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The Dallas Stars Are Okay and Not Okay, Just Like All of Us

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Things are not okay, even when they are

Dallas Stars v Vancouver Canucks
“Yeah, I get it.”
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

Another line without a hook

I held you close as we both shook for the last time

Take a good hard look

***

Every December, when I visit the town where I grew up, I get to update all the old friends and their families on my life.

“How are you? What are you doing now?”

Usually I give a somewhat banal answer. I am great, life is good, things are exciting! Sometimes, that’s true; and this year, moreso than the last few. But it’s also a platitude, because most of those people (though not all of them, to their credit) are looking for mere information they can file away. They’re not asking for anything deep or dreadful, to hear about how an ex girlfriend recently got engaged, or how I’m dealing with trying to build some sense of community in a brand-new town. They just want to extract the most recent data and fit it into their paradigm of what my adulthood should look like. I’m sure I’ve done the same thing to many people myself.

That’s cynical, I know. I would much rather have the deeper conversations about the unsettling things edging their way into my mind when I visit home. If I had just a bit more courage and a bit less consideration, I might respond to those same questions with something like, “I don’t know. I am working at _______ now, but being home always makes me wonder if I shouldn’t have stayed here, closer to family. What do we owe to our hometowns, anyway? Is it selfish to change careers if it means you see the people who invested in your life less?”

It might not surprise you to learn I am not invited to many parties in my home town.

Probably I just want to reject the binary nature of the holiday catch-up conversation. I am (and we are) always okay and not okay, or perhaps working towards being okay with not being okay. We are all of us wrestling with the passing of time as December ends, and as I get older, I find an increasing number of ways to critique what I have or haven’t done with my own chunk of years.

In hockey, it’s at least a bit more self-contained. The Stars have played 38 games, and they are 20-14-4. That’s a 95-point pace, which is probably enough to grab a wild card spot in one of the weakest years for the Central Division (not to mention the Western Conference). And certainly, compared to where they were 30 games ago, the Stars are perfectly okay. There are plenty of games left.

But the Stars also have just three regulation wins in their last 13 games. Tack on their two overtime wins (one of which was that Khudobin miracle in Tampa Bay), and Dallas is still just 5-6-2 since their wonderful winning streak ended. The team hasn’t been awful, but they also haven’t been good, certainly in their last four games. That 95-point pace assumes they are on a level field, not rolling down a mountain. Certainly it feels more like one than the other, lately.

***

The site was dark yesterday, as Taylor rightly (in my view) decided we ought to show solidarity with other SBN communities, particularly given that our colleague Mark Zimmerman—whom I have had the privilege of spending time with in person—is included in the unceremonious axing of contract writers on short notice due to the passage of a new California labor law.

There is a lot to be said about how the law is poorly written and how Vox handled it just as poorly. Personally, I think it’s just rotten that a company couldn’t give a heads up after the law’s passage saying, “Hey everyone, just so you know, this is going to mean all these contract jobs are going to disappear in a few months. If you want to stick around, it’ll have to be under conditions X, Y, etc.”

Instead, Vox just kind of ran the numbers on their end, said nothing for months, then finally started posting a lot of corporate messages on team websites about the changes on December 16th. I’m sure there were multiple reasons they decided to do this, but speaking as someone who has spent the better part of a decade keeping SB Nation from fading into obscurity despite the increasingly obnoxious nature of their site format—how about those auto-play videos on mobile now, huh?—and the appearance of alternative sites, it feels pretty not-great, overall.

If you have no choice, then do the right thing early and let contributors know that the business model doesn’t sustain converting all those part-time contractors into full-time, benefited employees, right? A lot of folks understand that, and as much as it stinks that the SB Nation model kind of relies on underpaid people keeping the sites alive with passion and love while the platform’s UI perpetually erodes thanks to increasingly invasive monetization, that’s just how the business is. Or at least, it is this business, right now. Those of us who are privileged enough to have a decent job that also allows us time to cover the team in a way that is at least passably professional? We are, on some level, grateful that it is (or was) at least doable, even if it’s not optimal.

