The Dallas Stars sit firmly in second place in the Western Conference and possess one of the best records in the NHL. While many thought this team was a year or so away from being successful once again, the Stars have seemingly already taken that next step and are proving to be serious contenders not only for a playoff spot but for the Pacific Division title as well.
It's an exciting time to be a Dallas Stars fan. After two seasons of frustration and disappointment, the Stars are once again showing the potential to be the hard working and exciting team we've loved since they came to Dallas in 1993. While we all thought this team was better than most were telling us I don't think many ever expected this level of continued success.
Unfortunately, there isn't the same level of enthusiasm for these Dallas Stars that we've seen in the past. While the die hard fans are just as crazed and rowdy as always it's been frustrating to see such a promising young team play to the smallest crowds in franchise history. We have said all season long that if the Stars would just keep winning then the fans would start to come back; sadly, that doesn't appear to be the case.
When less than 14,000 fans watched the Stars defeat the Washington Capitals last week, it became apparent that it's going to take much more than a six-game winning streak to repair the damage done to a once-loyal and rabid fanbase.
Hockey wasn't supposed to work in North Texas. The NHL was in the middle of aggressively expanding the league into southern markets after Wayne Gretzky made hockey popular in Los Angeles. The Mighty Ducks was a hit movie and the NHL was approaching the most lucrative era in its existence. Yet many said that hockey could never work in markets like Florida, Tampa Bay, San Jose, Phoenix or Dallas and that hockey would fail in areas traditionally known for football or baseball.
When the Minnesota North Stars made the move to Dallas, the hockey team was even more handicapped than most. In 1993, the Dallas Cowboys were in the midst of a dynasty and football had never been more popular in the area. While the Dallas Mavericks and Texas Rangers were still struggling, no one expected the Stars to be able to gain enough interest in the area to justify the move to such a football-centric state.
The people that were running the Dallas Stars had other plans. They aggressively marketed hockey in the area and established youth hockey as a viable sport in the region. The Stars supported multiple rinks and leagues around the area, knowing that if kids and families were playing the sport then they'd be more than interested in coming out and supporting the team at Reunion Arena. It was truly a grass roots campaign to sell the team and the players as a hard working group of guys that appealed to the hard working families that loved the game.
Throughout the 1990's, there was a great relationship between the Stars and their fans. It also helped that the team on the ice was becoming one of the best in the NHL and in 1999 all he hard work culminated in a Stanley Cup Championship. In just six years, the Stars had taken over the city of Dallas and the surrounding areas and turned into a venerable hockey town. That success would carry over for the next few seasons until -- as it always does -- things began to come unraveled.
The trade of Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner in the spring of 2002 was the first of a long line of questionable moves that started the "break up" between the Dallas Stars and their fans. While the Stars believed they were making a move necessary to keep the team in playoff contention what happened instead was the departure of two of the most beloved players in franchise history. Langenbrunner would go on to become the long-time captain of the New Jersey Devils while Jason Arnott -- the player who the Stars traded for -- never brought the leadership and success that was expected from the move.
Eric Lindros. Pierre Turgeon. Claude Lemieux. Sean Avery.
Multiple seasons with promise wrecked by disappointing and spectacular playoff collapses.
An arena that was one of the best atmospheres in the NHL, replaced by a corporate and sterile environment at the AAC.
Through it all the fans kept coming. Despite rising ticket costs and the continued disappointment season after season, the Dallas Stars remained one of the most lucrative franchises in all of the NHL. The Stars were always competitive but impatience was starting to set in.
The best moment for these Dallas Stars of the past ten years came during the third overtime of a playoff game against the San Jose Sharks. It was the highest this fanbase has been since 1999 and it appeared that after years of frustration things were being turned around. Brad Richards was in Dallas. The Stars were back and newly motivated. The fans were crazy once again and the Stars marketing department worked overtime selling the 2008 season as the time when the Stars rose to the top once more.
Then it all fell apart.
The Stars fell victim to injuries and the Sean Avery fiasco. One of the worst starts in franchise history created too big of a hole for the Stars to get out of and after one of the biggest letdowns of a season ever experienced in Dallas, Tom Hicks decided to make some changes.
Hicks -- without the knowledge of anyone inside the organization -- hired Joe Nieuwendyk as the team's new General Manager. Almost immediately, long-time head coach and fan favorite Dave Tippett was fired and Marc Crawford was hired. As popular as the hiring of Nieuwendyk might have been the firing of Tippett was equally as unpopular amongst fans and thus began the backlash that the team is suffering through now.
At the time, it appeared that Hicks was working hard to return the Dallas Stars to its former glory. Looking back it's clear that was one last effort to right the ship that was sinking and do what he could at the last minute to create value for a franchise he likely knew he was going to lose. Hicks Sports Group, owners of the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars, was defaulting on the loans used to purchase the team and suddenly a once-lucrative franchise was facing financial hardships.
It's the perfect example on "how to kill a fanbase".
