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Gainey built first Stars team with NFL in mind

Friday, 10.23.2009 / 5:00 PM / Off the Wall

By Evan Weiner - NHL.com Correspondent

"We had a few comparisons (to football) and what we tried to utilize in any comparisons towards our sport and football was the physical contact. The Texans seem to be a very liberal and opened-minded people and they enjoyed the physical contract of ice hockey and they also seemed to warm up to the fact of the fighting in the sport and it was a selling point for us where it had been a detraction in Minnesota."
-- Bob Gainey, on what attracted Texans to hockey

Mike Modano probably is the most popular player in Dallas Stars history. But that wasn't always the case.

In the very early days of the franchise, Modano and every other player played second fiddle to Shane Churla. It eventually would change, but not when the NHL opened shop in Big D.
 
In the summer of 1993, after the Minnesota North Stars relocated to Dallas, General Manager Bob Gainey had no idea what to expect in a "non-traditional" hockey area like the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Dallas and Fort Worth had some experience with hockey with minor-league development clubs for various NHL teams throughout the years, but the NHL was a totally different venture.

Gainey's team also would have to compete for attention in its new home with the Dallas Cowboys, the defending Super Bowl champions, along with college and high school football, MLB's Texas Rangers and the NBA's Dallas Mavericks.
 
It was a daunting task that got Gainey to start thinking over the summer about the composition of his team. He had been the captain of the Montreal Canadiens and lifted the Stanley Cup, so he knew a little something about performing under pressure. He also coached and managed in one of the biggest hockey states while in Bloomington, Minn. But what could he do in Dallas that would turn the market into a hockey area? Should he have a skating team or a tough team?
 
Gainey immediately turned to the Dallas Cowboys and football for his blueprint to get Dallas on the hockey map.
 
"Going into Dallas, there hadn't been ice hockey there for quite a while," Gainey said. "But there were some people, northern transplants and some local people, who had followed hockey before and they were really looking to get involved early and show how knowledgeable they were.

"We had a few comparisons (to football) and what we tried to utilize in any comparisons towards our sport and football was the physical contact. The Texans seem to be a very liberal and opened-minded people and they enjoyed the physical contract of ice hockey and they also seemed to warm up to the fact of the fighting in the sport and it was a selling point for us where it had been a detraction in Minnesota."
 
Gainey opted in the offseason of 1993 to have a tougher hockey team, with Churla becoming a fan favorite right away in the preseason as he got into a fight. Gainey had some very skilled players like Modano and Russ Courtnall, along with guys who piled up the penalty minutes like Churla, Derian Hatcher, Mark Tinordi and Mike Craig. Dallas finished with 97 points that season but the team was knocked out by Vancouver in the second round of the playoffs.

"I had a phone conversation with one of the phone-in radio shows," Gainey said, "and the gentleman asked me, 'Was I surprised at the intelligence of the local hockey fans and how much they knew?' and I said no, really I wasn't, and his second question was, 'Can you explain to me what icing is?'
 
"They still had a little ways to go at that point. They were enthusiastic and they weren't real strong hockey fans initially, but they are great sports fans."
 
Nobody asked Gainey for tickets on the 50-yard line, which was a different experience than Tampa Bay coach Terry Crisp had the season before when the Lightning got started and his daughter's friend asked for tickets on the 40-yard line. No Dallas Stars fan was tossed out after throwing a hat onto the ice after a Stars player scored a hat trick, but introducing a sport in a new environment had to be done.
 
"Well, we didn't run into anything quite like that," Gainey said. "We did have a few small things that happened and needed to make announcements over the (public address) system. The people worked out things quickly and the major things that they did not know, they picked out the things they did like, like the speed of the game.

"I read it described in the paper that you could have a great scoring opportunity at one end and within five seconds have the same thing happen at the oppose end. I think that kind of play they hadn't seen in their other sports and it caught their attention and grew over the course of the year."
 
Churla was one of the most popular figures in Dallas.
 
"I wasn't there to score goals," Churla said with a laugh. "They liked the football mentality city, they liked the hard hitters, the fights; in a way it was part of selling the game. You know when the team got competitive and we had some pretty good years there, so that always helps, winning always helps. They embraced us pretty quick, there was a lot of transplants there, so I think there were enough knowledgeable people and it seemed to grow every year."

If you went around Texas, particularly the Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth area in 1989 or 1990 and said within two decades that Texas would have the most professional hockey teams of any state in America, people probably would have looked at you a bit strangely. But it's true -- Texas has the most professional hockey franchises in America with the Stars, three American Hockey League teams (the Texas Stars in Cedar Park, the Houston Aeros and the San Antonio Rampage). In the Central Hockey League, there are teams in Allen, Amarillo, Austin, Corpus Christi, Laredo, North Richland Hills, Odessa and Rio Grande Valley. Additionally there are junior teams in Frisco and Wichita Falls and many youth hockey programs.
 
Dallas and the Dallas-Forth Worth metroplex have had a long hockey history. Both cities joined the American Hockey Association in 1941. The teams lasted just a year as the league suspended operations because of World War II. Dallas and Fort Worth joined the United States Hockey League in 1945 after the end of the war. The two metroplex teams, along with a team from Houston, dropped out of the USHL in 1949.

The Chicago Blackhawks put a farm team in Dallas in 1967 in the Central Hockey League and kept the franchise going until 1982. Dallas ended up with a newly formed Central Hockey League team in 1992-93 and that team played in 1993-94 before folding. Fort Worth also had a Central Hockey League team between 1967 and 1982, serving as a farm club for the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Islanders. In 1997, a Fort Worth team joined the Western Professional Hockey League and that team remains in existence as the Texas Brahmas of the Central Hockey League.
 
The NHL's nervous first endeavor in Texas ended with near capacity crowds. Gainey guessed right that Dallas hockey fans would like a tough team, and from that beginning, Dallas has become a real hockey town, even though there are just three sports seasons in Dallas -- Cowboys preseason, Cowboys season and Cowboys offseason.

Yet hockey has found a major following in Big D.


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