Maybe I love you
Maybe I hate you
There is something in your eyes
That leaves me paralyzed
Terrified that you love me better
Than anyone else
Are you here to save my life
Or the devil in disguise?
Do you remember what it was like to be a Stars fan? Search your feelings, and you might dredge up recent words like “Bowness,” “Draft,” “Starsing,” and so on. These were things that meant something, once upon a time, when hockey existed.
Months have passed since those words had immediate ramifications. Now we’re sitting around talking about playoff formats so ramshackle that no EA Sports (or even NHL Hitz) game in living memory would have contained the option for them. Sports have become the most academic of exercises, but also a potentially deadly one.
Some folks have started asking whether winning a Cup for the 2019-20********* season (note to self: maybe add more asterisks) wouldn’t be a victory fraught with caveats, to the extent that a franchise might even eschew the idea of winning its first championship in such a context. If you were a Predators fan—perish the thought—would you want your team’s first Cup to be the COVID Cup?
It’s a nice thought, but it’s not really why we’re here. I don’t think a single New Jersey fan would blush at how that city got its first Cup (and sort of its only major sports championship, with apologies to the ABA). And really, who are fans to tell other fans (or themselves) how happy they are allowed to be with winning? You pay for the experience of vicarious victory, and once the playoffs begin, that’s what you’ll be hoping for.
In any case, this all got me thinking about what it means to actually be a Dallas Stars fan. Winning such a Cup would be a very different experience for a fanbase 21 years removed from glory than one like the Penguins, the Blues, the Bruins, the Predators, the Leafs, or even the Golden Knights. Being a Dallas Stars fan means something, and not just because of chronological distance from champagne baths.
So, here are two primary things that stick out to me when I reflect upon what it means to be a Dallas Stars fan. I may not be correct, because I am limited to the extent of my subjective experience, but also I am definitely correct, because I have never been wrong about anything, check the math, told you.
One final note: I think it’s a given that every city will embody its particular geographical ethos, so I’m not interested in talking about What It Means To Be Texan, or anything like that. Most every city has a distinct identity. We’re talking here not of citizenship, but the experience of affiliation with a team. So, don’t expect me to pitch my Starboot the Mascot idea all over again here. that ship has sailed, unfortunately.
Stars Fans Bridge the Old and New Schools
As an Original Twelve team (which is a phrase I love using, as it evokes the same laughable nonsense as the phrase “Original Six”) the Stars franchise sits in a somewhat unique spot made even more unique by its move to Dallas in 1993. The franchise started in 1967, which is one year after the first Super Bowl and two years before the MLB lowered the pitcher’s mound in order to make the batters less decorative. Some of those longtime Minnesota/Dallas fans are on this board, in fact.
So despite Dallas’s sometime reputation as this quirk of the Gary Bettman era, the reality is that there are a good number of fans out there who have been following this team as long as (or longer than) the average Penguins or Flyers fan. You may be rooting for a particular set of pajamas at the end of the day, but those PJs have been around for a long time.
As a result, there’s an interesting vibe around the Dallas fanbase that I’m not sure you can find anywhere except maybe in Los Angeles, to a degree. In one sense, Dallas fans are about as new as most San Jose or Anaheim fans, but that looks past the pretty clear lineage from Minnesota. Mike Modano, Shane Churla, Derian Hatcher, Richard Matvichuk, Craig Ludwig, Neal Broten, and even Ralph Strangis—there is a sizeable contingent of Notable Dallas Stars who Came From Minnesota, and that isn’t nothing. That Stanley Cup banner doesn’t hang up there if not for what Minnesota brought to Dallas in 1993.
So if you talk to fans at a Stars game, then sure, you’ll get the odd moron yelling at Klingberg because he’s not big an’ mean enough, just like you will at a Ducks game; but you’ll also be able to have conversations about Jon Casey, about the Broten Family, about Norm Green, and a whole host of other things that predate the Xtreme Nineties© period of hockey.
