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Dallas Stars Foundation working to make difference in community

'I just think there's so many layers to the impact we can have,' says Foundation executive director Grady Raskin

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

Spezza Hockey Clinic 2017

Spezza meets with scholarship recipients

Jason Spezza takes part in an annual hockey clinic with recipients of his scholarship

  • 02:00 •

Let's start with this: A team, especially a professional team, is not a living, breathing entity. It doesn't feel joy or pain or remorse. It exists to bring people together to share in the spectacle and community of sport and, if they do it right, make some money along the way.

But if you happened to be in Frisco on a recent Saturday morning and saw the dozens of kids streaming onto the ice at the Dr Pepper StarCenter Frisco to play a little shinny with veteran Dallas Stars center Jason Spezza, you might have wondered if there was something more afoot.

Or if you traveled to the Dr Pepper StarCenter at Farmers Branch a few hours later to watch Spezza's teammates, Adam Cracknell, Antoine Roussel and Dan Hamhuis, and the head of the Stars' alumni association, Bob Bassen, play some sled hockey with the Dallas Sled Stars, and a team featuring players from throughout Texas, there would have been an inkling that, maybe, a team is something more than seats and tickets and scoreboards.

And certainly, if you'd happened on the dedication of a new playground structure in south Dallas a week or so earlier, an event that included team officials, it would be hard to argue that there isn't a strong element of humanity that comes with being a sports team -- if it's done right.

It's tricky business forging a relationship between a team and its community.

It doesn't just happen organically. You can't just show up and expect it to happen. Look at the Atlanta Thrashers and the cautionary tale they represent in moving to Winnipeg in 2011 -- a team that sowed very seeds in the community they called home for a dozen seasons before disappearing without a murmur.

There has to be vision and leadership -- and more than a little sweat equity -- in creating something meaningful between an inanimate object like a team and the flesh-and-blood people the community.

It takes people like Spezza, Roussel, Cracknell, Hamhuis, captain Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and so on. And it takes the volunteers, who helped shepherd the young players at Spezza's clinic into dressing rooms and onto the ice and from skill station to skill station, or who helped keep everything in order at the sled hockey game.

Video: Dallas Sled Stars charity sled hockey game

Each of the NHL's now-31 franchises operate their own foundations. Just as each marketplace is different, the challenges that present themselves to each of the foundations is likewise unique.

And things change. As they have in Dallas where the Dallas Stars Foundation is in a different place today than it was just a few years ago.

When your team goes into bankruptcy, as was the case with the Stars, it stands to reason that the Foundation suffers as well. But with Tom Gaglardi taking over as owner in the fall of 2011, and reviving the team and its profile in the community, the Dallas Stars Foundation has also been evolving and changing.

As Grady Raskin, the man tasked with leading the Foundation as its executive director, put it: That the Foundation had tried to become too many things to too many people. There was a lack of identity about what the Foundation was supposed to be.

"We needed to focus and simplify the good work that the Foundation's been doing," Raskin said.

If you spend even 5 minutes talking to new Dallas head coach Ken Hitchcock, you understand that identity is key to what he hopes to accomplish on the ice.

Not so different for the Foundation, as it tracks towards a more defined identity, a clearer purpose vis-a-vis who it should be reaching out to in raising money, and then how to make the greatest impact in a unique fashion in the community with that money.

The playground construction is a great example of the evolving nature of the Foundation. 

Equipment, initially, provided by the team was vandalized and damaged by fire after it was set up in February. So the Dallas Stars Foundation helped rebuild with even better gear and with even more volunteers taking time to come out and help with a project that fills a big need in an underserved part of the metropolitan area.

If Hitchcock was assessing this, he'd say that is a sign of resiliency.

The Foundation went with a new logo and mission statement and redid its website, where they will use the entire "brawn" of the organization from digital to social media to get its message out, Raskin said. It will help people answer the basic questions of what the Foundation does, and where does the money go that they collect.

For example, for the first time, the Foundation will launch an individual giving campaign which will allow those individuals, groups and businesses that want to support the campaign a direct line to make donations to the Foundation. It can now clearly show potential donors the Foundation's specific philanthropic programs and how their individual donation can help.

The individual giving campaign will create the bulk of the monies from which various projects are funded by the Foundation. Half of the monies raised through the in-game 50/50 raffle at the American Airlines Center goes toward supporting the team's grant programs.

Even the 50/50 raffle needed some tinkering. Once the team was allowed -- as part of a broader Texas legislative change -- to run the fundraising draws that sees the winner take home half the proceeds with the other half going to the Foundation, fans seemed skeptical. Unlike in many more traditional hockey markets where the 50/50 raffle is a staple of fundraising from minor hockey on through major junior and the NHL, Texans didn't embrace it.

"In Dallas, they don't know it," Raskin explained.

So the team is hoping to highlight those winners, who are comfortable being identified, and providing more education on the good the money does in the community.

"We may be small, but you know the hockey fan," Raskin said. "The hockey fan is really into it. It's almost cultish."

The key is to tap into that deep affection for the game, in general, and the Stars specifically to maximize the work that can be done in a community, where there are many options for people to give to or get involved with charitable works. Between the giving campaign and 50/50 tickets, the Foundation hopes to push annual fundraising closer to -- and maybe even over -- the million-dollar mark in the next couple of seasons.

"With the networks of fans, we can take that and say, 'You can help,' " Raskin said.

Up at Farmers Branch, the captain of the Dallas Sled Stars squad -- longtime national sled hockey team member Taylor Lipsett -- said the involvement of the Stars, and their players, has been a boon to the profile of sled hockey in the community.

"It means everything," Lipsett said of the team's involvement and support. "The visibility that creates is priceless for us."

The new mission statement highlights giving in three areas: Health and education, community, and charitable giving programs.

The Foundation's Fitness Stars program has helped set up ball hockey programs for local physical education programs at 350 area schools, basically creating the program for teachers to implement as well as supporting a Stick With Reading program in local schools

Playground equipment, ball hockey courts and other athletic equipment have been provided for local boys and girls clubs and other community areas.

There is also an on-ice component, like the Spezza clinic, that helps youngsters transition from ball hockey to on-ice with free skating and learn-to-play programs.

In terms of the charitable giving, there are hockey scholarships that people can support and that helps provide equipment or ice time or league costs for those who can't afford to play. That kind of giving was on display with Spezza's clinic.

"One guy came out of nowhere and gave $10,000 because he loves hockey, and wanted to help kids," Raskin said.

It's not just hockey. There's a grant process that people or groups can apply for funding online.

Like a local organization that helps connect disabled youngsters with horses.

Video: Stars Foundation playground ribbon-cutting

"I just think there's so many layers to the impact we can have," Raskin said.

Hamhuis has played in non-traditional markets in Nashville and in Texas, as well as a big Canadian market in Vancouver. The motivation is the same regardless.

It's a privilege to be a pro hockey player, and it's likewise a privilege to be able to be involved in the community, Hamhuis said.

"We don't get here by ourselves," he said of his colleagues in the NHL. "So many people helped us directly and indirectly."

And by reaching out at events like the sled hockey game, he and his teammates help create opportunities for others to connect to the game and all that it has to offer, he said.

So let's finish with this: A team doesn't have feelings. A team doesn't feel sad or happy or thirsty. But the people who work for that team and play for it and who follow it feel all those things and at the end of the day have the power to make all the difference in the world.

Click here to learn more about the Dallas Stars Foundation and how you can get involved today.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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