Blindsided: The Untold Story Behind the Duncanville Starcenter Closing

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This story is one that hits home personally, as myself and my brother grew up in Cedar Hill, Texas and played at the Dr Pepper Starcenter in Duncanville. I'd like thank the players, coaches and parents who fought so valiantly to save this facility and for their cooperation in writing this story. I'd also like to thank the Dallas Stars organization an the City of Duncanville for taking the time to talk to me and give their side of the story.

What follows in an depth look at what happened behind the scenes to lead to the closing of the Dr Pepper Starcenter in Duncanville, Texas.

The state of Texas has always been known as a football hotbed. The Dallas Cowboys are the nation's most valuable and profitable sports franchise, and colleges from around the nation are filled with Texas football prospects. Any any given Friday night from Houston to Amarillo, streets will be vacant and stores closed as the locals pour into their treasured high school football stadiums. It's a stereotype that fits this state, and one that won't be going away anytime soon.

In 1993, a sports team moved into the state that threatened to upset the status quo. The Minnesota North Stars, an NHL franchise, was moved to Dallas under owner Norm Green. The move was part of the NHL's southern expansion plans, fueled by Wayne Gretzky's success in Los Angeles. The thought that a hockey franchise could survive in Texas wasn't completely absurd; the city did have the Dallas Freeze, as well as several minor league teams scattered across the state. Yet an NHL team was a completely different proposition with a need for a much larger fanbase, and the Dallas Stars came to town in 1993 with the challenge of building one from the ground up.

The Stars began an aggressive advertising campaign, promoting hockey as an exciting, physical and fast-paced sport that would appeal to local football fans. It didn't hurt that the Stars of that time were a gritty, experienced group who had been to the Stanley Cup Finals just two years prior. Instead of a hockey team that was forced to move due to inadequacy on the ice, it was bumbling ownership that ultimately necessitated the transition to Dallas. Immediately the growing fanbase in Dallas was introduced to playoff hockey, fights, big hits and exciting goals. Shane Churla and Mike Modano quickly became fan favorites and the Stars were off to a rousing start in Dallas.

As the Stars increased in popularity in the area, so did the sport of hockey. Where there was once a scattering of youth and adult roller hockey leagues at the local roller rinks, the Dallas-Fort Worth area started to see the construction of several ice hockey rinks, mainly in the northern area of Dallas County.  There was Ice Bound in Plano and The Rink in Addison, great venues for young hockey enthusiasts to learn the game and play the sport they've come to love watching on television.  As the popularity of youth ice hockey in the area grew, more ice rinks began to be built and the Dallas Stars saw another opportunity to take part in the growth of the sport.

The organization had already began to sponsor NHL Breakout, a national street hockey tournament that toured cities across the nation each summer, as well as beginning to promote youth hockey across the area with the Junior Stars program. In the late 1990's the Dallas Stars began plans to build and operate the Dr Pepper Starcenters, team sponsored hockey facilities across the Metroplex that would be an ideal destination for youth hockey, figure skaters, speed skating and curling. It was an ideal program for the both the team and the sport, with Dallas Stars pro shops in each facility and an unprecedented push to further the growth of hockey in Texas, which was already at a level no one ever thought possible when the team first moved to Dallas just several years prior.

There were now high schools across the area with hockey teams and it wasn't hard to find a league nearby for any skill level, roller or ice. For a state that had always been known for football, suddenly you couldn't escape the fact that ice hockey was quickly becoming one of the more popular sports in the area.

If you lived north of Dallas, that is.

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Hockey players that lived south of I-20 found themselves in a tough spot. The sport was just as popular in Cedar Hill, Duncanville, DeSoto, Lancaster and Mesquite, yet there was a very limited amount of places to play. If you were interested in playing ice hockey then it was usually an hour or so drive to Addison, Euless or Plano to play, and then an hour back to get home. That was only if you didn't hit traffic. I remember getting up early on Saturdays to make the trip to Addison so my brother could play for an elite youth team, and I remember the trips on weekday evenings for practices. It was a brutal travel schedule but for a kid who was talented and driven to improve, it was a worthwhile sacrifice. We also played at local roller rinks that were cheaply constructed and nowhere near regulation size, but it was hockey so we didn't care.

Then the news came that the Stars were building a Dr Pepper Starcenter in Duncanville. Opened in October of 2000, it was conveniently located on Highway 67 and easily accessible to any hockey player that lived south of Dallas. As leagues formed and teams began being filled, it was instantly obvious just how important having an ice rink in the area was. Kids who lived in Mansfield, Midlothian and Ennis suddenly had an opportunity to play ice hockey where there wasn't one there before.  Travel teams came together, and the talented kids from the more rural and diverse areas of Dallas and Tarrant County began to face off against the more affluent teams of the north. It was a good feeling having that rink so close by, and to have the opportunity to play ice hockey without having to make a multi-hour trip just for one game. There were Dallas Stars watching parties, team sponsored events and more importantly the team held practices at the facility in Duncanville. This was a big step in spreading the love of the team and the sport in the area, when for the most part the popularity for the team was focused north of downtown.

