I was three years old when the Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999.
Naturally, I don’t remember anything about the win, nor of the 2000 run that followed. Despite growing up going to Stars games at the American Airlines Center with my dad for as long as I remember, I was simply too young to experience the peak of Dallas hockey.
My first concrete memories of watching the NHL playoffs were in 2004 — Dallas got bounced in the first round by the Colorado Avalanche in just five games, so I found a different team to bandwagon. Perhaps ironically in hindsight, I picked the Tampa Bay Lightning because I thought their name and logo were cool, plus Nikolai Khabibulin was an awesome name.
I always loved hockey — I did an end of year project on it in third grade — but when I really got into the game was the 2007-08 season. That’s when I truly began to understand the game and all of the strategy that goes into it. It was no longer just something I enjoyed because I liked spending time with my dad — it was something I enjoyed for myself.
As someone who had never skated in his life (still working on that, actually), maybe it’s weird that I latched onto hockey so tightly. But there is just something mesmerizing about the game that can’t quite be put into words. Something that sucks you in and refuses to let you go.
I remember when the Stars traded for Brad Richards that season — the same Conn Smythe trophy winner from that Lightning team I bandwagoned. I saw his first Stars game in person and fell in love all over again after watching him earn five assists. I remember the playoff run that followed, including waking up to my brother screaming after hearing the “Cinco de Morrow” goal on the radio, long after I had succumbed to sleep.
I remember the gut-wrenching pain that followed as the Stars lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals. But I was still happy — it was the deepest Stars playoff run I had ever seen. As someone who was slowly becoming obsessed with Stars hockey, it cemented that passion, that love. I remember feeling excited to see what would come next, to learn else this team would be capable of.
And then there was nothing.
Five long years of nothing.
It’s kind of funny in hindsight, in a cruel, twisted way — as soon as I truly got hooked on Dallas hockey, their success just vanished. Making the playoffs was no longer an expectation for the Stars, but rather a prize in of itself. Dallas missed the playoffs for five straight seasons, and then bounced in and out for the next five. All together, they had two playoff appearances and just one series win over the course of ten years.
In year eleven, they won another series and almost managed a third before losing to the St. Louis Blues in Game 7. Again. Those memories of the 2008 run were now but a distant memory. All I wanted was to get to experience it again. Sure, I would love to see the Stars hoist the Stanley Cup, but I would be happy with just another deep run. Simply seeing Dallas make the third round would be incredible in of itself.
And then came year twelve. In easily the craziest season in franchise history, the Stars finally made the Conference Finals again. They shook off their playoff ghosts and finally won a Game 7 in the second round, in overtime to boot. I was visiting my parents and able to watch the game with my dad — it didn’t erase the pain of not being able to attend games in person, but it was joyous nonetheless.
Honestly, I probably would have been happy with just that — a Conference Finals appearance. But then the Stars did something incredible and knocked out the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5. For the first time in my life, I’d get to watch the Stars in the Stanley Cup Finals. I got to see them take a series lead in the Finals, as well as score an overtime game-winner in the Finals. Those feelings of elation exceeded my wildest dreams.
And yet, the result still fell short of said dreams. Specifically, two wins short. As amazing of a run this was, it was absolutely heartbreaking to see it end without winning the Cup. It was the same feeling as watching the 2008 squad lose to Detroit, only ten-fold. The last ten minutes felt like it took hours, and as time expired, I felt empty inside. I still do.
It’s okay to feel that way. You can be happy to have seen Dallas make it this far and still feel all torn up inside. You can get angry at how the Stars couldn’t manage double digit shots across 40 minutes of play in Game 6, or that they let Game 4 slip through their fingers to set up this situation to begin with. It’s fine to rack your brain at night thinking about all of the injuries Dallas suffered, wondering if things would be different if Tyler Seguin wasn’t playing hurt all postseason, or if Radek Faksa and Roope Hintz hadn’t been sidelined late in the playoffs.
You shouldn’t feel ashamed if you’re worried for the future, specifically whether or not Dallas can even make it this far again. Playoff games are hard to win, after all — it’s why there’s so much turnover between the final four teams every year. It’s quite possible that this was the chance of the Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin era, and that they blew it.
Of course, perhaps the inverse is true. Maybe this playoff run was a sign that the Stars can make it this far, and that they do have what it takes to win it all. After all, we just saw Benn go full “Beast Mode” for an entire postseason, as well as Joe Pavelski proving why he was worth $7 million a year. We watched John Klingberg show everyone why he is a top tier defenseman, and saw first hand the major benefit of having two starting-calibre goaltenders thanks to heroic efforts by Anton Khudobin.
Perhaps more importantly, this playoff run offered a wealth of experience for the Stars’ young core. Miro Heiskanen could easily be a Norris finalist next season after putting his excellence on display for the whole hockey world to see. Despite his minimal time on ice, Denis Gurianov was second on the team in goals scored and sixth in total points. Jamie Oleksiak finally looks like a top four defenseman, and Joel Kiviranta has etched himself into Stanley Cup lore.
Then there’s the black aces — Thomas Harley, Jason Robertson, and Ty Dellandrea ultimately didn’t experience non-round-robin hockey, but there’s value in practicing with the team and going through this playoff experience. The one with the most to take away from it all is Jake Oettinger, who spent most of the playoffs backing up Khudobin and even got his first taste of NHL action (in the playoffs, no less).
The future is bright in Dallas, and that in itself should make you happy. Perhaps, if the Stars are willing, they can use that youth to help fill out their roster and extend this core’s window. Maybe we will get to see Jamie Benn hoist the Stanley Cup over his head after all.
And if that doesn’t happen? Well, that doesn’t diminish this playoff run. Contrary to how many think, I don’t view anything short of a Stanley Cup win to be a “failure.” This was a successful season for Dallas, full stop. It ended with disappointment, yes, but that doesn’t mean it was all for naught.
What’s important is that the Stars build off this experience. The team can’t afford to slide down the standings and bounce back and forth between making the playoffs or not again — they need to use this playoff run as a stepping stone and make playoff success the new norm, not the exception.
Just as it was for me in 2008 and countless others in 1999 and 2000, there is a potential new generation of Stars fans that got hooked on Dallas hockey thanks to this playoff run. Now’s the time to reel them in for good.