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Dallas Stars new owner Tom Gaglardi waves to the crowd before the start of their NHL hockey game against the Edmonton Oilers in Dallas, Texas November 21, 2011. (MIKE STONE/REUTERS)
Dallas Stars new owner Tom Gaglardi waves to the crowd before the start of their NHL hockey game against the Edmonton Oilers in Dallas, Texas November 21, 2011. (MIKE STONE/REUTERS)

DAVID EBNER

Dallas Stars on the rise Add to ...

In the sprawled suburbs north of Dallas, several dozen women and men in their 20s work the phones, selling hockey tickets in Texas. The headquarters of the Dallas Stars buzzes, voices making pitches, trying to fill seats that in recent years often went empty.

This used to be easier work. The Stars, a dozen years ago, were a big-time team in the city, winning a Stanley Cup and selling out 238 consecutive games. It’s not easy work any more – but there is renewed vigour.

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The Stars are reaching for a renaissance – under Canadian guidance. The worst stretch of the NHL club’s history came two years ago, in the final months of bankruptcy, when attendance guttered at 6,306, the American Airlines Center two-thirds empty. Through the fiscal ordeal, the team bled, and booked losses of more than $100-million (U.S.).

The man who saw value in the financial wreckage is Tom Gaglardi.

Based in Vancouver, the billionaire Gaglardi family has deep roots in British Columbia, where Tom’s grandfather was a provincial government minister and his father started the family’s Northland Properties Corp., hotels (Sandman) and restaurants (Moxie’s, Denny’s) business.

Tom Gaglardi has led the expansion of the company and, a decade ago, tried but failed to buy the Vancouver Canucks. When the Stars deal emerged, it was a fit. Gaglardi’s mother grew up in small city east of Dallas.

The overhaul is under way, even as results arrive in staccato fashion. The NHL team last winter let a shot at the playoffs slip away, missing the postseason for the fifth consecutive year. The pace of remaking and reviving then intensified.

In the off-season – putting in pillars Gaglardi believes can form a Detroit Red Wings-like foundation – the team hired Jim Nill as general manager. Nill hired former Buffalo Sabres stalwart Lindy Ruff as head coach, and traded for young star Tyler Seguin. The Stars also enjoy a shift to the time-zone appropriate Central Division from their last ill-fitting home in the Pacific.

“I like where we sit,” Gaglardi said this week. “The business of the Dallas Stars dug quite a hole. We’re well on our way to getting it fixed.”

Fans have responded. Attendance jumped 20 per cent last year from the terrible 2011-12 season. The team has the equivalent of 7,000 season-ticket holders, up from 6,000 in early 2013. There were fewer than 5,000 season-ticket holders when Gaglardi arrived.

The Stars’ first two home games did not sell out but merchandise sales each night, buoyed by new jerseys, were $100,000-plus. Much of the rest of October will be on the road, starting Friday in Winnipeg.

The skeleton and innards of the franchise are rehabilitated. Results on the ice are what propels the enterprise now.

“Dallas loves winners,” said Mark Masinter, a major commercial real estate broker who is among a group of locals advising Gaglardi. “Losing does not sit well in Dallas.”

Bellwether for NHL

On a wall in the team’s practice facility is written: “Details build empires.” This is precisely the thinking of a key non-hockey guy in the office, Jason Farris, the team’s chief operating officer.

Obsessed by hockey as a hobby, Farris had previously worked as an executive in banking and technology, until Gaglardi, a long-time friend from high school, called.

Farris has helped pilot the post-bankruptcy Stars. He negotiated a new debt deal, buying out three dozen old lenders and bringing in Bank of America to lead a new group of four banks. Other changes include new systems to make sure the club is making all the money it can, right down to where to most profitably position the children’s merchandise kiosks at the arena.

A richer television deal is near-ready, and would kick in next season. The Stars make some $12-million a year from their current Fox Sports contract, a figure that is set eclipse $20-million, similar to an increase the network handed the Los Angeles Kings.

The success of such efforts will be a bellwether for the business of the NHL in the southern United States. After bailing out of Atlanta, and finally finding new owners for clubs in Florida and Phoenix, the league needs success in a city such as Dallas, one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country and, early last decade, one of the NHL’s best markets.

The economy in Dallas is there. The city did not suffer a housing crash – prices fell less than 10 per cent – and employment has climbed, as people and businesses, lured by low taxes, flock here.

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