None of us make good money from doing this. It’s a labor of love, but it’s nice that the site can sometimes kick a little bit of its advertising revenue out of the ol’ Vox piñata for us to console ourselves with on days when writing after (or before, or during) our “real” jobs feels a lot more like labor than love. Most of us do not become Grant Brisbee or Jeff Sullivan or Jon Bois, but the platform at least offers that tantalizing potential. SB Nation knows this, and it has leveraged it into their cost structure accordingly. California, now, has rejected that structure outright, and it feels like the resultant culling of the herd is but a foreshadowing of what is going to happen down the road, in every community. If you can break down where 90% of the clicks come from, why do you need a group of contributors adding a lot of extra posts? Just have one or two people manage most of the sites, and use the “intern” model for contributors if the platform is worth enjoying without remuneration. Sure, that just continues to make the platform available primarily to the economically privileged, but you gotta grow the ad revenue and profitability, after all.

The SB Nation setup is both okay and not okay. It’s an exchange of goods, but one that massively favors those who do not rely upon it. For a while, it seemed tolerable despite the fact that a lot of great writers couldn’t afford to utilize it, because no one was really raising much of a fuss unless you were listening closely. The platform was there, and it was available. Wasn’t that enough?

It was, until it wasn’t. Sites all need to be growing, revenue needs to be increasing, and markets need to be served. I despise how long it takes comments to load on SB Nation sites now, but I still tolerate it since the comments really are the biggest part of what makes the sites special. These are communities above all else, and communities require investment if they’re going to make it through the ups and downs of civic life. But I do wonder how much longer I can keep visiting this hometown without screaming about how not-okay things are.

***

Corey Perry had a chance to get the Stars back into the game Sunday, but on a glorious cross-slot pass, he fired a shot right into a goalie named Dave. Corey Perry has looked a little better lately, but he also hasn’t scored a goal in 16 games. He is both okay, sometimes doing very good and important things that don’t show up on the scoresheet, and eminently not okay, providing a negligible amount of offensive depth. Perry has zero goals, one primary assist and two secondary helpers on the power play despite averaging over two minutes of power play ice time per game. His assist rates at evens are a bit better, although that’s not saying much on a team so bereft of scoring that Justin Dowling is 4th on the team at even-strength in primary assists per minute.

We’ve talked about the top guys not scoring nearly as much as they need to, and certainly the defense has gotten much worse lately, too. The team is trending in a concerning direction, and it’s not like theirs is some sleeping giant of an offense that just needs to be awoken.

Against Calgary, Roman Polak and John Klingberg played the same amount of minutes. In fairness, that’s because Polak played a ton of time on the penalty kill, because hey, by the way, turns out the Stars are back to their penalty-taking ways under Rick Bowness, too. That was a problem long before he took over, so of course this isn’t to blame him for it. But much like Ben Bishop against Calgary, he both isn’t the reason it’s happening, but is also not the reason it didn’t happen, either.

Ben Bishop also wasn’t awful, which was fine. He also wasn’t great, particularly on the first and third power play goals. The penalty kill also got diced up with triangle passing as the Calgary power play found a lot of great looks from below the goal line, which is a strategy I continue to yearn for Dallas to embrace more.

But hey, I guess we can’t all be Anton Khudobin against the Lightning. Sometimes you just go through a rough patch.

***

At this time of year, I am both glad to be home, seeing family (and especially nieces and nephews) and friends and their families and everyone else. It’s nice to be part of a community, to realize that I have the luxury of being known by people and loved by a small portion of them. That’s what this website has offered, for a long time now. I love seeing that sense of community among our readers, and I’ve had the immense privilege of getting to know some of you in real life as a result of stupid online hockey talk. How cool is that?

(Aside: I hope to get to give stupid high-fives and handshakes to many of you at Craft and Growler in person on Sunday at 6pm. People are more important than ideas, and it’s a lot easier to remember that when we’re looking each other in the eye.)