Like any franchise, Dallas Fans exploded in number after they won a Cup, and there’s no shame in that at all. I lived in Los Angeles before and after their championship period, and 2012 brought a massive change in terms of going to hockey games and talking to fans. In some ways, it made going to games as a visiting fan much more insufferable, evoking Chicago in some noticeable ways. But it also meant full buildings and car flags and Seeing Sweaters Around Town, and that’s a pretty cool experience, as anyone who lived in Dallas in the late 1990s can tell you. It’s cool to be a part of something.
So, Dallas fans are both historically informed but also recently (sort of) emboldened with their share of bandwagon fans (which is just a casual way of saying “People Like Teams That Win”). And now even those 1999 Stars fans have now lived through just about two more decades without a championship or even a Cup Final. We have been humbled, then delighted, then overjoyed, then dismayed, resolute, cautiously optimistic, resigned, refreshed, disillusioned, and mystified. This fan base has been around the block a time or two.
As a result, Dallas Stars fans can talk about old school hockey, the clutch-and-grab era, modern statistical analysis, expansion, and NHL history as well as any west of the Mississippi, and better than some East of it. I mean, the Edmonton Oilers weren’t even founded until 1971, and they didn’t join the NHL until 1979. They are to the Stars franchise what the Columbus Blue Jackets are to, say, the Sharks.
Yes, moving a franchise changes it. The Stars have neither the single-city establishment of the Flyers nor the fresh success of newer markets like Vegas. But Dallas Stars fans have both old and young memories in an almost wholly unique mixture. They know what it is to be treated like an expansion team, to be a marketing afterthought. But they also know what it is to be a juggernaut, to defeat the very best with their very best. The Stars might be doomed to be forgotten by swaths of so-called NHL experts (as the embarrassing Calder Trophy voting last year showed), but their fans are by no means overwhelmed with inferiority complexes or arrogance. They have too much of an awareness of how and why Certain Teams get forgotten, and maybe always will.
Perhaps even more importantly, Stars fans know that success can and has come in the face of wider preference for teams like Detroit or Buffalo. So, opinions being what they will, Stars fans have full confidence that they known what it takes to win. And, in the end, Nothing Else Matters.
Dallas Stars Fans Know How Sweet, and How Elusive Success Can Be
Finally, I think the franchise is really set apart, as most are, by its peaks and valleys. Again, I’m struck by how Los Angeles and this franchise bear some eerie parallels, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, given how Minnesota bounced the Kings from the playoffs way back in their inaugural seasons. These two teams’ fates are more intertwined than I’ve often realized.
In fact, through 1993, both franchises
had made just one appearance in a Cup Final had both only reached the Cup Final once or twice, with the North Stars falling to the Islanders in the 1981 Final and the Penguins in 1991. That second loss came just two years before the Canadiens claimed the most recent Cup for Canada over the Kings. The North Stars’ record that ‘91 year, by the way, was a lousy 27–39–14, plenty good enough to make the playoffs (as nearly everyone did back then) in a typically iffy Campbell Conference. The Kings’ record in their Cup Run year of 1993, by the way? That would be a relatively magnificent 39-35-10. (If you’re sharp-eyed, you may have noticed that neither of those totals adds up to 82 games. Interesting story, that.)
Even more interestingly, Minnesota only finished atop their division twice (1982, 1984) while Los Angeles managed it but once, accomplishing the feat (post-Gretzky, of course) in 1991. That still holds true, by the way: the Kings have never won their division since 1991. In both Cup runs, Los Angeles finished third in the Pacific.
So I guess I’m saying that, for all their similarities, Stars fans can always ask Kings fans how many division championships the Kings have won if those Pencil-Logoed West Coasters ever get uppity about their second Cup (One, to Minnesota’s/Dallas’s eight). You can talk about regular season conference championships (Four to zero), or you can get really Premier League and talk about President’s Trophies (Two) as the real indicator of how good a team is. Not that I’m encouraging petty trash talk, of course. I am encouraging Very Important Discourse About How Dumb Other Stupid Teams Are.
Anyway, back to the franchise at hand. Minnesota’s lack of any consistent success meant that, the unlikely 1991 Cup run aside, the North Stars were arriving in Dallas as something of a sad sack team. They weren’t a bad team, as such, and they even made the playoffs that first season in ‘94, sweeping the Blues before falling to the Canucks. But no one would have predicted that the Stars would arrive in Dallas and immediately make the playoffs in 12 of the next 14 seasons while being right up among the class of the league with Detroit, New Jersey, and Colorado for a good five-year span. The Stars in Dallas proved to be a completely different animal from their northern ancestors.
