“The market’s phenomenal,” Farris said. “The market didn’t go away. The Stars kind of went away. Just weren’t relevant. That was our doing, not the market. The community is there, and waiting, and ever bigger.”
Gaglardi, before the changes last summer, initially reached into the past. He hired several people who made the team what it was in its best days. The first gambit was to reinstall Jim Lites as club president and other hires included Mike Modano, the long-time Stars captain/local hero, as a face of the franchise.
Gaglardi extended welcome to big business names in Dallas, creating an ownership-advisory group of some of the city’s prominent business people to help spread the word, such as Masinter, as well as the chief executive officer of 7-Eleven Inc., Joe DePinto. That connection has helped the Stars sell some discount tickets to families to repopulate the stands and stoke long-term interest.
Money flows, too. The front office, emaciated through bankruptcy, has been restaffed, and on the ice the Stars are spending close to the salary cap.
The first time Lites arrived in Dallas to run the Stars he came from the Red Wings after the North Stars moved south from Minnesota in 1993. He departed in 2007, before the team began to flounder. The bankruptcy was part of a bigger bust for previous owner Tom Hicks, a leveraged-buyout investor who also owned baseball’s Texas Rangers and carried too much debt into the global financial crisis.
In Lites’s office, adjacent to the several dozen salespeople marketing hockey tickets, and overlooking the Stars’ practice rink, there are framed pictures from the team’s first game in Dallas. Back then, Lites saw a buoyant, affluent market but he didn’t know whether the sport would sell in a city and a state that knew football and nothing of ice. When Lites returned, convinced to take the helm again by Gaglardi, he wasn’t sure at first it would work, with the sparse crowds, terrible TV ratings, indifferent advertisers.
“I was really nervous when I came back,” Lites said . “But if you ask me now, what do I think? I think we’re going to be good. I really do.”
The Stars missed the postseason in each of the first two years under Gaglardi and Lites – so Lites has brought more change, and more Detroit. The hiring of Nill – who replaced Joe Nieuwendyk as GM – adds a deep Detroit vein, as Nill, 55, was assistant GM of the Wings for 15 years. Nill then brought in Joe McDonnell, the long-time chief of amateur scouting in Detroit, a position he now holds in Dallas.
As Gaglardi hired Lites, Lites has marketed Gaglardi. Lites pushed the reluctant owner into the spotlight in a city where sports owners are typically iconoclasts, like Jerry Jones and his Dallas Cowboys, or Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks.
“If you’re owned by banks and creditors, nobody gives a crap,” Lites said. “People invest their money and their time and their emotion in teams they believe in.”
Suite 1104 at the American Airlines Center is the domain of the ownership-advisory group. At a game last winter, Lites was there, intently watching his team on the ice. Don Carty, former chairman of American Airlines Inc., was also dropped by. Brett Hull, a star of the Stanley Cup-winning Stars, was visiting.
The real-estate broker Masinter came to the arena from the airport after returning from a business trip. Among the clients of Masinter’s Open Realty Advisors is Apple Inc., for which Masinter helped the tech company open its retail stores. Gaglardi has attracted blue-chip people.
Making money comes down to winning. Five years ago, when the Rangers weren’t winning, their ballpark was half-empty. Now the team has the fifth-highest attendance in baseball. Cuban produced an NBA winner in the Mavericks and the basketball team has been a top draw for a decade.
“Tom is a can-do guy,” Masinter said of Gaglardi. “You have to be somewhat fearless to come in and make a significant investment in the NHL.”
In the throes of bankruptcy, Gaglardi paid $267-million for the Stars and half of the American Airlines Center. A bargain, perhaps, but the losses were enormous.
“A guy said, ‘You got a deal,’” Gaglardi said. “I was like, ‘No, I just paid too much, that’s why I got it.’ But did I pay too much? Ask me in five or 10 years.
“Frankly, if we get this thing fixed, you’re going to look back and say, ‘Wow, you bought that franchise and half of that building for that, that’s a hell of a deal.’”