Only two hours before Tom Gaglardi was to be officially introduced as the new owner of the Dallas Stars this week, he walked into the team’s dressing room and spoke for the first time to the players themselves.
His message was simple, but it was one the Stars had waited more than two years to hear.
“The uncertainty’s over,” Gaglardi told them. “I’m here and you’ll get my full support.”
Then he asked for their help.
Later that night, with their new Canadian benefactor looking on, Dallas won for the first time in nearly two weeks, beating the visiting Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Two days later, the Stars put together an impressive comeback against the Los Angeles Kings, taking out one of the better teams in their conference in overtime to remain among the playoff teams in the West.
It might have been only two wins, but for a Stars team that has missed the playoffs three seasons in a row, they were part of a surprising 13-8 start for a franchise with the NHL’s fourth lowest payroll and second worst attendance.
And Gaglardi’s arrival, after two years of bankruptcy court proceedings, has played a role in that on-ice success.
“He just brings stability,” said Stars defenceman Stephane Robidas, who has been through the franchise’s highs and lows going back to 2002. “Not having an owner, there’s always this uncertainty. We knew the team wasn’t going to move, we weren’t in a situation like Phoenix is and like Atlanta and all those teams. We know it’s a good market. But just to have a passionate owner, it’s a great thing.”
Passion won’t be a problem for Gaglardi, a self-described hockey nut with pockets almost as deep as they come in the NHL.
The 43-year-old president of Northland Properties, Gaglardi runs a hotel and restaurant empire that has made the Vancouver-based family – headed by Tom’s father, Bob – the 39th richest in Canada and fifth richest in B.C.
Reclamation projects are nothing new for the Gaglardis, either, as they’ve been through a near-bankruptcy in the 1980s before amassing a net worth of $1.6-billion with a series of smart business decisions.
The family’s main assets consist of 145 restaurants (mainly Moxie’s and Denny’s), 45 hotels (Sandman chain) and the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers, a team Gaglardi bought for $7-million in 2007 with NHL players and alums Mark Recchi, Shane Doan, Jarome Iginla and Darryl Sydor.
In Dallas, Gaglardi has already helped to bring some good vibrations to a market that for years was considered the NHL’s shining success story in the U.S. sunbelt.
Step 1 was to rehire Jim Lites as team president, bringing back the man who helped lead the business side of the franchise’s growth in the early years after arriving from Minnesota.
Step 2 was reassuring players and fans that Gaglardi would spend enough to win, putting success on the ice and at the gate above the type of bean counting that has hurt the franchise the past few years under troubled former owner Tom Hicks.
“This isn’t a franchise that’s never been up,” Gaglardi said in an interview with The Globe and Mail this week. “It’s been up for most of its existence, and it lost its way in the last three years.”
Gaglardi’s connection to NHL players via the Blazers, meanwhile, has proved important in the early days in Dallas. When his name first began to surface in ownership talks, Stars players Vernon Fiddler and Michael Ryder spoke with former teammates Doan and Recchi and came back with optimistic scouting reports on just who this Gaglardi fellow was.
“All we’ve heard is positive things,” Robidas said.
Robidas added that what he finds the most encouraging is Gaglardi’s passion for hockey, something Hicks lacked and that may have had a role in the franchise essentially being abandoned the last two years.
There are also similarities between the situation with the Blazers and the Stars, as the junior team that was a dynasty throughout the 1980s and early ’90s before fading away has slowly been rebuilt the past few years.
His partners credit Gaglardi for Kamloops’ rise in the standings.
“I think he’s going to be incredible for the NHL,” Doan said. “The four of us, we’ve all learned so much from him and just enjoyed being around him. He loves the sport so much … and he’s someone who makes everyone around him feel comfortable and want to be better.”
“The league’s lucky to have him,” added Recchi, who many believe is in line for a hockey ops role with the Stars.
Doan added that Gaglardi has been talking about his dream of owning an NHL team for a long time, something he first pursued in a failed bid for the Vancouver Canucks that turned into a high-profile court battle.
By 2009, Gaglardi had turned his attention to Dallas, where he has family connections – he refers to himself as “half-Texan” given his mother grew up in nearby Longview – and sees an opportunity to bring the fans back by giving them something to cheer for.
He knows the numbers – including all the sellouts not long ago – and has seen the long row of banners in the rafters at the American Airlines Center that ends suddenly in 2005-06.
“It’s tough for a fan to get excited about a team owned by 40 banks and going through bankruptcy,” Gaglardi said. “To commit [their]time and money… Now we have certainty, and we’re stable. We’ve stated ‘We’re here to build a winner.’
“This market is too good for me not to get involved.”
Big number: 10,648
Average number of fans per game for the Dallas Stars this season, second last in the NHL and ahead of only the Phoenix Coyotes. Dallas had announced crowds of 17,215 fans a game as recently as two years ago.