Amid High Expectations & Great Anticipation, Dallas Stars Hockey Returns

The Dallas Stars have been building towards this season for quite some time, and against Chicago on Thursday night the journey to live up to the hype and anticipation begins.

The ebb and flow of a sports organization across the years is interesting to track, especially when the advantage of hindsight allows us to look back and see the path the team would ultimately follow. There is a time in every lifespan of a team, no matter how good it might be, where all the players and management and fans have to go on is hope: hope that the rough times are worth the heartache, hope that the lean years lead to prosperity and hope that the future is, indeed, as bright as it seems.

When all you have is hope and belief and faith, however, it becomes hard to see the big picture developing as you wait impatiently for that better reality to arrive. For some teams and fans, that better future never quite seems to get closer no matter how quickly the years might seem go by; this makes the wait even more anxious as it seems all that stress will never quite seem worthwhile.

For the Dallas Stars, this season has been a long time coming -- a year in which expectations for the team are at the highest they've been since perhaps the early 2000's and a time in which the buzz around a hockey team is finally starting to build again in Dallas, after years of mediocrity and fan apathy had pushed this franchise aside in the minds of sports fans in North Texas.

Four years ago the mantra around these parts was "there's still time." Time to find a way to win a game, or to make the postseason, or to make the moves necessary to finally build the team back into a consistent winner again. This was a moment in Stars history when the future was wholly unknown and the team was just getting by year to year on sheer will alone -- no identity and no apparent plan on what sort of NHL team was attempting to be built, or if it even could.

It was an interesting confluence of events that will forever shape the future of this franchise. Aging superstar players, bad contracts, a barren developmental system and poor philosophies in player acquisition collided with the demise of the owner's business empire and suddenly the Stars didn't have the ability to fix the team even if they knew exactly how to do so.

The necessitated focus on drafting and building from within began the journey to the future in which we now reside, when Joe Nieuwendyk slowly began the process of changing the core of the team while rebuilding a prospect system that is suddenly one of the deepest in the NHL. The bankruptcy the franchise was forced to go through led to the ownership of Tom Gaglardi, whose enthusiasm for the sport and for this team have pushed the Stars toward this moment.

This led to the hiring of Jim Nill, a general manager who didn't want to leave Detroit except for the perfect situation -- and Dallas apparently was that perfect fit. He was aggressive and took full advantage of the depth Nieuwendyk had built, and in the course of two summers had completely rebuilt the forward position for the Stars without sacrificing the overall integrity of the prospect system.

The Stars acquired two number-one centers through trade over the course of one calendar year, when their AHL affiliate won the Calder Cup with a team comprised of a high number of Stars draft picks and at a time when the Stars also made their first postseason appearance in six years.

The future is bright, indeed.

When looking back at the feeling around the Stars three or four years ago, I doubt that many expected to be at this point so soon -- a time when the Stars are now being discussed as one of the better teams in the NHL, one of the deepest in all of hockey, with the best left wing in hockey and center many expect to compete for the Art Ross.

Suddenly the expectations have shifted from "let's hope the Stars make the postseason" to "if the Stars don't make the postseason, it will be a disappointment."

Those heightened expectations come amid a palpable buzz growing around the Stars in Dallas once more. The team, with the new logo and new colors and new jerseys and a focused marketing effort, is incredibly visible around the Metroplex and the casual sports fan -- the one most important in this city -- is taking notice of this hockey team in Texas once more, and on Thursday night we'll get to see once more just how passionate Stars fans can truly become.

The postseason may not have ended on the finest of notes, but the three playoff games in Dallas were a reminder of just how great things once were and how incredible they can soon become. The Stars enjoyed a true home-ice advantage in the postseason and the buzz in Dallas was the talk of the NHL during that first round, and that buzz carried over through the summer and into the preseason. During preseason home games, there were more fans at the American Airlines Center than there were for regular season games just two years ago. It was remarkable.

On Thursday night, the Stars welcome the Chicago Blackhawks. It's a fitting opponent to start the season, a big and talented team to provide a great test for Dallas while also helping recreate the incredible atmosphere enjoyed in Dallas just 165 days ago -- Stars fans will be out in full force to see their team truly for the first time this season, and to show that the AAC won't be taken over by a sea of red any longer.

As in any season, tonight's game is just one small first step in a very long journey, but this year is different. For the Stars, this begins a season of validation and growth and maturity -- building off the success of last year while still looking forward and remaining focused on the goals set forth for this team.

There are no guarantees of success and no matter how improved the Stars might be, the rest of the division is still the toughest in all of hockey. Yet for the first time in years, expectations are high and the anticipation is even higher, and -- finally -- that time we've been discussing and writing about and looking forward to has arrived.

The future is now.

Go Stars.