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The Dallas Stars & The Power Of The WHL

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 21:  Owner, Tom Gaglardi of the Dallas Stars with Jim Lites and Joe Nieuwendyk at American Airlines Center on November 21, 2011 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 21: Owner, Tom Gaglardi of the Dallas Stars with Jim Lites and Joe Nieuwendyk at American Airlines Center on November 21, 2011 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Dallas Stars organization boasts a number of players who began their hockey careers playing in the Western Hockey League (WHL). The WHL is widely regarded as one of the top developmental leagues in the world. The hockey is physical, fast, and structured, much like the NHL. For the most part, WHL teams play with much more structure compared to their Ontario (OHL) and Quebec (QMJHL) counterparts.

Read on to find out why the Stars place an emphasis on the WHL with their drafting and development, and in the coming weeks, several of the WHL alumni on Dallas (present and future) will be profiled more closely.

It is also a league that I have been fortunate enough to see a lot of over thseen some very good players skate for my hometown Vancouver Giants, including Evander Kane, Milan Lucic, and Gilbert Brule. The best player I have seen live at the WHL level was current Panther Peter Mueller, who dominated the league for a few years while a member of the Everett Silvertips. Jamie Benn wasn’t far behind, though. The first time I saw Benn play, I was initially more excited to see Luke Schenn and Tyler Myers (two of Benn’s Kelowna teammates).

“I left the game that night with one Kelowna Rocket fresh in my memory, and it wasn’t either of the defensemen. Number 14 dominated with his size, skill, and offensive instincts. I asked a question that night that was likely repeated by many amateur scouts that season:

“Who the heck is Jamie Benn?”

The quality of hockey is terrific. Many European forwards choose the WHL as a developmental path as it forces them to learn to play with consistent physical contact. Some of the notable Europeans to graduate from the WHL include Marian Hossa, Sven Bartschi, Oscar Moller (I have no idea why he hasn`t made an impact at the NHL level yet, he was simply dominant in the WHL), and Zdeno Chara.

Some of the best hockey I have ever seen has been at the WHL level. The battles between Vancouver and Medicine Hat in the 2007 WHL Final was absolutely incredible. Giants winger Milan Lucic was a physical menace, while the Tigers relied on the feisty Derek Dorsett, skilled forwards Tyler Ennis and Darren Helm, and smooth-skating defenseman Kris Russell.

It will be interesting to see how the various WHL influences (on and off the ice) impact the performance of the Stars in coming seasons.

Dallas and the WHL

Dallas captain Brenden Morrow spent four years with the Portland Winterhawks from 1995-99. Joining him as WHL alumni on the current roster – Ray Whitney (1988-91 with Spokane), Benn (2007-09 with Kelowna), Verne Fiddler (1997-01 with Kelowna and Medicine Hat), Tomas Vincour (2007-10 with Edmonton and Vancouver), Cody Eakin (2006-11 with Swift Current and Kootenay), and Mark Fistric (2001-06 with Vancouver).

Several of the top prospects were either drafted or signed out of the WHL in recent years, including Matt Fraser (2007-11 with Red Deer and Kootenay), Brenden Dillon (2007-11 with Seattle), Scott Glennie (2007-11 with Brandon), Colton Sceviour (04-09 with Portland and Lethbridge), and Matej Stransky (currently with Saskatoon).

In this past June, they selected Mike Winther (Prince Albert) 54th overall and Brandon Troock 134th overall (Seattle), as well.

Listing all of these players isn’t meant to bore you or take up space, but to emphasize just how many WHL alumni are in the organization. To put it into perspective, the Vancouver Canucks (with at least a dozen WHL teams within a reasonable driving distance) have zero players on their roster who have spent any time in the WHL, and only one prospect of note who has (defenseman Kevin Connauton). Many Canucks fans have wondered why the team has overlooked their own backyard with drafting and scouting, but that is a thought for another time and site.

Gaglardi`s Influence

Dallas Stars owner Tom Gaglardi is also a big fan of the league (and he is part of the ownership group behind the Kamloops Blazers). Long time Star Darryl Sydor was also a graduate of the WHL, as was gritty forward Stu Barnes. Gaglardi is hoping to translate some of his WHL successes over to the NHL with Dallas.

