Sports are a painful business for players and fans alike. Often, the season ends with a painful loss in the regular season or playoffs, leaving everyone involved dusting themselves off and licking their wounds. Then the new season rolls around and the same hope from the season before returns: “maybe next year” turns into “this is our year.” For the most part, it is not “our year,” and the cycle of sports repeats itself.
However, there are exceptions and finally it does become the season that ends with trophies, champagne, and parades that declare “We’ll be back next year.” For the 1998-99 Dallas Stars players and fans, this would be that year.
Starting with training camp and carrying on month to month throughout the 2018-2019 regular season (and playoffs...?), the 1998-1999 Stars season will be chronicled to give fans a chance to revisit and reflect on how special that season was for so many people.
The series aims to highlight key players and games, as well as a summary of the stats for the club throughout their journey to the Stanley Cup. So without further delay, the kickoff to series will start with Training Camp 1998.
The story of the 1998-99 Dallas Stars is a story that begins in June of 1998 in Detroit Michigan.
The 1998 Dallas Stars were the best team in hockey and embarking on a redemption tour to exercise the demons of their 1997 first round exit. After two convincing series victories over the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers (demons exercised), the club stood four wins away from their second trip to the Stanley Cup finals in the 1990s. All they had to do was knock off the defending champion Detroit Red Wings.
The series would be a fast, low scoring, brutal affair between the two heavyweights in the Western Conference. A battle that the Stars were built to succeed in, had it been their fortune to have a healthy Joe Nieuwendyk and Richard Matvichuk. Through the six-game series, the Red Wings would gradually grind down the Stars as their health and experience would prove to be the difference. Detroit defeated Dallas 4-2 in the series, prompting the Stars to make a signing that would dramatically alter the history of the franchise.
Signing Brett Hull in the first days of the 1998 free agency period would prove to be a masterstroke in June of 1999, but in July of 1998, the move was largely seen as a signal to the team and the league that the Stars were going all in. In the eyes of ownership and management alike, adding the former 86-goal scorer was seen as a move to shore up their goal scoring, a glaring issue with the club in the ‘98 playoffs against Detroit.
However, to other observers around the league, signing Brett Hull was a gamble.
Throughout his career, Hull had been a player who filled the net at a rapid pace. His 86 goals in 1991 would yield a Hart trophy, but by 1998 there were question marks. The golden Brett was approaching his mid 30’s (he would turn 34 during the 98-99 campaign) and had come off a disappointing season offensively, where he tallied 27 goals in 66 games. Injuries and age, it could be argued, were starting to show. Then there was the fact that Hull’s teams had never approached the Stanley Cup Final — and the star winger was gaining a reputation as a player who couldn’t perform in the playoffs.
The question marks did not deter the Stars from battling out the Chicago Blackhawks and St.Louis Blues for Hull’s services, and on July 3rd, 1998, the winger would don his Stars sweater for the first time.
As for the rest of the off season, the club would be relatively quiet. The team would be saddled with a few notable departures in Greg Adams and Bob Bassen, but would respond with the addition of Brent Severyn and the filling of depth positions on the roster.
However, the signing of Brett Hull would prove to be the primer for the Stars as training camp opened in Vail, Colorado in September of ‘98.
Training camp would serve as a time for the club and new arrivals like Brett Hull to acclimate to the style of Ken Hitchcock and Bob Gainey; a style made famous for their neutral zone trap and counterattack offense. The camp would also serve as the launching point for a club that looked to turn the page from their recent playoff shortcomings and into the conversation with the league’s elite playoff teams.
The Stars roster was improved when camp would break in mid-September. The defense was long seen as the strength of the team, and that observation was extremely appropriate. Anchored by a corp that would trot out huge defensemen in Derian Hatcher and Richard Matvichuk and the slick pair of Darryl Sydor and Sergei Zubov, the top four of the group was as good as any in the league. Even the bottom pair of Craig Ludwig and Shawn Chambers was an effective unit when called upon. The defensive side of the bench was physical, talented, and down right suffocating on most nights. With Eddie Belfour between the pipes, teams would have to avoid playing from behind at all costs, or risk an uphill battle against the Stars’ defensive buzzsaw.
Then there were the forwards.
Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen, and Hull would be the top trio for Ken Hitchcock, matching any top line the league could throw out at the time. There was also a wealth of talent and experience behind them with Nieuwendyk, Jamie Langenbrunner, Pat Verbeek, and Mike Keane. Not to mention the defensive excellence of Guy Carbonneau on the third line. The forward group for the Stars was talented and tested, with multiple Cup winners littering the lineup. The group also bought into what Hitchcock was selling, molding their style of play to play off the Stars’ defensive posture. It was a cohesive unit from the first to forth line, to the defensemen and goaltenders.
The Dallas Stars were primed to repeat and surpass their success from 1997-98, and the team was hungry to prove they could take the next step.
The club wouldn’t have to wait long to prove they were a legit threat to dethrone the Detroit Red Wings. The 1998-99 season would begin on October 10th, 1998 with the Buffalo Sabres visiting Reunion Arena. The 98-99 season was on, and the Stars would be out to establish themselves as the class of the Western Conference and the National Hockey League.
Next month in Chronicling the 1999 Dallas Stars: the season begins.