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A game grows in Texas

by Evan Grossman / NHL.com

 

NHL.com's 2007-08 Stars Season Preview Package:
Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster

If you build it, they really will come.

That’s exactly what the Dallas Stars realized when they started building ice rinks in a part of the country that knew about as much about the sport as they know about skiing in the Sahara.

Hockey was a foreign language in Texas when the Stars moved there in 1993, but has since become part of the local sports culture thanks to a massive undertaking that’s strengthened a fan base and energized an entire generation of Stars fanatics.

Jim Lites, the president of the Dallas Stars, has had a major impact on the growth of youth hockey programs throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
The youth hockey program in Dallas is considered the model that many so-called “non-traditional” markets would love to duplicate. Turns out, all you need is a little foresight, vision and plenty of dough to erect ice rinks.

A Stanley Cup championship doesn’t hurt either.

Jim Lites, the president of the Stars, has helped to pioneer the program, which turned a hockey wasteland with just two sheets in 1993 into a virtual Mecca of ice palaces scattered throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Through the efforts of Lites and the Stars, there are now 28 sheets in the area, 16 of which the team owns and controls.

And the growth of the game isn’t limited to just those refrigerated buildings popping up in Big D. When the Stars came to town in 1993, there were fewer than 150 registered hockey players who were active in local leagues and games. That number has since ballooned to over 7,500 participants, according to the Stars.

Back then, there were no high school programs in Dallas. None. Zippo. But now there are at least 70 schools that ice hockey teams every winter. When the Stars arrived almost 15 years ago, there were only a few travel teams. Now there are over 100.

“We got into the business, really, out of necessity, to put it as honestly as possible,” Lites told NHL.com. “When I arrived here, I had spent 10 years as chief operating officer of the Detroit Red Wings, so I was coming from a place that had plenty of hockey, and from a business perspective, it wasn’t on our agenda at all. We didn’t have to support youth hockey in Detroit. It was self-sustaining. It was just something you took for granted in a market like that.

“When we arrived in Dallas, it was pretty much a fire drill.”

Fire drill might not be the correct term, because in order to have one, you need lots of people and mass chaos. The Stars didn’t have very many people playing hockey in Dallas, and there were even fewer people who knew anything about the sport at all. But the state has always been a football hotbed, and the Stars first began marketing their frozen game as a form of football on ice, drawing similarities between the shoulder-pad and full-contact games to attract interest.

“When we first came down there, there was an educational process,” Mike Modano said. “People needed to be taught the game. So that took a while. But then people got attracted to the spot because it was something new and different. Everyone compared it to football on skates.”

It worked. For a little while, at least.

“What happened in Dallas, and what happens in a lot of other markets, I think, is your appeal in the beginning – people come to the games and they can’t believe how athletic and tremendous and accessible the athletes are,” Lites said. “Even if you’ve never played hockey, when you see ice hockey played at a very high level I think you’re drawn to its speed and fierceness and its physicality. So it plays right into Dallas’ football mentality".

“That’s where we started,” he said. “But if you want to sustain it over a period of time, you need people appreciating the sport by playing it, or having their children play it. We think it gives you a long-term hockey culture in your market. Detroit can call itself, for very good reason, ‘Hockeytown,’ because there are literally thousands of kids playing. I think at one time, they had over 100 rinks in suburban Detroit.”

"Even if you've never played hockey, when you see hockey played on a very high level I think you're drawn into its speed and fierceness and its physicality."
-- Jim Lites
Winning the Stanley Cup in 1999 rocketed the local interest into the stratosphere. Other initiatives that allow kids to play for free or rent equipment when they first start have been a big help because of the expenses associated with playing ice hockey. Former coach Ken Hitchcock took time out to educate coaches so they were teaching children to play the right way, and the program has continued to grow and grow beyond anyone’s imagination.

“It really took off in ’99,” Lites said. “We were now ‘real.’”

While Dallas has a way to go before matching the interest level in Hockeytown, the Stars have made tremendous strides in terms of growing the game in a non-traditional market. Since they’ve initiated their program to such great success, Dallas has become a model in terms of the grassroots level. Recently, other franchises have taken some of the ideas Lites and his team installed.

In the end, what you get from having a strong ice hockey program on the youth level is a stronger base of passionate fans.

“There’s no fan like a kid who’s played it his whole life,” Lites said. “Now we have a whole generation of fans who are decision makers, raising families, being part of the Dallas economy, that have played through our systems. And it’s great to see.”

Perhaps the most significant tell of how far the youth leagues in Big D have come over the last 15 years is that the Stars selected a local product, Dallas native Austin Smith, who grew up in the Stars/Dr.Pepper system, in the fifth round of this summer’s draft.

“It’s real gratifying,” Lites said of that pick. “It’s great. We’re thrilled with it."

They should also be thrilled about how far hockey has come in Dallas.

NHL.com's 2007-08 Stars Season Preview Package:
Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster

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