“We want to get better and we need to get better, and that’s a process, unfortunately. I wish there were quicker ways to get there, but the only way to do this the right way is with young players and through the draft and developing players. That’s what I’ve learned in my stint as an owner in another league (WHL), and it’s the same in the NHL. Free agency is one route to get better, but it’s wrought with pitfalls. You have to be very smart, and at some level lucky, to benefit that way.”

Gaglardi doesn't micromanage his scouting team, but you can bet his ties to the WHL will have an influence on how the team is constructed in the coming years (if they haven't already).

About the WHL

To get more information about the WHL, I interviewed Cody Nickolet. Cody's coverage of the league can be found on Twitter @WHLFromAbove, and he also manages community relations for the Saskatoon Blades (Stransky's club). The Blades are hosting the Memorial Cup in 2013.

Angus: What separates the WHL from other developmental leagues? Does it prepare players for the professional game any differently?

All three leagues are pretty similar in their structure and do a great job in preparing high-end hockey players for their future pro hockey careers. With that being said, there is one fairly substantial difference in the WHL when compared to the OHL or QMJHL and that would have to do with the travel schedule.

There are some markets in the WHL that have to do a ton of travelling just because it's a league that is more spread out than the OHL or QMJHL. I think this forces players and teams to be taught to stick to a more strict schedule when it comes to getting school work done and the challenges that come with that. As far as development on the ice, they're pretty similar.

I would note that the WHL has taken on a reputation over the course of the last couple decades as being known as the most physical of the three CHL leagues and I would agree with that. The league doesn't develop as many pure point producing, skilled players, but more players who thrive as physical players and high-end checkers.

Angus: Do you think that having numerous WHL alumni on one team could influence how that team plays?

This question is a bit tough to answer. I think ultimately the answer would be yes and I think it relates back to the answer of my last question when I said the WHL is known for producing more grit than other leagues. I think that could absolutely show at the NHL level. But, in this day and age the head coaches philosophy and system is what will end up shining through the most.

The players will usually play how the coach tells them to, so there's a fine line there. But in the end all the players in the NHL have roots in different leagues across the world, so there are bound to be players that are grouped into different categories based on where they grew up, what era they played in and what styles they were taught as teenagers.

Angus: To those who aren't familiar with the league, what is unique about it?

Well, I have already touched on a few of those things above, in regards to the grit of the players and the difference in travel when it comes to other CHL schedules. Besides that I can't think of many other things that make it unique, outside of the fact that the league includes more provinces with Alberta, BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Yukon/Territories.

The Pesky Stars

Beginning last season, the Stars began to brand their style of play as Pesky (worthy of capitalization). Pesky is another word for annoying or agitating. A lot of the players, during interviews or on Twitter, refer to the team as the Pesky Stars. The Stars want to play with grit, feistiness, and physicality. These are also all traits that a player must possess to excel in the WHL.

“Only in hockey would a team take on an adjective that means “annoyingly troublesome” and take it as a compliment. The Dallas Stars have gone one step further this season; they’ve taken the name as a motivational compliment and are wearing it as a badge of honor. Follow any of the Stars on Twitter these days and you’ll see them dropping a #PeskyStars within their 140 character message.”

Adam Burish went one step further, explaining the origin of the Pesky Stars:

“We started the season, we were just joking around before the game about how we wanted to play. The coach will sometimes say, “Everybody’s gotta play like fourth liners. Everybody’s gotta play like so-and-so.’ A couple of us just said, let’s be pesky. Pesky Stars tonight! Pesky Stars tonight! Let’s be pesky out there tonight. That’s kind of where that came from—it just stuck and everybody kind of liked it and it was funny, so it’s just gone from there.”

Over the next few weeks I am going to profile the lesser-known WHL alumni in the organization (I figure you all know enough about Morrow and Benn). The players that will be profiled:

  • Cody Eakin
  • Brenden Dillon
  • Matt Fraser
  • Tomas Vincour
  • Scott Glennie
  • Colton Sceviour
  • Matej Stransky
  • Mike Winthier
  • Branden Troock

In the meantime, here are some highlights of current Stars from their WHL days:

    If you want to know more about the WHL, or have any particular questions you want answered in coming weeks, feel free to leave a comment below.