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NHL Winter Classic

Winter Classic puts spotlight on hockey's growth in Dallas

Number of players, rinks in area on rise as Stars prepare to face Predators at Cotton Bowl

by Tracey Myers @Tramyers_NHL / Staff Writer

DALLAS -- Blake Coleman and his family remember the rides to hockey practice.

The New Jersey Devils forward, who grew up about 20 miles north of Dallas in Plano, Texas, fell in love with hockey when he was 2 and his grandmother started taking him see the Stars, who moved to Texas from Minnesota in 1993. Playing the sport was a bit more challenging; the closest rink was in Irving -- a 45-minute drive without traffic, a 90-minute drive with it.

"At that time, it was in the afternoon for lessons," Coleman's mom, Sandra, said. "But once he started doing stick and puck, they were at 6 a.m. during the week. He'd wake me up before school. That was our deal: you wake me up, I'll take you. Then I had to cut it back, because I said, 'OK, you can't wake me up every day. Maybe three days a week.'"

Dallas has a much bigger hockey presence today, with more than 4,000 youth players and more than 10 rinks in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area. The rink with the most attention this week will be inside Cotton Bowl Stadium, where the Stars will play the Nashville Predators in the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1 (2 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVAS).

According to the Stars, there were nearly 4,500 youth hockey players in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area called the Metroplex. That's more than double the 2,150 players in 2012-13. Participants at the 8-and-under and 10-and-under levels during that span have gone from 861 players to more than 1,600. Growth has continued at the high school level as well. The AT&T Metroplex High School Hockey League began in 1997 with four teams in one division. There are now 53 teams competing in seven varsity and junior varsity divisions.

Ice options include eight Dallas StarCenters: the Comerica Center in Frisco, and Children's Health StarCenters in Valley Ranch, Richardson, Plano, McKinney, Farmers Branch, Euless and Mansfield. The Mansfield facility opened in August 2018. There are also rinks that aren't under Stars ownership in Arlington, Allen and North Richland Hills.

"It speaks to what the Stars did for the community and how many people got involved and loved the game," said Coleman, who was selected by the Devils in the third round (No. 75) of the 2011 NHL Draft. "Now 15, 20 years later, you're seeing a Texas kid get drafted almost every year, playing in college, playing in juniors. For a long time there, I'd come home and train with some of the younger kids who were coming up, and these kids had more talent than I did, and they were 17 years old. It's really cool and it's fun to see how the game's been booming down there."

Stars CEO and alternate governor Jim Lites has also noted the increased interest in hockey.

"When we walked in the door in 1993, the marketplace when we moved from Minnesota, there were 150 hockey players, all ages, including the adults," he said. "And one [ice] sheet, in Valley Ranch. What's cool is, there are now 4,500 kids playing hockey somehow, some way, and 100,000 kids public skating in Dallas every year. There used to be none of that. Now it's everywhere, it's part of the vernacular. We're accepted as part of the sports tradition in Dallas-Fort Worth."

Dallas-area hockey first experienced growth when the Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999 and returned to the Cup Final in 2000, when they lost to the Devils in six games. That era produced several NHL players, including Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones and his younger brother Caleb, a defenseman with the Edmonton Oilers, who are from Arlington, as well as San Jose Sharks forward Stefan Noesen, who is from Plano. Seth Jones started playing hockey in Denver, where his dad played in the NBA for Denver Nuggets, but he moved to Dallas when he was 10 and played there for four more years.

"I'm always at the rinks in the summer, so I see the kids around. I used to be in that position," said Seth Jones, who was selected No. 4 by the Nashville Predators in the 2013 NHL Draft. "There's a lot more camps in the summer that kids can go to and learn more about hockey. I think (the Winter Classic) is going to help the market in Dallas, the market in Nashville, because their program, even when I played there five years ago, has grown a lot since then, the youth hockey has. So it's going to be good for those two cities."

Caleb, selected in the fourth round (No. 117) by the Oilers in the 2015 NHL Draft, played squirt (10 years and under) through midget (16 and under) in Dallas.

"When Dallas won the Cup in 1999, that's when things really started to grow, really started to take off. The youth organizations got more popular and kids wanted to play more and more. And the Stars were pretty good about all of that," Caleb Jones said. "Now you see guys coming out of there regularly and guys are playing major junior and with the U.S. national program. And now there are some guys in the NHL, like my brother and Blake Coleman, and that's good to see. Guys like us, who can be motivation for those young kids, that's a pretty big hockey market now and to show them that there is a way to get to the NHL coming out of there."

Video: NYR@CBJ: Jones lifts wrist shot past Georgiev

The second burst of interest in Dallas hockey was after Tom Gaglardi became owner of the Stars in November 2011. Most of the StarCenters were established by then, but several had fallen into disrepair.

"Tom has put $15 million into the physical plants," Lites said. "He reacquired two StarCenters that basically had gone out of business. Plano, which was the busiest building back in the day, he reacquired it, fixed it all up, redid the ice plant and made the building beautiful again. He bought Richardson from outside investors, and they became a StarCenter; it used to be an independent rink. And now we're working on our busiest building in McKinney, we got approved by the city council to build a third sheet of ice there along with 2,000 seats."

Eric Silverman has been involved with Dallas-area hockey since 2004. He founded the Dallas Elite Hockey Club in 2008 and is director of the Dallas Junior Hockey Association.

"The local people have done a great job in probably the last eight or nine years creating an unbelievable culture in Dallas youth hockey, and I think now the development of players coming out of the area has been phenomenal," Silverman said. "What you see now is, with the structure and play, the Stars have been probably at the forefront of NHL teams in investing in their youth hockey community. You're seeing a structure in place here, for beginning players, for the mid-level and top-end players, it's just a really healthy, productive environment."

Youth teams have found national success. According to the DJHA, nine of their Dallas Penguins teams have advanced to USA Hockey Youth Tier II National Championships. The league's 16U AA team won the Youth Tier II title in the 2017 USA Hockey Nationals. The McKinney North Stars 16U team was runner-up in the Youth Tier II 2A section and Team Texas won the high school girls division of the 2019 USA Hockey Nationals.

Silverman said there are 17 players from the Dallas area playing Division I hockey, including University of New Hampshire defenseman Max Gildon (Plano), University of Denver forward Hank Crone (Dallas), Notre Dame forward Solag Bakich (Dallas) and American International College defenseman Jeff Baum (Colleyville). There are 14 others who have made Division I commitments, including forward Chase Yoder of Fairview (Providence College) forward Joe Berg (Princeton University) and goalie Josh Langford of Plano, who has committed to play for the University of Maine, where Stars goalie Ben Bishop also played.

Video: NJD@DAL: Bishop fends off Simmonds, Hughes in tight

Some have been taken in recent NHL drafts, too. Gildon was selected in the third round (No. 66) by the Florida Panthers in the 2017 NHL Draft and goalie Ryan O'Reilly of Southlake was taken in the fourth round (No. 98) by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2018 NHL Draft. O'Reilly has committed to play at Arizona State University.

Hockey has become more commonplace in the Dallas area. Silverman said it should continue to grow.

"Now that the Stars are good, we've had the NHL Draft [in 2018], we have the Winter Classic, we just think this will continue to get better and better every year," Silverman said. "Seeing these kids playing and the talent coming up, we're just scratching the surface. We're really excited. This market is so healthy from a youth hockey perspective, so many people pulling in the same direction, you'll see it continue to get better." staff writer Tim Campbell and independent correspondent Craig Merz contributed to this report

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