The Stars might fix things and make this season a special one. We don’t know the future. This site might also continue to be special, rewarding the decade of love and labor that’s gone into it from Brandon, Brad, Erin, Josh, Taylor, and everyone else.

I dearly hope that’s the case, too. This site was one of the only comforts of Stars fandom for a few years during the dark times of 2009-2013, not to mention 2016-17. Where else would I have been able to discuss the gross idiocy of the organization doing a third-jersey fakeout with someone skating out onto the ice wearing a horse head mask and a Mooterus jersey as the team’s playoff drought continued in a bad home defeat? (If you remember, you remember.) Where else can I make Matt Climie, Nolan Baumgartner, and Cristopher Nilstorp references? This website became a digital home even before I started contributing.

Since I started in 2014, it’s become something more.

***

You can’t ever really make a new home town for yourself. Maybe for your children, sure. But there’s no way to fully communicate what the familiar smell of my six-year-old soccer field did to my nervous system this week when I went back to it. You never realize the incredible depth of the earth until you reckon with the impossible number of memories it must hold, for you and for everyone. That one corner of that one street where the gravel still collects in a certain way to make my back bike tire more likely to slide out, making me feel like I was powersliding? That’s still there, and it means infinitely more to me when I walk over it at 33 years old than it ever did crunching under my bike tires at nine. Or maybe it means exactly the same thing, and I just understand its value better now. I have a relationship with that intersection that nobody else knows about. Locatedness is a special gift, even moreso when you’ve experienced its death.

Life is absurd, and a sense of home even moreso. We don’t belong here, particularly. We belong everywhere and nowhere equally. That my town holds something special for me is an accident of relationship, economy, and geography, among other things. That I can recognize how soon it will (and even has) become more a feature of my memory than my future only makes this time sweeter. But it also means I can’t enjoy it the same way. You can’t really laugh with old friends quite as hard when you know they’re leaving town that same night, you know?

The Stars have 44 games left in which to give us more memories, to set themselves up to supplant John Klingberg’s overtime goal against Nashville as the most meaningful of the last decade (with apologies to Cody Eakin’s Art Ross-clinching goal). Those special moments keep us together, but new joy is what will draw new people, cement new relationships. We will none of us stay in our home town forever, but we can at least hope for a torch to be passed, for some common spark to be ignited through the years while so much else fades from time and memory.

I can’t promise I will be here for many more months or years, because who can ever make such a promise? Whether by choice or compulsion, all relationships are a product of time and space. Those precious few places that can endure the ravages of time become sacred, or at least loved. Maybe this year will not be special, and maybe this space will evolve beyond our capacity to foster meaningful community within it. But for whatever it’s worth, I have enjoyed the community I have found here, and I hope I will have more than 44 more reasons to keep coming back this year. Just because change is inevitable doesn’t mean it brings only evil in its wake. My desire to write about hockey has always been the serotinous sort. I wrote because I felt compelled to make sense of what was happening to “my” hockey team, and I was fortunate enough to be given a platform with which to engage other fans at a time when things looked to be turning a corner.

Now, things are once again changing, but I am far less optimistic, particularly after the upheaval two weeks ago. I don’t know where this team will be in a few months, let alone a few years, and I certainly don’t know where my writing will be, if anywhere, from week to week. But Mark Zimmerman is one of the most enjoyable people you could talk about hockey with, someone with an endless stream of curiosity, someone who flew up to Washington state on his own dime for SeaHAC purely because he wanted to learn more about how to analyze the game. He deserves a platform for his writing, and it’s a rather stupid sequence of decision-making that has deprived him of the joy of talking about hockey with all of us in 2020. That rankles, as it should. He deserves better.

Writing here has always been a gratuitous thing in one sense, and my writing in particular feels largely superfluous alongside the sobering realities of online media today. If we are someday no longer able to enjoy the privilege of being together in this home town, then we will look for other places to gather. But it won’t be the same, because your home town can never be relocated. All the more reason to enjoy it now. Hopefully the team will give us something special to enjoy, at least for however much time we get to keep on living here.