Dallas Stars Once Again Making Focus On Youth Hockey A Priority

Last summer Defending Big D began an in-depth 'investigation' into local youth hockey in Dallas and how the relationship with the Dallas Stars had changed over the years. It was disturbing to hear from parents and players who were so upset and dissatisfied with how things have changed. We talked to people at multiple levels of youth hockey and everyone had the same thing to say: the Stars had basically abandoned the system they had created.

When the Stars had first come to Dallas in 1993, Jim Lites and his front office made a commitment to building interest in an NHL team in the area by forging a relationship with the local youth. The Stars created several local hockey leagues, built the Dr Pepper Starcenters around the area and players could routinely be found participating in camps and appearing at local tournaments.

For those that remember, the NHL Breakout tournaments in the area were incredibly popular as well, with Stars players having their kids participating as well. By the time the Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999, the youth hockey scene was swelling with popularity. I remember playing games throughout the week then rushing to the television during intermissions to see the score of the Stars games. Getting the chance to play for the Junior Stars at any level was considered an honor.

But as the 2000's progressed and Tom Hicks' sports empire collapsed, the team's relationship with the local hockey players diminished. I don't want to get into the specifics of how bad it got or repeat what was reported to DBD, but it's enough to say that by the time the franchise was sold to Tom Gaglardi the relationship was at an all-time low.

We didn't write our article on the situation last summer because it became clear that those responsible for the issues were gone and those still with the Stars were unable to correct the situation until the sale of the franchise was complete. It wasn't fair, at the time, to report on something that no one currently with the team had any control over.

Now, with the sale to Gaglardi complete and Jim Lites back as CEO and President, the Stars are focused on rebuilding interest in the team and the best way to do that is to replicate what the team accomplished in the 1990s. With the formation of a brand new youth travel league, the Stars are taking the first steps towards repairing a very rocky relationship.

The importance of building youth hockey in North Texas cannot be stated enough. One reason that many of us became Stars fans in the 1990s, along with our parents, was our love for playing the sport itself. The Stars were able to create a rabid and very loyal fanbase through this method, with kids falling in love with the sport and the team and then dragging their parents along for the ride.

We've started to see the results of such a focus on youth hockey as well, with players like Austin Smith and others who grew up playing hockey in the Dallas/Fort Worth area become legitimate NHL prospects. Last summer Stefan Noesen, a native of Plano, Texas, was drafted in the first round by the Ottawa Senators. The Texas Tornado have long represented an incredibly successful development franchise and have turned out over 80 NCAA hockey players, although not all are actually from the area.

Now, many of those who grew up with the Stars are having children reach the age where playing hockey is becoming an option. There's also a whole new generation of young hockey players out there but unlike the 1990's, the system that is in place is far from adequate in building the sort of local support the Stars relied so heavily upon when building the fanbase the first time. It's an unfortunate result of finances, management and bad leadership at many different levels of the local youth leagues, but the main issue has always been that the Stars were unable to be as involved as they were before trouble hit.

The Dallas Stars are not going to have to start from scratch like they did starting in 1993, but it's going to be very similar. Many local parents are unhappy with the systems and leagues in place and the issue facing the local hockey scene now is the fact that less and less children are signing up for leagues. Those that grew up playing in the late 1990s and early 2000s are moving on and there's not enough new players to fill out the amount of leagues and teams that once existed.

When Jim Lites was announced as CEO this past fall, he specifically mentioned local youth hockey as a priority the new ownership needed to address. Lites understands just how important the local hockey scene is to rebuilding faith in the Dallas Stars franchise, and we've seen how a great relationship between team and the local youth can be instrumental in building a rabid fanbase. The first step in fixing this fractured relationship has already been taken.

Last week, the Dallas Stars announced the formation of a new youth travel hockey league. The Dallas Stars Travel Hockey League will kick off in the fall of 2012, and is focused on streamlining and enhancing the system that is already in place.

"We have embraced youth hockey and are deeply committed to growing the game at every age and skill level, but we want to balance participation with the development of the top players from the region," said Jim Lites, in the team's press release. "We would like nothing more than to see more of our young NHL prospects to be homegrown in our youth league."

This new travel league is focused on the elite players from the area, but is the first step in creating a more balanced and hospitable hockey scene in the Dallas area. One complaint we heard last summer was the lack of organization of the top leagues and how this had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the leagues in the area. There were too many "elite" leagues and not enough leadership -- especially from the Stars -- and the formation of this new travel league should start to fix many of the issues the local hockey scene has been dealing with.

This is the first step of many the Stars must take to get youth hockey back to the level of participation and skill that the area enjoyed in the late 1990's and early 2000's and it's going to take time before most issues are addressed.

One thing to remember is that the Dallas Stars do not control all youth hockey in the area and are not responsible for all of the issues that we discovered last summer. What the Dallas Stars can do, however, is to create a much more hospitable and friendly environment -- to provide better leadership at the top levels -- which will then have a trickle down effect on the rest of the area.

The amount of competitive leagues and tournaments that existed 10-15 years ago were created out of the amount of interest in youth hockey, with those who could not make it into the Stars programs seeking out leagues of their own. That system has eroded and this is the first of many steps at fixing it.

Here's the full release:

Frisco, TX - The Dallas Stars announced today the launch of a new youth travel hockey league dedicated to the continued development of amateur hockey players across Texas. The Dallas Stars Travel Hockey League (DSTHL) will begin play in the fall of 2012.

With an eye toward streamlining Tier-level hockey, enhancing the overall competitiveness of the league and striving to lower costs for entry-level players, the new League continues the evolution of the "pyramid" that was begun with Texas Amateur Hockey Association's restrictions on Tier I play.

"We have embraced youth hockey and are deeply committed to growing the game at every age and skill level, but we want to balance participation with the development of the top players from the region," said Jim Lites, President and CEO of the Dallas Stars. "We would like nothing more than to see more of our young NHL prospects to be homegrown in our youth league."

The new League will feature four "Charter Member Organizations" competing at the AA level. Three organizations will be Dallas-based (DJHA, Alliance and the Dallas Junior Stars), and one organization is from Houston (Wild). Additional AA level members are from Austin (Texas Junior Stars) and Oklahoma City (OKC). Each organization will be allowed one team at the AA level in each age division.

The League will accept one additional AA organization at the Midget Major and Midget Minor levels, reflecting the number of potential players currently in the Dallas market at the midget age groups. The Allen Americans have been accepted to fill the fourth Midget AA slot (minor and major). Other "Affiliate Member Organizations" will compete at the A and B levels, as determined by leveling play and evaluations.

The following organizations have already accepted membership and will be participating in the DSTHL:

Allen Americans
Alliance Youth Hockey Association (AYHA)
Dallas Junior Hockey Association (DJHA)
Dallas Junior Stars
Dallas Oilers
Dallas Stars Elite
Houston Wild
Lone Star Wolves
Oklahoma City
Texas Aces
Texas Junior Stars (Austin)

The DSTHL teams will follow established protocols for game scheduling, and game play will mirror USA Hockey's official playing rules. Format for playoffs will be established by the Executive Committee.

For additional information, please visit the Dallas Stars Travel Hockey League's website (www.dsthl.com).

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