The good news only lasted so long. A few years after the opening the City of Duncanville began to be concerned with what they believed was a level of neglect on the part of the Dallas Stars and so began a battle between the team and the city that has centered around trust; it's now come to a point where the city doesn't believe anything the Stars organization says concerning their agreement to maintain the Starcenter. But what led to this lack of trust, and why has it come down to a war of words between between city officials and the team?

The Dallas Stars were running six Starscenters across the Metroplex with the same umbrella operation for each facility. Their belief was that what was good for the Starcenter in Euless was good for the Starcenter in Duncanville. Unfortunately that wasn't the case. Unlike the Starcenters that are located north of Dallas, the Duncanville facility served a much more diverse and rural group of hockey players and fans. Despite it being an easier destination for hockey, for some it was still a long trip to the rink to play. And with the sport not as popular in those towns as it is in Plano, Richardson or Frisco, the Stars needed to take a more active approach in promoting the team, the sport and the facility in the area than they were. Because of this lack of attention, the Duncanville Starcenter began to lose money. A lot of it.

Overall, it's estimated that the Dallas Stars were losing between $1.2 and $1.4 million a year between all of their Starcenter facilities, not an insignificant number. Yet when the numbers were added up for each facility, it was learned that the Duncanville rink was responsible for nearly $700,000 of the total losses. The Dallas Stars organization is ultimately a business, and a business decision was made to ultimately terminate the lease with the City of Duncanville and close the Dr Pepper Starcenter. It began with the closing of one of the two sheets of ice and then plans were put in place to formally move and close the facility down. That's when the parents and players got involved, and all hell broke loose.

Tom Ridge, coach of the junior varsity hockey team for Midlothian High School, had just returned from a USA Hockey Coaches Symposium in Minnesota on August 18 and heard from another coach that plans were being put in place to close the Duncanville Starcenter.

"I immediately started to try to find out information directly from the sources," Mr. Ridge says. "On August 26, I was talking to Kent Cagle (Duncanville City Manager) and it looked like it was inevitable that the Stars were looking to end their lease through legal processes, and so I asked him if there was anything a regular guy can do. He said about the only thing to do would be to call Jeff Cogen, the president of the Dallas Stars and appeal to him."

Mr. Ridge immediately attempted to call Jeff Cogen in his office in Frisco and not able to get hold of the team president, put plans in place to flood his office with calls until a response was given. Players and parents were contacted with the team's office information and much to everyone's surprise Jeff Cogen responded, even returning calls. He talked to every caller who reached his office, listening to their concerns and ultimately becoming educated with just how much passion the hockey fans in that area were.

Jeff Cogen eventually called Mr. Ridge back as well. "He said, ‘Who are you and what's your organization and I told him I was just a regular guy that was hockey coach in Duncanville. He said he had talked to about thirty parents and players and for the most they were all respectable and he was willing to listen."

While the parents were doing their best to get the attention of Jeff Cogen, several others were taken steps of their own. Signs were put up around the Dr Pepper Starcenter welcoming all players, coaches and parents to an emergency meeting that Saturday as they tried to save the ice facility. There was no plan specifically, just a drive to get people together for the singular cause.

"Jeff had heard about this meeting, "Mr. Ridge says. "He said that if I could guarantee that the people at this meeting would be civil, he'd send two of his top officials to hear what we had to say."

That Saturday over 250 people showed up for the meeting at the Starcenter, filling the upstairs area with angry and concerned players, skaters, parents and coaches. Surprisingly, Jeff Cogen himself showed up and fielded questions for the group for over an hour and a half.

"The meeting started off a little rocky, since he basically started off explaining why the team made this decision. But as he heard from more and more people and saw their passion for both the rink and the team, and in the end he walked over to me and handed his business card to me, saying we needed to set up a meeting the next week  with some concrete proposals on how to get this turned around."

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Jackie Hill-Elliot is a hockey mom living in Red Oak, whose daughter is an aspiring goaltender who learned how to skate at the Duncanville Starcenter. It was obvious to the parents of the players there that things weren't looking good and they needed all the support they could get. An up and coming talent on the ice, her daughter secured a contract to play Alliance, a elite travel team out of Valley Ranch. Despite this great opportunity, her daughter chose to stay with her team in Duncanville, wanting to be loyal and supportive to the place where hockey began for her.

Despite the issues that were apparent at the facility, it was still shocking for the parents to learn what was ultimately going to happen with the rink.

"It was no secret that the rink wasn't pulling in as much cash, however it did surprise us as parents and patrons of the rink when we found out that the Stars were in talks with the city to terminate the lease agreement, "says Mrs. Hill-Elliot.

"I think as a whole, we were just blindsided by this at the last minute and if we were given more notice that the rink was in trouble, we feel that we could have done more."

