[Editor’s Note: Brandon Worley founded Defending Big D in early 2009, serving as managing editor through 2013, and for stretches after that until 2015. He brought me on as a contributor in April of 2011 and I took over as Managing Editor in 2016. The recent success of the Dallas Stars and the Defending Big D community wasn’t built in a day. This one is for anyone that’s ever been a part of the family here.]
Watching that puck explode off Denis Gurianov’s stick and past Robin Lehner, giving the Dallas Stars an incredible berth into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years, the overwhelming emotion that washed over me was not just pure elation - but relief. A journey was started a very long time ago; no matter how recent it may feel it’s a fact that this hockey team has been scratching and clawing and fighting and failing to reach this exact opportunity for the majority of my life.
Finally, after so much time, the destination has been reached. Two full decades of futility and heartbreak now suddenly feel just slightly less painful, those bad memories just maybe not quite as anger-inducing as they once were. Perhaps it was because for so many of us the sheer joy at seeing that Cup get hoisted by our team felt so fresh, no matter how many years went by. Now that this moment has actually arrived the accomplishment is almost overwhelmingly surreal, as if until the puck actually drops in the first game none of this is real and will turn into fog in a dream just before we wake up to reality.
Yet no matter how unbelievable it might be, here we are.
And it is glorious.
Of course it would be this team, in this year of all years, to have somehow found the magic combination that propels them past the adversity that had blocked the way on so many attempts before. This season, with all that has happened in the most rollercoaster of a 12-month period as I can remember, it’s this one where the Stars finally, finally have the chance to fight for the right to lift the Cup over their heads. That’s all the fans ever wanted, is just to get to this point and this opportunity - to say the team we spend so much of our time dedicated to put it all on the line and persevered and won.
In early 2009, I launched this website on SB Nation with barely a clue of what I was doing, only knowing that I wanted to write about my favorite team in my favorite sport. I didn’t know if anyone would read it, and for a long time barely anyone did. It’s ironic how the part of the motivation to create DBD came from the thought the Stars were so very close to returning to playoff glory - after all, this was less than a season removed from that incredible postseason win against the San Jose Sharks. Who wouldn’t want to write about that?
Yet as Defending Big D grew, the Stars struggled. We were there for it all - the coaching changes, the roster overhauls, the bankruptcy, an ownership change and even a lockout. What I learned during those times was just how loyal and hungry Stars fans truly are and I have never been as proud of an accomplishment as what we managed to build here. It’s what made it all the more special when the Stars finally made the playoffs in 2014, when the team once more established relevancy in the NHL and expectations started to shift from “just find some way to have a winning season” to “we are proud fans of a proud hockey team and we expect greatness.”
No matter how promising some of those seasons may have been, no matter how favored or how good we may have thought those teams to be, we learned once more what so many fans of so many teams know - that winning is hard, but winning it all feels as if it may actually be impossible. Or maybe just impossible for the Stars.
When it comes to those inspiring, oft-quoted sports movie motivational speeches, the Herb Brooks speech in Miracle is what is usually associated with the NHL playoffs, for obvious reasons. Yet as the Stars once again fought back in a game and punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final, I found myself thinking of another movie about another sport entirely.
You find out life’s this game of inches.
So is football.
Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small — I mean one-half a step too late, or too early, and you don’t quite make it.
One-half second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it.
The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second.
On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch, because we know when we add up all those inches that’s gonna make the difference between winning and losing!
Between livin’ and dyin’!
I’ll tell you this: in any fight, it’s the guy who’s willing to die who’s gonna win that inch.
Sure this may be about football but it’s rather apt for the Stars over the past two decades. How is it that, objectively speaking, more talented Stars teams with more talented rosters or better coaching weren’t able to get where the 2020 version of the team has managed? Because somehow, someway, the Stars have managed to find that one inch that had so eluded them in the past - whether through luck (or lack thereof) or through sheer will and determination.
In 2003, a stacked Stars team ran into a buzzsaw of a goalie named J.S. Giguere and were ousted in the second round.
In 2007, the Stars only managed to win a game against the Vancouver Canucks and the Super Sedin Twins when Marty Turco had a shutout.
In 2008, an underdog Stars team gave it everything they had for two rounds against better teams, before finally succumbing to a much, much better team in the Detroit Red Wings.
In 2014, the Stars were once again underdogs against the Anaheim Ducks but put up a valiant fight and were just over two minutes away from sending the series to a seventh game. All the Stars needed was a covered puck; instead they collapsed and lost the game and the series in overtime.
In 2016, the Stars fought so hard to send the series against the Blues to a Game 7 only to have it all fall apart in a matter of minutes in the first period.
In 2019, all the Stars needed was for the puck to stick to Jamie Benn’s tape just a bit longer to finish off a wraparound to win in overtime of an incredible Game 7; the Blues would score just moments later instead, another in a heap of memories of being so close and yet not quite close enough.
Between all those moments and seasons, the Stars struggled with their identity and vision for the roster. Think of how many players have come and gone over that time, many players with most or all of their careers spent in Dallas that never got this far. Think of those players that we spent so much time writing about and discussing who have already faded from memory yet had such an incredible impact at that time in our sports lives.