With many fanbases, this would lead to a certain type of (perhaps deserved) arrogance and entitlement. For Dallas fans, even that first Cup, while it came only five seasons after their first in Texas, felt like the cumulative efforts of a hard-fought ascent. The 1998 run was particularly affective (spelling intended) in that way, engendering a nasty resolve and resentment around The Marchment Incident. This team should be winning, and when they finally did—well, it felt like a lifetime achievement. Heck, it still feels that way, if you watched the recent re-broadcast of the Cup run on FSSW. That team left everything out there, and made it to the top. That’s the dream.
And then they almost repeated, but didn’t. And then they scraped and clawed to remain relevant through 2008, before Detroit reminded them just how far Dallas had fallen, and the nadir of the Dallas Stars was deep and dark indeed. After only missing the playoffs twice since their arrival in Texas, the team went 0-for-5, then (likely) 4-for-8 in Victory Green. Just getting there was now a massive accomplishment, as even one glorious season in 2015-16 made clear when the next year sucked all the air right back out of the fanbase again. What was once so automatic became a frustratingly fickle pursuit. Even the return of Franchise Legend Ken Hitchcock couldn’t get the team into the top eight in the conference. The clock really wasn’t going to be turned back that easily.
I think this fanbase, in 2020, has as good an understanding as any other 1967 expansion team does when it comes to how difficult it is to win a Cup. The Flyers won a couple back in the day, and almost won another before Patrick Kane broke their hearts and confused everyone else until the replays cleared things up. The Kings still have Cup legends like Carter, Brown, Quick, Kopitar, and Doughty, but they’ve already spent half a decade reckoning with the reality of the competitive cycle in the cap era. The Blues just managed their first Cup, and they’re on the verge of making another decent run this year. Pittsburgh has post-lockout perhaps been more consistently competitive than any other Original 12 squad, though the cracks have been starting to show lately.
Dallas Stars fans, they’ve been through the ringer. They’ve known decades of futility from the Minnesota days, and they’ve known unexpected runs like 1991 and 2008. They’ve known perpetual dominance, and they’ve wandered in the bankruptcy wilderness. They know mediocrity, and they know what a first overall draft pick can do for an entire franchise.
These fans, in other words, have seen more than most, but without the entitlement that comes with from being an NHL darling. There is resentment and bitterness at times, but that’s also coalesced into a fierce Western spirit of defiance. A profoundly successful Winter Classic feels a little sweeter knowing that Minnesota couldn’t even sell out their outdoor game. That Cup banner hangs a little higher in our minds knowing that Buffalo can’t get over it. And 2015-16 was a blast for 82 games, but even moreso as Stars fans dryly noted that only three games by the most exciting team in hockey were nationally televised, compared to dozens for middling teams that fit the traditional archetype.
Stars fans, in other words, are quite aware of their sometimes marginalized status in the league, and they also have seen enough success to remain confident in their identity as a major pillar of the NHL, particularly when it comes to its expansion. These fans are realists, but not defeatists. They are loyal, but not blind. They are wholly unique, but also similar to fans found in every other city. I just don’t think other cities have quite the same blend of extremes that Dallas does.
They are new and old, traditional and groundbreaking. They can host events like your grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner, but they can also change the way in-game presentation goes for the rest of the league. Their broadcasts have been world-class almost from day one (with a hiccup or two here and there), but they aren’t trying to be more historical than they are. They are aware of their history in Minnesota, but they never flaunt it. They have set records for scoring empty-net goals in a season and the lowest GAA in the modern era. And lately, they are filled with more drama off the ice than you could possibly ask for.
It’s a bit of a cruel irony: the very paradoxes that makes Stars fans unique echo the same disparities that have plagued their roster construction in recent years. Big but fast, safe but creative, old-school but cutting-edge. It can be dangerous to try to have it both ways, but perhaps Stars fans know better than anyone that, when it comes to this team, you just have to be ready for anything. I think they are. After all, they’ve been practicing for 53 years.