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Thriving on challenges, inspirational executive blazing trail with Stars

Alana Matthews embraces being seen as a role model for others on International Women's Day

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

Alana Matthews had a great role model in her mother, Judy.

It's one of the reasons the Executive Vice President of Business Operations and General Counsel for the Stars has been able to ascend to her position at age 31. And it's one of the reasons she embraces being seen as a role model on International Women's Day.

"I've always had a strong sense of self that I credit to my mother," said Matthews, who grew up in Toronto and Pennsylvania. "I was 5 years old and my mom told me I could play ice hockey on the boys team. She was not taking no for an answer, and that's always resonated with me. I played on an all-boys hockey team growing up, so I've always been in an uncomfortable atmosphere, and I've always found a way to adjust.

"I have always had an unshakeable belief in my abilities, and I thrive on the challenges that are out there."

Matthews has the double challenge of being a woman and being young, and that creates an instant barrier when she walks into a room. But she said she likes the challenge and likes convincing people she can do the job. She said working for the Stars and a trio of leaders in CEO Jim Lites, President Brad Alberts and general manager Jim Nill have helped make the challenge easier.

"I walk into the room and people don't expect the EVPGC of our NHL franchise to be 31. They think I'm someone's assistant, and I definitely understand that," she said. "I do feel the nerves, and I know there have been times when people were counting me out. But I am fortunate to have the support of people like Jim Lites, Jim Nill and Brad Alberts who believe in my capabilities; and having them in my corner has allowed me to continue to flourish."

Lites said that in previous runs with the Stars, he liked hiring outside legal specialists and not retaining full-time legal counsel, but said former executive vice president Jason Farris convinced him that it was a good idea to have that position in-house. Matthews, who graduated from SMU's law school and was working at a local firm at the time, was hired in 2014.

"Jason Farris was absolutely right that we needed her, because she's been a rock star for us," Lites said. "She has a powerful, understated way about her, and she's been great in helping us in so many different areas."

Matthews has to juggle the legal interaction the team has with the NHL, with international business, and with owner Tom Gaglardi's burgeoning real estate ventures that are tied to the team. She also has been an important part of the team's ability to attract and run the NHL Draft and next year's Winter Classic.

She said one of her biggest skills is asking questions and listening.

"The department heads have been great with me, because I'm one of those people who will walk in and want to know everything, and I tell them, 'Act like I know nothing, tell me about your world.' " Matthews said. "They would do that and help me, and then I would apply the legal training I had to that and try to figure out how we could marry the risk-sensitive legal advice that I have with the business objective that we're trying to achieve."

Of course, that was a lot of listening and planning when you consider the team didn't really have a legal department.

"It's hard, because a business is a living organism, so you have to adjust to that. But I did build our legal department from scratch and I'm very proud of that," she said. "It's been challenging and it's taken a lot of confidence in my own abilities and a lot of collaboration with other business leaders, and fortunately other general counsels for other sports teams have been very gracious with me, in our league and other leagues."

The Stars have been proactive in putting women in positions of power -- including CFO Therese Baird and Vice President of Human Resources Lindsay Dowdy -- and that's something Alberts said the team takes pride in.

"We're proud of how we do things, but I also think we hire the best people we can find," Alberts said. "Alana is an incredibly smart, talented, ambitious lawyer by trade, and she's a very large part of our executive decision-making group. It's important to make sure everyone has a great opportunity, and our organization has a great track record when it comes to providing opportunities for women. But the bottom line is we just want talented people."

Matthews understands the importance of role models, especially on International Women's Day, and said that she hopes to set an example by doing her job well.

"If I can have any impact in women coming into the sports world and taking their seat at the table, then I am extremely proud of that," she said. "And the good thing about our organization is I do feel I can have that impact. Seeing how our organization is working with great male leaders and great female leaders, to me, that's where we want to be."

Lites said having people like Matthews, who gave birth to a son last year, is inspirational.

"It's impressive to watch," he said of how she juggles responsibilities. "The combination of great communication skills, great leadership skills and great life skills, she finds a way to get it all done."

Matthews said it's not easy, but she thinks back to the lessons her mom, who died three years ago, taught her. As she headed into the team photo Friday morning at American Airlines Center, Matthews was wearing her mom's earrings, a remembrance and a good luck charm.

But she carries even more inside her from the woman who showed her how strong she can be.

"She had a children's clothing business when she was in Toronto, she was an Air Canada stewardess," Matthews said. "She was a career-oriented woman, and I attribute a lot to her.

Including understanding the challenges for women in the work place.

"I have a 9-month-old son, so I do think as an executive woman, how can we make sure we support women who want to stay in the work force and balance between being a wife, a mother and an executive?" Matthews said.

"It's great that we are sensitive to that. Going through it myself, I know how hard it is."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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