The Dallas Stars franchise has had a rough four years or so, dating back to a magical postseason ride to the Western Conference Finals in 2008 that included the biggest postseason win for the franchise since 1999. That overtime victory in Game 6 against the San Jose Sharks is a game that lives on in the hearts of so many Stars fans to this day, especially those that found their love for the sport and the franchise during that postseason run.
Since that season, however, it has all gone downhill. The Stars have missed the postseason in four straight seasons, fading down the stretch in each of the past two seasons after controlling their playoff fate. The Stars then entered into financial hell when Tom Hicks and Hick Sports Group were forced to send the franchise into bankruptcy to sell the franchise and pay off debts, turning the team into a basement-payroll roster and turning away fans who want -- above everything else -- a team that at least appears to be trying to improve.
In November of 2011 everything started to turn around, however. Tom Gaglardi finalized the purchase of the franchise and immediately hired Jim Lites as the team's CEO and President. Lites has been with the franchise since 1993 and was instrumental in building up hockey in the Dallas area and after having left the franchise in 2007, returned with nearly the same goal in mind.
As the lockout has ended, the Stars CEO has been more than forthcoming about the path forward for the team and what his expectations are for the future. During a lengthy interview with Defending Big D on Tuesday, Mr. Lites discussed the plan for reconnecting with fans and marketing the team moving forward -- as well as a host of other topics.
Of course, the most important issue to get out of the way was when the team would be playing. With the NHL set for a 48-game schedule, it's now a wait-and-see on who and when the Stars will be playing on opening day.
"We have been told we will be playing a home game on opening day," said Lites. "We have been told what they are trying to do is upwards of 24 teams playing on opening day. We were already scheduled to play at home on the 19th and I think they're trying to match as many home dates in the building as they can."
While there have been absolutely no confirmations, the current word is that the Stars will be playing the Phoenix Coyotes to open the season. Lites stated that while they know they'll be playing at home, they still don't know who it will be against.
While getting back on the ice is most important for the team and the fans, there has been a buzz building ever since Gaglardi purchased the team that new jerseys would be on their way. This was confirmed by the Stars on Sunday morning just hours after the conclusion of the lockout, stating that the franchise would be going to new jerseys that are primarily green in color.
This is, perhaps almost as close to the importance of winning, something that Stars fans have wanted for a very, very long time.
"We're obviously very sensitive to what the fans think, from everything from the goal song to the uniforms and the logos," said Lites, when asked about the fan reaction. "We anticipate having this thing, in the next two weeks, wrapped up and figured out. Maybe a little longer than that. We'll see a prototype of that which we've selected as the look, with the color match and the changes we've made to the crest after the last go around. We should see that in a week and hopefully, in the next month, we'll be able to show it to the world."
Lites also made it known that while there will be new jerseys for next season, a dark home and a white road, that a third jersey could also be coming as soon as it's allowed by the NHL -- which would have to be after the first season of the new jerseys. A third is, most likely, far from the minds of Stars fans who have rejoiced at the fact that green will once again be the primary color -- especially of rumors of a change to red, white and blue.
"I think I would have been lynched and Tom Gaglardi would have been assassinated in his bed had we decided to make a [color] change," said Lites, laughing.
A change in jerseys and the logo, a fresh start for the franchise in many ways, goes along with the theme of the mission for Lites and the Stars coming out of this lockout. The fanbase has been damaged and there's a lot of work ahead to get the AAC sold out every night once more. Lites acknowledged that the best -- and perhaps only -- way to accomplish this would be simple. Just win.
"If you're successful in Dallas...," said Lites. "If we can win and put a really good product back on the ice then the fans are going to come. They love winners in Dallas and we've proven that we can fill the building every night if we do things the right way, treat people with respect and put out a really good product. The real hockey sell in Dallas, which was one of our fears in '93, isn't there now. If anything the market is more diverse, more significant, bigger, stronger, fresher...there's 50 percent more people here than there used to be."
"We know we can make it here if we do a good job."
There's no doubt that this is not going to be an easy task, and Lites expressed frustration over not being able to implement a marketing plan right away for lack of a current schedule. The rebuilding of the franchise and the brand of the Stars will take longer than just one 48-game season, however, and Lites acknowledged just how rough the situation had become.
"Damage has been done to the franchise," said Lites. "Through the process of being bankrupt, leaderless and rudderless and all the things that go along with being owned by creditors and run by the league -- which is where we have been the past two seasons until last November. We haven't had a clean offseason to sell from yet, which is not an excuse it's just how things are."
Complicating matters is that, even with the purchase of the team in Nov. of 2011, the Stars have yet to really get the full marketing and rebuilding plan off the ground. You can thank the lockout for that.
"It's too bad Tom didn't have a chance to buy the team in March in the prior year  so we could have had an entire summer to sell into," Lites continued. "Instead, he didn't get the team until November so we missed that offseason and this offseason has gotten screwed up because of the lockout.
"We haven't had a fresh start."
Lites faced this same situation in 1994-1995, when a lockout led to the first 48-game season for the NHL, and again in 2004-2005. This situation is much more comparable to 94-95, when the team was still attempting to build an identity in the Dallas area. There is a major factor that exists now that makes this situation just a bit different, however.
"The biggest difference is, our owner is real," said Lites. "In all deference to Norm Green in 94-95, we were broke. When we came out of the lockout in 94-95, the ownership was shaky. The difference now is that Tom Gaglardi is a well-heeled, well-financed completely committed guy. We're not going to miss a paycheck. I don't have to worry about laying off employees, I don't have to worry about where the payroll is going to come from. None of those things are there.
"The team is well-financed, in fact you'll be hearing soon enough that the team is being re-financed. So all the hangover from the Tom Hicks era and the bankruptcy is gone, and it's nothing but forward now. Which is really, really important."
Hearing about an owner committed to actually spending money, committed to supporting the franchise and building a winner, is certainly great news for Stars fans all over the globe. Throughout the entire process of the sale of the team, when the finances of the franchise were shown to be so poor and the Stars were dragged through the mud by the media up north, there were worries the team could be leaving.
Despite all assurances this would never happen, Gaglari purchasing the team made it known the team wasn't going anywhere. This was reiterated by Lites, who made it known that the franchise has stability unlike anything we've known as fans for a very long time now.
"The fans need to know that the Stars are going to be playing in Dallas for the next millenia," Lites said emphatically. "Long after Jim Lites is gone, long after the current players are gone, this team is going to be playing here in Dallas and I believe owned by the Gaglardi family. We have ownership that is committed and that's really the most important thing.
"We're going to be here, we're going to play and we're going to compete."
You can listen to our full interview with Mr. Lites on the latest episode of "Stargazing: A Big Puckcast," available for listening and download here.