First, you go nearly a decade without any true postseason success outside of one magical summer in 2008. Then you proceed to overspend on pricey and aging veterans and forget the formula that made the Stars so popular and successful to start with. Then the owner -- through his own terrible business decisions -- handcuffs the team from doing anything resembling the ability to improve the team that is in place. For two seasons now the Stars have not been able to move forward, despite being just a few pieces away from contending once more.
Fans can accept a team that is bad but is focused on rebuilding. Fans can accept teams that overspend but appear committed to doing what it takes to win and be successful. Fans to do not want to spend their time and money on a team that is incapable of moving in any direction, especially when the owner appears completely uninterested in helping out the team that they've cared about for so long.
Add to all of that the departure of franchise favorite Mike Modano and you reach where we are now: embarrassing home attendance numbers and a team that is barely able to operate day to day despite a limited budget.
There's no doubt that for many fans the decision to let Mike Modano go was the last straw. While the more hardcore among us understand and know that it was the right choice that had to be made (Modano was not good in Detroit before his injury), for the casual fans the departure of such a beloved player was too much after seasons of wasted potential.
I've talked to many fans around American Airlines Center, in Dallas and in my own family and it's apparent how much Modano meant to hockey in this area. None understood why he had to be let go; not only let go, but he would go on to play for Detroit. Fans just couldn't accept that a team that appeared to be headed nowhere couldn't honor the franchise's greatest player with one more season in the town where he made hockey popular.
If the Dallas Stars had been able to offset the release with a free agent signing (other than Adam Burish) or had the money to aggressively market the players on the team that do matter, perhaps things would have been different. If the Dallas Stars had been able to show any sort of commitment to the future and to building a champion-caliber team, then perhaps these casual fans might have been able to forgive the release of Mike Modano.
Instead, the Stars released Modano and then quietly started training camp. No big fanfare for the new season. No marketing campaign. No new players to make the casual fan take notice. No obvious commitment to winning long-term.
The ownership situation hangs over this franchise like a black cloud, affecting each and every aspect of the team like the plague. This is a team that is sailing on a rudderless ship, a franchise with no direction outside of the current philosophy of the team that is on the ice: one game at a time. The Stars are fighting to fill the arena and despite practically giving seats away on a nightly basis are even incapable of filling the house when Alex Ovechkin is in town.
There is no buzz about this team around Dallas, despite the promising start. There is no sense -- outside the hardcore fanbase -- that this is a team without a future. With no owner and no direction, there's not even a guarantee that the Stars will be able to keep Brad Richards. Despite what is happening on the ice the fans know that the future of the Stars is still very much in doubt and until there's a new owner in place, one that is committed to rebuilding this organization, then the team will struggle getting fans from around the area to come back.
Right now, the Stars have no presence in the Dallas area. Sure, there's the Dr Pepper Starcenters that are scattered around North Dallas, but when was the last time the Stars aggressively sold the sport of hockey in the area -- that didn't target the corporate crowd? Where are the skating with the Stars events, the big fan interaction events (aside from the open practices)? This team doesn't have the resources or funding to accomplish what was done over a decade ago and it's more than apparent in the lack of marketing the Stars can accomplish.
There was a time when the Stars maintained a very close relationship with the fans in the area and right now that relationship is broken. Unfortunately, the Dallas Stars don't have the ability to mend that relationship. While you'd hope that winning would be enough, the fans aren't feeling the same level of buzz and excitement that is needed to start bringing the big crowds once more.
Don't blame the people working for the Dallas Stars. If you spend any time with those that work for the team then you instantly feel the frustration that exists as they look out and see thousands of empty seats on any given night at home. You know the sadness that exists when the crowds aren't lively or when the team doesn't get the support they're working hard to create. You feel the angst when there is uncertainly amongst the organization on what may happen in the near future; not only with the team itself but with their jobs. While the Stars are in a state of limbo waiting on a new owner the whole organization itself is just standing still. There's no effort to move forward when there's no certainty it won't all change when the team is sold.
The Dallas Stars have the potential to be the best team that's worn the uniform in nearly ten years. The players and the coaches are working hard to ignore the uncertainty that exists in the organization, to ignore all the talk of an impending trade involving their best player and to just focus on doing the only thing they can control: winning. The Stars are one of the best teams in the NHL at home this season and it's a shame that not many are there to see it; the ones that are there, however, are just as rabid and hungry for success as they've ever been.
The Dallas Stars now have the cheapest tickets in all of the NHL and yet they struggle to get 14,000 into the seats on a nightly basis. The excuse that heading to a Stars game is too expensive doesn't carry as much weight as it once did, especially after seeing fans around the area flock to Texas Rangers games all year long.
It's going to take a long time to rebuild what's been broken over the years. Fans that feel betrayed are not going to come waltzing back because of a few games that were won in November. If the Stars are pushing for a playoff spot in February and March then we'll start to see the big crowds again but I can guarantee it will be with hopeful and careful enthusiasm.
The fans want to come back. The Dallas Stars have to prove to them it's worth it.