Meanwhile, Tom Ridge had pieced together a small committee to meet with Jeff Cogen to discuss further options on how to save the Starcenter. Despite the large amount of financial loss the team was taking, Mr. Cogen made it clear that he had had a change of heart after the meeting on Saturday. He also made it clear that there was no way the organization could continue operating under the same lease agreement with the City of Duncanville. Plans were put in place to meet with city officials at the next town hall meeting to discuss with them the possibility of a lease amendment. Without this amendment, Mr. Cogen emphasized that the facility could not continue operating.

In a meeting with the Duncanville city council on September 11, Jeff Cogen appeared personally on behalf of the Dallas Stars in an effort to plead with the city officials that the Stars were newly committed to supporting the Starcenter, but it would only be possible with a lease amendment. Unfortunately, despite the impassioned arguments by Cogen and several players, parents and coaches, the city council never had the chance to vote. The Economic Development Board, who was in charge of the lease of the facility, voted unanimously after an hour's debate not to allow a lease amendment.

It was a devastating blow to what was believed to be a reasonable request to a city that had publicly made it clear they wanted to save the Starcenter as well. So what was the issue?

Kent Cagle, Duncanville City Manager, explains: "We had known there were issues with the facility since 2005 and had been urging the Stars to do something about it to no avail. It just came down to a trust level that really wasn't there, is what it came down to. I understand the actions the team took and I understand why they took them. If the time line had been different, if we weren't pressed by the hockey schedules, then we might have been able to come up with a different outcome. It was just too much for our council and Economic Development Board to get comfortable with in such a short amount of time."

It's not unexpected that the city council wouldn't be willing to lower the lease on the facility at such short notice. The Dallas Stars had been paying the city $70,000 a month in rent, and needed to get that figure lower in order to maintain running the Starcenter. So what did they want to pay instead?

The Stars wanted to pay $50,000 a month, the same as what the Bob Knight Fieldhouse will be paying the city. The city was apparently ready and willing to move on from the Dallas Stars, after years of what they perceived was a lack of attention and basic neglect. They felt the new basketball facility was more economically viable for the area, and had already made plans for the change as soon as the current lease was terminated.

"This was basically already a done deal, " Mr. Cagle says. "The Stars wanted out and we were losing a tenant. We found another tenant and were already working down that path of changing. In the interim, the Stars had a change of heart and wanted to stay but under a revised lease. Our elected officials just couldn't get comfortable with that revised lease and the Stars couldn't get comfortable with the lease they were operating under that we both signed."

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So now it appears that the situation is back where it first started. Without the city approving an amended lease, the Stars have put into motion legal proceedings to request and early termination of the lease with the City of Duncanvile. Publicly, it's been made to look like the Stars have decided to move on and forget the Starcenter. In recent proceedings, Duncanville city officials have resorted to calling the Stars "liars" and claiming that is was the team all along that wanted the Bob Knight Fieldhouse to move in. But for the players, coaches and parents who did all they possibly could to save the Duncanville Starcenter, they know that the Dallas Stars and Jeff Cogen saw the error of their ways and tried to fix a unfix-able situation.

"Jeff Cogen of the Stars, I think at that initial meeting he was ready to just shut the place down, " Mrs. Hill-Elliot says. "But as the meeting went on, he was convinced and the Stars did a total one-eighty on us and got totally behind us, It went all the way to Tom Hicks and he got behind this and they really did a heck of a stand up job fighting for the Starcenter.

"There is nothing bad I could say about the Stars organization, and their support for our cause to keep this rink open."

Unfortunately it was too little too late. Years of perceived neglect had soured the opinion of the Stars in the minds of the Duncanville officials and a late-minute change of mind was not enough to repair the strained relationship. While the Stars are having to deal with negative public perception, and Duncanville city officials are name-calling, the ones who are paying the most for this closing are the ones whose voices were generally ignored.

With the Duncanville Starcenter operating, hockey had spread and become more popular in the area. Where normally high school teams were located solely north of Dallas, Mansfield, Midlothian, Mesquite and Crowley all had teams playing there. Now with the Starcenter closing, those teams will be forced to play elsewhere and most likely in Euless. Tom Ridge, the coach of the Midlothian JV team, estimates he will drive an extra 3,000 miles a year due to the extra distance. He also believes that we will see a dramatic decrease in youth hockey in the area after nearly a decade of growth.

Parents and players will be much more hesitant to get started in ice hockey, with a such a large distance between their home and a rink. A family living in Red Oak (where Jackie Hill-Elliot and her daughter live), would have to travel 60-90minutes to the nearest Starcenter, instead of just a 25 minute trip for the rink in Duncanville. That's an incredible amount of time for a family looking to get their 5 or 6 year old started in hockey.

The players who are on teams have worked out a transition to other rinks, such as the ice hockey rink at Parks Mall in Arlington. If a team or players wants to stay in the Dallas Stars Hockey Program, their only options are other Starcenters. Wherever the blame may be for what happened with the Duncanville Starcenter, there is no doubting the passion of the players, coaches and parents who have used the facility for years. Their dedication and drive to save the Starcenter reached to the highest level of the Dallas Stars organization. While these current hockey players, speed and figure skaters and curlers will make the sacrifice to continue playing the sport they love, its the future of hockey in these rural areas that is truly at risk.

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