Think of all of the roster turnovers, the trades we spent so many hours and days discussing and yet those players have long been off the team by now and many out of the NHL entirely. Think of the coaching changes, how many structure and hockey ideology changes the Stars have been through where each time it was like starting completely over yet carrying incredible pressure to succeed. Think of the injuries that derailed seasons, of all the moments that shined so bright in years that were ultimately deemed to be a failure.
Think of the fact that Jaromir Jagr actually played in a Dallas Stars sweater.
The Stars have gone through three different jerseys since that last Stanley Cup Final appearance. Think of the five general managers and seven coaches that have run the organization since 2000, for better and for worse. Think of the drafts that worked and the ones that didn’t. Think of the countless backup goaltenders and endless discussions over the need for top defensemen or a scoring winger or center depth.
Were all those moments, all those memories, ultimately inconsequential? Looking back, was all the discourse and debate over Alex Goligoski or Kari Lehtonen or Jeff Woywitka or Antti Niemi even worth it?
Without that history, there is no possible way actually getting to the Stanley Cup Final would ever feel quite as sweet as it does. Without all the trials and tribulations, this current journey would never be this incredible, this rewarding. The team, the fans, ownership - we all know what that biting disappointment is like, we know what it’s like to be so nervous with expectation and pressure that the losing hurt all the more - that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. All of the preseason prognosticating and regular season wins and hand-wringing over trade deadlines all would just lead to bitter disappointment and frustration.
That most years the Stars weren’t quite good enough for the playoffs while not quite bad enough for a franchise-changing draft pick was just the icing on the cake.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that this roster with this coach in these circumstances were the ones that somehow figured it out, that somehow fought for that one extra inch that made all the difference. It’s a roster that is a wonderful mix of home-grown prospects and draft picks with some key free agent veterans that are actually paying off - it’s a team with some salty postseason vets being boosted along by the fast and skilled youth all coming together under perhaps the most well-liked coach in the NHL, along with one hell of a captain.
The man was a warrior in the NHL from the moment he stepped foot on the ice for the Stars way back in 2009, and he’s carried the burden of all of the failures of the past ten years directly on his shoulders since then. It was Benn that my thoughts instantly turned to when the game was won against the Vegas Golden Knights, and how he’s the sole remaining player on the team from the ones that he sat on the bench next to his rookie year.
Everything around him has changed since then. Owner. General manager. Coaches. Teammates. He is the lone constant over the past decade of hockey in Dallas, the undisputed face of the franchise and to whom nearly all the pressure is put upon when the stakes are at their highest.
Benn has dipped into the fountain of youth to the days when he was a wrecking ball on the ice that impacted all facets of the game, leading and willing his team to win after win, and it’s easily the best part of all of this. Whatever doubt was holding him back in previous seasons is gone, replaced with a steadfast resolve and determination that has fed the entire Dallas Stars roster. All of the times he fought through injury, all of the times he sacrificed himself physically, all the pain and loss of defeat, it was all for this moment. It was all building to when this opportunity could be seized, when he’s now fighting for that extra inch shift after shift, game after game.
Twenty years of struggling to find that extra inch, that little piece of leverage or that one specific moment that defines a game, a series, or a season. Twenty years of never quite figuring it all out, despite very talented rosters and a couple of Hall of Fame coaches raising expectations to lofty heights on a number of occasions.
Now it’s this team, one that couldn’t find a way to win to start the season and then couldn’t find a way to lose in the middle. One that limped into the COVID-19 break and then fell flat once play in the bubble began, a team that barely anyone expected to even get out of the first round of the playoffs. It’s this team that has captured lightning in a bottle, it’s this one that is bucking all advanced metrics and continuing to find a way to win no matter what.
It’s this team that is fighting for that inch — and succeeding.
Would it still feel as good if the Stars had blown away the regular season and now found themselves in this same spot, cruising as the top seed in the West all the way to the Cup Final? Not a chance. There’s something special about when teams get it all figured out at just the perfect moment to stave off disaster, and it’s even better when no one expects them to do so. Sure we all seem to love powerhouse dynasties but no matter the sport it’s always special when a person or team defies all expectations and begins to inexplicably take victory from the better opponent.
It’s always special to see the team no one ever expected to win, to watch them use sheer will and determination to overcome unimaginable adversity time and time again, to not cruise through the postseason but to earn every single hard fought victory with blood and sweat and resolve.
It’s that entire twenty-year history that has clouded the skies over the Stars year after year, building and building until the weight was overwhelming. The past few months the Dallas Stars have burst through those clouds, the burden lifted and those ghosts of failures past now in the rear-view mirror. To see that monkey thrown off their backs has been the most rewarding feeling of them all.
I think of Brandon Bibb, Huw, Pat, Trevor, Wes, Robert and all the others that wrote for DBD over the years. I think of Josh, Brad, Erin and Taylor - a group that became my closest friends as we molded this website together. I think of everyone with the Stars organization that welcomed us in, that supported us when they didn’t have to. I think of everyone that has put so much time and effort into this team and this sport and how it was always leading to this moment. I think of the players who are leaving it all on the ice game after game in a more difficult situation than any other playoff team before.
I think of that inch that makes all the difference both in these games and in life, and how it’s all led us here.
We’ve all been through hell together. Now it’s time to really enjoy the ride.