Tomorrow at the American Airlines Center, the Dallas Stars sadly won’t be in the hunt for that elusive return to the playoffs. But they will honor their fans with their annual fan appreciation day to wrap up the season
It’s a gesture they have made regularly since they moved to Dallas 20 years ago, and one I’d like to both join in and turn the tables on today.
We have asked our readers to tell us their stories of why they are Dallas Stars fans for a variety of contests, and now I’d like to tell you mine. But more important in a way, I’d like to make this an open thank-you letter to the organization, from all those who have stepped foot on the ice or behind the bench to those who have rotated through the front office, from general manager to ticket sales and administrative assistants.
After all, we spend enough time dissecting this team from top to bottom, bemoaning their failures as much as we revel in the successes. And with as much as this team has given me over the years, I figure it’s long past time for me to say thanks.
The first time I ever went to a Stars game, I was terrified.
It was Sept. 20, 2002, a preseason game against the Detroit Red Wings in the newly opened AAC. I was an 18-year-old freshman at Southern Methodist University thrilled to be living in the same town as my favorite sports team. But it wasn’t the result I was worried about or how the team was coming together in the preseason.
The real concerns were the little things - would I be able to deal with the noise from the jumbotron, or would the presence of people in the seats next to me with no breathing room set off my overly sensitive personal bubble. It was the first time I’d ever ventured to an indoor professional sporting event in the regular seats, and I wasn't sure I could deal.
I had been a sports fan for several years at that point, but my fears of sensory overload kept me from taking in my newfound love in person. And although I didn’t have the right name for the reason at the time - indeed, I wouldn’t have the right name for it until about a year later - what I found was despite the issues I had with the sensory bonanza that is a modern arena, I was so entranced by the product on the ice that I could deal with it.
Hi, I’m Erin, I have Asperger Syndrome and the Dallas Stars have been a key part of my ability to deal with some of the more limiting aspects of my brain wiring. They have provided the means to a career, the motivation to take on some situations that I used to run from and a social network that I never, ever would have found on my own.
That may seem a strange thing to say given that the Stars have never done anything for me other than simply carry about their daily business. They’ve sold me tickets and more merchandise than is probably healthy. They’ve provided access to the video archives that I can watch over and over (and over) again and helped fund the StarCenters that allowed me to learn the sport myself. But they’ve never done anything particularly special for me as an individual.
But they don’t have to. The most wonderful thing about sports is it’s a complete meritocracy, both on the ice and in interactions with the fandom. As the fine folks over at You Can Play say, "If you can play, you can play." What matters most to everyone is your talent and your passion, your knowledge and your skills, and not how well you make small talk or do in social situations.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Asperger Syndrome is a type of Autism Spectrum Disorders at the higher-functioning end of the scale. Given that it’s the end of Autism Awareness Month, here are the basics.
What it means in practice is that like all people with an ASD, someone with AS processes the world in a markedly different way. Almost all people with AS struggle with the unwritten social cues and language most people understand intuitively. There is often a lack of or severely misplaced empathy (the term I like to use for myself is ruthlessly pragmatic, with an emphasis on the ruthless). This leads to great difficulty in forming social relationships. Even if the person with AS is interested in being friends, they may be off-putting to others, and they have difficulty understanding how to invite oneself into a group of friends or read the subtle signs that someone is interested.
People with AS also develop obsessive interests, and you get one guess as to what mine is. Along these lines, people with AS tend to be overly anxious about changes in patterns and routines, and they tend to be very literal, getting hung up on semantics and missing sarcasm.
Finally, people with AS tend to have sensory issues, though it’s unclear whether this is due to simply being more sensitive than average or if the brain lacks the ability to tune out background signals. I call these my "Spidey senses," and when it’s bad, I swear I hear every conversation in the room at once.
So how, then, did the Stars open so many doors to me? They gave me an outlet for that obsessive interest that then translated into so many positive things, from social connections to employment opportunities. Because I became so interested in the Stars, I was able to unconsciously push myself to develop coping strategies that have trickled over into other areas of my life.
