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American-Born Stars like Where Game is Headed

by Steve Hunt / Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars currently have five players who were born in the States. Three of those-winger Jamie Langenbrunner, defenseman Matt Niskanen and center Toby Petersen, are from Minnesota while Adam Burish hails from Wisconsin and recent call-up Trevor Ludwig is from Texas. All five grew up with the game and have seen hockey make huge strides from the lowest levels up. So it’s not a stretch to say they like where the game is headed.

Langenbrunner at the 2010 Winter Games
Langenbrunner is a 16-year NHL veteran in his second stint with the Stars. A native of Cloquet, Minnesota, he remembers his early days playing hockey in the Land of 10,000 Lakes quite fondly.

“There were rinks everywhere,” he said. “In the town I grew up, there are 10,000 people with five outdoor rinks and an indoor rink, and the opportunity was great. Hockey is real important to the culture there. You go to the high school games and they’re sold out. People are really into what’s going on with the high school teams and the youth teams. It’s a great place to grow up and play hockey.”

Like Langenbrunner, Niskanen hails from a smaller town in the northern part of the state, Virginia, about 9,000 strong. But there’s no doubt the frozen game is a huge part of local culture.

“Hockey is almost a way of life up there. It’s probably just a little bit more than hunting and fishing,” Niskanen said. “Everybody watches it on TV. Almost everyone plays whether it’s for fun, recreation or in the youth hockey programs through the high schools. It has a huge following and a lot of NHL fans too. It’s a hockey environment.”

Petersen’s upbringing was a bit different as he grew up in Minneapolis but one thing he shares with his two teammates and fellow Minnesotans is the huge role hockey played during his formative years.

“Growing up in Minnesota, there’s always a lot of great amateur hockey to go watch from the squirt and bantam level all the way up to exhibition games. The US national team and Olympic team would always come to St. Paul or Minneapolis and play an exhibition game, so we’d always get tickets to those things,” Petersen, a 10-year veteran, said. “Hockey in Minnesota is not so different from hockey in Canada as far as the amount of enthusiasm there is.”

In fact, Langenbrunner and Petersen share a link from their high school days. Petersen’s older brother played against Langenbrunner’s team at the state tournament one year and his club got the better of Jamie’s Cloquet club, something Petersen is quick to remind his new teammate of whenever he gets the chance.

“I’ve told him one of the best games at that point I’d ever seen was my high school team, which my brother played for, playing against Cloquet, who he played for. It was in the state tournament, so there were 17,000-18,000 fans in the stadium,” Petersen said. “It went overtime and our team won. He doesn’t like to talk about it too much. There was a lot of up-and-down action. It was one of the best hockey games I’ve ever seen. Everyone looked forward to state tournament time because it was such a great show for those young guys to play in.”

Langebrunner still remembers that game quite well.

“My sophomore year, we played them in a semifinal game. It went overtime and was a really good hockey game, one of the better ones I’ve been in the state tournament,” he said. “We ended up on the wrong end of it.”

The longtime NHL regular remembers a strong rivalry between the smaller schools in the north and those bigger clubs from the Twin Cities.

“It was definitely those rivalries from Nisky and I growing up the north and we never felt like we got the same respect as the guys living in the city. We played that up a little bit more that those guys were the ones that got everything and we were the ones who brought our lunch pails to work,” Langenbrunner. “That was our calling card so to speak. It was always a great tournament. I was fortunate to play in the state tournament twice. It’s an amazing weekend, playing in those finals.”

No matter what part of Minnesota they hail from, all three Stars agree on one thing, that hockey in the States is headed in a great direction.

“I think we’re taking huge strides,” Niskanen said. “There’s way more American players in the game now, more youth hockey players and more kids making it to the NHL. I think USA Hockey has done a pretty good job of doing things the right way, developing kids and making sure that they get lots of practice and get to play.”

The Stars defenseman also likes the wide range of opportunities American players have once they get older.

“When kids get to be 16 or 17-years-old, they have options. They can go play junior hockey in the USHL or stay with their midget program or their high school program to pursue a college career,” Niskanen said. “Or they can go to Canada to really develop and fast track to the NHL. They’re doing a good job of getting kids opportunities.”

Langenbrunner likes the fact that players are coming from a lot of different states now, a sure sign that USA Hockey has done an effective job of growing the game.

“Where all the players are coming from now [is huge]. When I was growing up, all the players were either from Minnesota or Massachusetts. Now, there are guys getting drafted from Nevada, California, Texas and Florida,” he said. “That’s awesome that hockey has grown that much. US hockey has put its roots across the country and that’s great.”

However, he does see one part of youth hockey that needs to be addressed.

“I think one thing that hockey has got to get back to is understand that it’s a winter sport. I think the pressure on kids to play year around deters some great hockey players from playing,” Langenbrunner said. “I think that’s something we were fortunate growing up with. We were able to play baseball, football or whatever sport you wanted to while still playing hockey. I hope that’s something that hockey gets back to.”

For Petersen, a great deal of credit for how much the game continues to grow goes to the NHL for expanding their product out of the traditional hockey markets and into the Sun Belt.

“I think it’s great. The expansion the NHL did to the south a few years ago was a big part of that. They can see it here in Dallas,” he said. “Ever since the North Stars moved here, the youth hockey program here has really blasted off. It’s not just here. I have a buddy who’s in Nashville and he’s surprised how much youth hockey is played there. It’s all over the place in the south, so it’s great to see.”

Speaking of how much the youth hockey scene has grown in the Metroplex, it’s something Langenbrunner has watched firsthand since first coming up with the Stars during the 1994-95 season.

“I was fortunate to be part of it the first time when a couple of those Star Centers were opening up. Obviously, a few more have [opened] since I left,” he said. “I think the organization did a wonderful job of helping grow the game by putting up those Star Centers and giving opportunity. To play the game, you need to get on the ice. The weather doesn’t cooperate with it here, so you need indoor facilities. I think the organization does an amazing job of building those Star Centers and giving kids an opportunity to play the game.”

Niskanen has only been with the Stars for three seasons but in his short time in Big D, he too has noticed how much local interest there is in the game at the youth level.

“At our rink in Frisco, we come in early and see different local teams playing whether it’s high school or junior varsity,” he said. “There’s a lot of kids around the area who play and a lot of our guys have kids playing in the Metroplex. It’s grown in the short time that I’ve been here.”

In fact, the newest Dallas Star, Ludwig, is a product of the youth hockey scene here in the Metroplex. The son of former Stars defenseman Craig Ludwig, a member of Dallas’ 1999 Stanley Cup championship team, the younger Ludwig cut his teeth at the youth level in the area and now finds himself following in his father’s footsteps with the Stars.

That’s a sure sign of how healthy the game of hockey is in America and also here in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

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