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With ownership in disarray, Stars align on ice Add to ...

dshoalts@globeandmail.com

Only in the NHL does it seem the worse off a team is financially, the better it does on the ice. How else to explain the 6-3 Phoenix Coyotes and 5-2-4 Dallas Stars?

Even though the Stars are battling through the severe financial woes of owner Tom Hicks, whose foray into British soccer (Liverpool FC) and overspending on his baseball team (Texas Rangers) caused havoc with his bankers and his hockey team, sources in the banking community say much brighter days are ahead.

The official NHL position remains that once Hicks sells the Rangers, he can concentrate on the Stars. But sources in the banking community say Hicks's problems are severe enough that the Stars will be sold, too, once the Rangers sale is completed.

The sources say a line of buyers for the Stars is already queuing up in front of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. And word is one interested party is Calgary oil-and-gas tycoon Bill Gallacher, chairman of Athabasca Oil Sands Corp. and managing director of Avenir Capital Corp., a private equity firm. He also owns the WHL's Portland Winter Hawks.

Gallacher, 48, admitted yesterday he is interested in owning an NHL team, and said introduced himself to Bettman a couple of months ago. However, Gallacher added he has not discussed the Stars or any other NHL team with the commissioner.

"I have nothing on the go right now," Gallacher said. "I have had no specific discussions about any team."

Hicks Sports Group, which owns the Stars, Rangers, 50 per cent of American Airlines Arena (where the Stars play) and 50 per cent of English Premier League club Liverpool, defaulted on $525-million (all currency U.S.) in loans to 38 banks last spring. Since then, Bettman had been playing hardball with the banks, along with Hicks, demanding they ease up on the terms of the loans. But, a source said, he has since become more conciliatory with the banks.

The Stars would attract a lot of looks if they go on the market because they were among the league's leaders in attendance when the team was a Stanley Cup contender and they come with a half-interest in an arena that makes a lot of money. One source expects the Stars package price to be more than $200-million and perhaps closer to $300-million.

But in the meantime, things have changed in the way the NHL team does business on the ice.

In the old days - around the turn of the century, when the Stars were annual Cup contenders - problems were fixed with expensive free agents. Now, under rookie general manager Joe Nieuwendyk, the payroll is $10-million lighter (at $45.6-million) and it is a smaller, faster team, not to mention younger.

Today's Stars are not big grinding forwards who wear opponents down with a two-way game, with Mike Modano and Nieuwendyk taking care of the scoring, backed by fellow standouts goaltender Ed Belfour and defenceman Sergei Zubov. Now, Modano is an injured 39-year-old checking centre and centre Brad Richards is the closest thing Dallas has to a superstar. With Zubov gone to Russia, the defence is an anonymous mix of youngsters and veterans.

But things are working out all right so far, as new head coach Marc Crawford has the Stars playing more of a skating game. Veteran goaltender Marty Turco is playing less and playing better with experienced backup Alex Auld on the team.

The Stars' 5-2-4 record, which had them sixth in the Western Conference before last night's games, could be much better since it includes three shootout losses.

"I can't say enough about job our scouting staff has done over the years," Nieuwendyk said. "Our franchise is No. 3 as far as points-per-season season over past 12 years, so you know not getting high draft picks every year. They've done a good job finding these later guys in the draft who became good players, guys like James Neal and Jamie Benn."

With Richards playing centre and mentor to Neal and Loui Eriksson on the top line, and Mike Ribeiro centring Benn and Brenden Morrow, the Stars have two good scoring lines. Neal has six goals, and Richards has 13 points in nine games.

"He is really good on the bench with them," Crawford said of Richards and his young wingers. "He is a professionally responsible player who keeps [Neal]grounded. He is focused on the right things.

"When you have success as a young player, it's keeping track of the details. [Richards]knows what the details are. He really keeps [Neal and Eriksson]focused."

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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