We take you now to that faraway NHL outpost in Dallas, where the Stars could be viewed as the poster children for why the lockout was fought in the first place.
There was a time when Dallas mattered in the NHL’s big picture. The Stars were a Sunbelt success story, winners of the 1999 Stanley Cup, and runners-up in 2000. They were owned by Tom Hicks, who had deep pockets at one stage, and thus became a major player in NHL free agency when spending restrictions were still just a figment of commissioner Gary Bettman’s active imagination.
Then came Hicks’s celebrated financial troubles, which forced him to put a for-sale sign on the franchise and ushered in a more frugal era where all of general manager Joe Nieuwendyk’s spending decisions had to be cleared through a series of lenders that effectively controlled the team’s financial operations. Only after Tom Gaglardi, the Vancouver-based hospitality industry scion, bought the team did the financial picture change for the better. The Stars chased the Los Angeles Kings down to the wire last season, but missed out on a playoff spot and finished 10th.
The byproduct of all that ownership angst was four consecutive years out of the playoffs plus a dramatic shift in where the Stars fit in on the local sports pecking order. During the transition from Hicks’s ownership to Gaglardi’s, the Stars saw their once sold-out building populated with lots of empty seats. Accordingly, for Dallas, getting a new agreement in place, and getting to play some hockey in 2012-13, was critical from an operations standpoint.
Dallas has been successful at the box office when it has had success on the ice, but fell into the Land of Who Cares when they fell on harder times. It is why, last summer, the Stars signed a couple of short-term 40-somethings – Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney – they hope can be difference makers.
Jagr in particular is there, partly because he contributed a wholly respectable 54 points to the Flyers last year and partly because he is a legendary figure in the game.
“Whether they know what Jagr’s history is or not, they view him as some sort of rock star that plays hockey,” Nieuwendyk said. “So down here in Texas, they’re pretty excited by that and the other changes we made this summer.
“Couple that with the fact that the Cowboys didn’t make the playoffs and the Mavericks are having an off year, hopefully we can steal a little thunder here.”
Beyond a winning team, a rock star is what the Stars desperately need right now. They had that in the past – Brett Hull, Mike Modano and Ed Belfour were all marquee attractions during the championship days. The new look Stars were different. The fact that their two best forwards, Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson, were both selected to the NHL’s all-underrated team last year in a Sports Illustrated poll is both a good and a bad thing. Underrated players are generally a prized commodity, except when it comes to marketing, where a little flash and dash never hurt.
Benn is unsigned, and with apologies to the Montreal Canadiens’ P.K. Subban and the New York Rangers’ Michael Del Zotto, is probably the most important restricted free agent who needs to come to contract terms before the puck is dropped on the new season.
According to Nieuwendyk, once the NHL’s new labour pact is ratified by owners and players, getting Benn’s name on a contract will be a priority.
The Stars didn’t get their realignment wish, so they will have one of the most challenging travel schedules in 2012-13, playing all their away games two time zones over, same as usual. Plus, there’s the travel to Western Canada.
“Those teams in the Eastern Conference, they don’t have to leave their time zones the entire year,” Nieuwendyk said. “Isn’t that something?”
Yes it is. And here’s something else: Nieuwendyk was with the Calgary Flames in 1994-95, the last time the NHL played a 48-game season, and finished 15th in the overall scoring race that year, with 50 points in 46 games. The leader was Jagr, with 70 points in 48 games.
“Your memory about that year is better than mine,” Nieuwendyk said with a laugh, “but maybe that explains why he asked for a $50,000 bonus this summer, in case he led the league in scoring.
“I do know that every game [in 1994-95] was really meaningful and I think that’ll be the same thing this time around. I’ve got to suspect that players are keeping themselves in pretty good shape – we’ll find out in a few days – but there’s a lot of players playing in Europe and a lot of young players playing in the American Hockey League. So I think the games will be fast and furious. Usually it’s a marathon in the regular season, but now it’s a sprint, so there’ll be some exciting hockey.”
Dallas, it goes without saying, needs some exciting, winning hockey to lure the fans back. And if Jagr ends up cashing that bonus, it is a financial obligation the Stars would happily meet.