't from here. The language—from "Prowecess" to "Organyezation"—isn't from here. And though hockey's trophy was briefly here, the future of Dallas' sports obsession isn't on ice.

Is hockey coming or going? With the Stars and their sport so far from mainstream focus, the answer is impossible.

And, for now, irrelevant.

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt