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Stars working to grow game of hockey beyond Texas

The organization recently helped put on a six-week 'Learn to Play' program for children in Mexico City

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

After 25 years in Texas, the Stars have learned a few things about spreading the good word of hockey.

And now, they're passing that knowledge onto others.

The Mexico Ice Hockey Federation in March completed its first six-week "Learn to Play" class for a group of 33 youngsters aged 6-10 in Mexico City. The equipment was provided by the Stars and the NHL, and the infrastructure was set up by the Stars.

It was the first step in what the organization hopes will be a long relationship with hockey in Mexico.

"We wanted to do a test run first, and we think it's gone very well," said Dwight Mullins, the Stars Director of Hockey Development. "Our next step is to talk to everyone and assess every element and see if there are things we can improve, but we're very excited going forward."

The Stars have held Little Rookies programs for years and the NHL has its own Learn to Play initiatives. Basically, young players who have never played get sized for their own equipment, go through one session a week for six weeks where they are taught the game, and then move forward with a chance to find a house league if that suits them. There's a minor participation fee, and that provides an entrée into a sport that's not always easy to try.

"So many sports only require a ball, so then it's easy to try them out as a kid and see if you like them," said Robert Knesaurek, the NHL's Group Vice President, Youth Hockey and Industry Growth. "Hockey is more involved, and we understand that, so we want to help. You can try ball hockey or floor hockey, but we also like the fact that we can get kids on skates, and this program has been great for us."

Knesaurek said the Stars have done a great job of leading the charge and that the league endorsed their venture into Mexico City. To get things started, a group that included Mullins, Damon Boettcher, who is the vice president of StarCenters, and Bob Bassen, who is director of the team's Alumni Association, and Lucas Reid, who is director of amateur hockey and partnership development, traveled down to explain the system.

They spoke with Mexico Federation officials and helped set up the program and how to implement the lessons and find coaches. They also showed how to administrate a program like this on a long-term basis.

"They have good infrastructure there, a lot of very nice facilities that are underused because of the lack of growth in the game so far," Reid said. "The NHL Learn to Play program and our existence there can really help that. They have plans to build 10 new rinks in Mexico City in the next three years, which will help the growth."

All of the participants, including 14 girls, wore Stars stuff, and Boettcher said that was a nice feeling.

"It's exciting, because it's an untapped market," Boettcher said. "We feel pride in being the first NHL team there and having our brand be the first NHL brand in that city, in that country."

In addition to helping spread the game of hockey, the Stars also are able to spread the brand of this team. The organization has viewed the wide landscape around them as a great opportunity for years, and has been trying to take advantage of that in a business sense. The presence of the Texas Stars in Cedar Park has always been a positive spoke in the Dallas Stars wheel, and there have been outreaches to Houston and San Antonio, as well. Mexico City is a place where the Stars also could find new fans.

Officials have pondered playing a game there, and they definitely would like to see about expanding the Stars message.

"It makes sense," said Stars CEO Jim Lites. "We have always talked about expanding our brand throughout the Southwest, and that would be the next step. I think there's a lot that we can look at there."

Boettcher said Learn to Play outreach programs have worked throughout the Southwest in places like Houston, Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Pretty much everywhere you can view the Stars on Fox Sports Southwest have proven to be places that not only have interest in the sport, but also help build the Stars brand.

The next step is seeing where the Learn to Play program can go. While it's great to teach young players how to play, you then need to give them leagues to play in and consistent playing opportunities. The Stars say they want to help with both.

"We'd like to bring some kids up in the summer and bring some of their more advanced travel teams up during the season to play some tournaments or exhibition games," Reid said. "Our goal is to help the federation get new players and then provide infrastructure to help keep those players involved. That's the biggest challenge.

"We can get players in and learning and participating after six weeks, but then what do you do after that?"

It's a question they are working hard to answer.

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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