I had just finished my last ski run of the day on a beautiful, snow covered mountain in New Mexico when I checked my phone for the first time.
I thought it odd when I had several unopened messages and even stranger when my good friend had informed me of the drama seeping out of Frisco, Texas. To be honest, I thought the Dallas Stars had made a major trade, but that thought eroded as I scrolled down further.
I quickly found myself shocked at what was uttered by Stars CEO Jim Lites about Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, my mouth falling into the white powder beneath my skis.
The shock of the Lites statements, the Stars suddenly thrust into the spotlight of the hockey world, and the news of a Winter Classic at the Cotton Bowl would kick off the most frantic and oddest four days in recent memory.
To anyone unfamiliar with CEO Jim Lites, the man has been around the National Hockey League for quite a long time. Besides having served with the Detroit Red Wings front office in the 1980s, Lites has been with the Dallas Stars on and off since the lights turned on in 1993. It is a little known fact that Jim Lites was right there with Norm Green negotiating the move from Minnesota to Dallas. In fact, Les Jackson and Jim Lites are both original members of the Stars and key members of the 1999 Championship team. In his three stints with the Dallas Stars, the club has won multiple division championships, a Stanley Cup, and, more importantly, Lites has personally overseen the growth of youth hockey in north Texas.
Jim Lites is a great businessman in the world of sports and I’d like to think in his thirty plus years of NHL service, he has learned a thing or two about hockey. However, with any job, in any line of work, it is shocking to hear a CEO berate employees so publicly and profanely. It wasn’t just a shot across the bow of the club’s two superstars; Jim Lites took aim and fired a shell right into the Stars dressing room.
The hockey world ignited.
If one were to ask Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn if they are, to a man, satisfied with how this season has played out, the answer from both would be a resounding no. In fact, I think the answer would be no from the majority of the Stars dressing room. The team is clinging to the third spot in the Central Division, but at the time of the comments the Stars were sitting in the last Wild Card spot. The club has been inconsistent, the goals from key players haven’t been there, and had it not been for the supreme goaltending of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, the Stars are likely a bottom feeder.
In other words, Jim Lites and, by extension, owner Tom Gaglardi and their frustration IS warranted. Although their visceral, and I do mean their, comments about Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn being “F**king Horses**t,” is clearly over the top and tone deaf. This type of public berating of employees would alienate the average worker if they had heard it from their manager; I can’t imagine what the average worker would do if their CEO announced to the office that they were a terrible member of the company. Oh wait, I do. They’d probably whip open their computer and apply elsewhere.
I’m not excusing the performance of Seguin and Benn, and we at Defending Big D have been quite critical of this hockey team this season. However, what good can come of this? Only time will tell. What is clear now is that the Dallas Stars owner and CEO have put a strain on their working relationship with the two faces of the franchise. We will find out in the months to come the damage done league-wide for the Stars. It is clear, however, that the hockey world saw what happened and the NHLPA did not like it one bit. If this is a harbinger of things to come with free agents, etc. then the Stars have work to do to repair their image in the eyes of the movers and shakers in the NHL: the players themselves.
With all of this drama, there was a bit of great news for the Dallas Stars, their fanbase and one of the marquee sporting venues in the history of Texas. The Winter Classic is coming to Fair Park and the fabled Cotton Bowl on New Years Day 2020.
Since 2008 the NHL Winter Classic has brought the best hockey players and teams in the world back to the roots of the game. Watching that first game against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres at the Ralph in Buffalo was something nobody who watched it will ever forget. The snow, the sheet of ice in the middle of a stadium built to host the gladiatorial sport of professional football. It was a beautiful masterstroke for the NHL and NBC.
The league has held this event each year since, with the exception of the lockout in 2012-13, and now the event heads south to Dallas. It’s a shame that the Lites comments overshadowed this announcement of the Dallas Winter Classic because this is a huge deal for the Stars and hockey in the southern United States — and the first of its kind in a “non-traditional” market.
The NHL draft was a cool way to show off the growth of hockey in Texas, but that doesn’t hold a candle to the Winter Classic. This is an opportunity to parade out, front and center, the fantastic history of Texas hockey from the Dallas Texans, to the Dallas Blackhawks, and the Dallas Stars. The classic will also show the hockey world and the sports world the tremendous growth of hockey in the south. A chance to showcase that the experiment of moving the Minnesota North Stars to Texas in 1993 has really worked.
Now, we as Dallas Stars fans know that it has worked; the franchise has a Stanley Cup after all. In the late 90s and early 00s, the Stars were the example of success in non-traditional markets for the NHL. To the rest of the markets in the league, the jury may still be out. It seems as if the Stars fanbase and the novelty of hockey in Dallas, Texas, coupled with its last decade of mediocrity and few playoff appearances, has caused the market to not be taken seriously (especially to Canadians — just ask them, they’re happy to tell you all about how hockey doesn’t work in places outside of New England and their own country...and maybe Minnesota.)
That can all change in 2020.
It also sounds like the most historic football stadium in the south played a role in the NHL choosing Dallas as the host. The Cotton Bowl is a Texas football institution. It should come to no surprise that football, not hockey, was my first love as a kid. Texas Longhorns football to be exact. This obscure fact about my life has a point. The point being that the Cotton Bowl is absolutely incredible. Every October the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma roll into the 90-year-old facility and put on arguably the greatest show in college football. For anyone who has gone to the game, the atmosphere in that stadium is something that they will never forget.
More than the crowds and the prestige of the two teams who grace the field during the Red River Rivalry, the stadium is probably the coolest part. When walking around the outer bowl of the stadium, each step feels as if you are walking with history. Hearing the crowd scream for Doak Walker and SMU, the energy of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s, and the top ranked matchups of OU/Texas....if those walls could talk.
The NHL really hit a home run with the selection of the Cotton Bowl for the Dallas Winter Classic. It should also be a point of pride for the Dallas Stars and the City of Dallas that they are hosting the first southern Winter Classic. The stretch of days from December 29th to December 31st of 2018 will be remembered for placing the Dallas Stars franchise in the spotlight for the right and wrong reasons.
On one hand the franchise was/is being cast in a light that is finally bringing the dysfunction and warts of the club to the forefront. National media and, more importantly, the local media are finally having to pay attention to the Stars and holding this franchise accountable. However, the way the attention came to light has sparked a conversation of the decorum of the Stars front office and a worry about the relationship going forward with Seguin and Benn.
On the flip side, the league is bringing THE marquee event (Winter Classic) to the city of Dallas, giving the Stars a chance to showcase all that is good with hockey in Texas. Showcasing a historic stadium, in the middle of the fair grounds that hosts the most extravagant state fair in the country, the 2020 Winter Classic is bound to be a Texas sized event for the Stars and league.
The stretch of days from December 29, 2019 to January 1, 2020 has a chance to place the spotlight on the Dallas Stars franchise again — for all the best reasons, I hope. No pressure, eh?