I’m sure the story of how I came to the Stars is similar to many others. My family moved to Boston when I was 14, in the summer of 1998, and I was desperately homesick. I wanted to cling to something from home, to point to something from Dallas and say "That’s mine; they represent me." Because they were so dominant, the Stars were on ESPN all of the time. By the time the summer of 1999 rolled around, I was sold, and they have been stuck with me ever since.
That didn’t do much for winning friends in high school in Boston, but it meant the world in other ways. I stumbled upon the pre-Defending Big D online Stars communities, from the original official message board to the Unofficial Stars Message Board to Andrews and a host of others. Not only did those people not mind my oft-ill-informed enthusiasm for the sport, but they encouraged it and embraced me. It was the first time I ever felt like I fit in a social situation, even if the vast majority of the interaction was electronic.
The team was equally welcoming of a new fan, from its open-practice policy and non-enforcement of the "no autographs" sign in the parking lot of the now-defunct Valley Ranch StarCenter to the multitude of other scheduled public appearances. I didn't ever make it out to Reunion Arena, partly because of scheduling issues and partly because I still avoided those types of sensory situations, but the allure eventually proved too much, and I found myself taking in my first Stars game at the AAC with my father.
The Stars also gave me a direction for my future. Finding this new passion for hockey opened up my eyes to an appealing career - sports journalism. The Stars were gracious enough to me and other college classmates make trips to prospect and training camps for stories, and the people I ran into on the media end, from Mike Heika and Tracey Meyers to Mark Janko and Jason Walsh, were uniformly welcoming.
I know that’s a lot about me, but I wanted to use my story to illustrate the sort of far reaching impact a sports team can have just by being there and being welcoming. The Stars have gone above and beyond that in many cases. What an organization does for people who are, in the grand scheme, insignificant speaks volumes.
What they’ve done for me obviously doesn’t even touch many of the major things the Stars have done for this community, from the growth of youth hockey to the Stars Foundation and its contributions to personal connections like the story of Stephane Robidas and young cancer patient James Berg.
I guess what it comes down to is this - the Stars, and their fanbase, have made it very easy for me and so many others to be a fan. It should be the standard, but it’s so often not.
The Stars have taken on the air of an organization that believes people should be lucky to get in the building, unlike a few teams north of the border, or that some fans are worth more than others. Even when they were among the class of the NHL in terms of records and awards, they were exceedingly open to all comers, and they have continued to be so during the recent ownership saga.
So to Norm Green for bringing this thing here, no matter the circumstances, Tom Hicks for being a fantastic owner until you weren’t and Tom Gaglardi for stepping up in a tough spot to right the ship, I say thank you.
To the past and present staff who built this thing from the ground up and kept it going through bank ownership, who invest countless overtime hours away from family and friends without a hint of the glory, who treat representatives from local high schools up to national media with the same respect, I say thank you.
To Ralph and Razor, for being perhaps the most consistent thing about this team since you joined forces 1996, for the unmistakable way you partner together to call games, for being ambassadors of the sport to this market, for your time and respect, I say thank you.
To the coaching staffs, who devote themselves to a results-oriented business where you only control a small percentage of each event, who drive your families crazy by being unable to unplug during the season, who can never say the full story no matter how much it might paint you in a better light, I say thank you.
To my fellow Stars fans, some of whom have seen me grow up from an immature teenager into a successful adult, who put up with my ridiculously opinionated and oft ill-informed rambling, who indulged me in our shared passion, and who made this community what it is, I say thank you.
And to the players who have provided innumerable memorable moments, who put themselves out there for me and so many others to venerate and tear apart, who fought through so much more than I will ever know in order to represent this team well, and who are at the very heart of this thing that has given me so much - from Greg Adams to Sergei Zubov, Mike Modano to Brent Krahn and everyone in between - I say thank you from the bottom of my heart.