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Gone To Texas

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

The North American Hockey League (NAHL), the only USA Hockey-sanctioned Tier II Junior A circuit, has been holding its Robertson Cup championship tournament in Frisco this week at the Dr Pepper Arena, once again emphasizing the close relationship between the NHL’s Dallas Stars and youth hockey in the Metroplex.

It has been well-documented how several local kids have already been drafted by NHL clubs, including one going in the first round in 2011, underlining the tremendous growth the sport has seen in the Dallas area.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that several area kids can be found on rosters across the 28-team NAHL, which gathered its top six squads in Frisco to battle for the league title. That includes the Texas Tornado, the tournament’s hosts who play out of the same Dr Pepper Arena that also houses the Stars’ offices and state-of-the-art practice facility.

Further highlighting the connection between the Stars and the Tornado, it only seemed natural that Dallas Stars Head Coach Glen Gulutzan was chosen to be the keynote speaker at the NAHL’s Awards Banquet Sunday night at the Frisco Convention Center.

WATCH: Gulutzan delivers keynote speech at the NAHL Banquet of Champions

In his first year behind an NHL bench, just three years removed from coaching at the AA level of minor league hockey, Gulutzan led the Stars to a 42-35-5 record in 2011-12, earning his seventh consecutive winning season as a head coach in professional hockey.

“It’s an honor to be here, and part of my message, it’s education and hockey combined and I’m probably one of the biggest advocates of that, having been raised with it and coming from a family that’s put an emphasis on schooling,” said Gulutzan, who played at the University of Saskatchewan before embarking on an eight-year professional playing career. “I think it’s a great league for that. Aside from being a stepping stone to college, it’s also a chance at a good life for these kids.”

“We’re very blessed to have him here,” said NAHL President and Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld. “There couldn’t be a better speaker. He did everything he needed to get to the NHL, he worked hard for it and that work paid off. He got the opportunity and ran with it - that’s a great story.”

Gulutzan’s meteoric rise to the NHL coaching ranks came after guiding Dallas’ primary affiliate in the American Hockey League, the Texas Stars, for two seasons. Prior to that, the 40-year-old coach spent six seasons with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL. His experience coaching at different levels was one of the many reasons those in attendance were thrilled to hear him speak.

“Coach Gulutzan worked his way up as a player, worked his way up as a coach, from the ECHL to the NHL in a short span. I just think that’s a great story to tell these young players as they’re trying to do whatever they can to move up the ladder of hockey,” said Ben Weber, Vice President of the Texas Tornado.

“It’s an exciting time for us to have a coach like this come talk to not only us coaches but the players, too,” added Dennis Williams, head coach of the South Division champion Amarillo Bulls. “It’s such an honor to be able to have Coach talk to us. I’m not sure if the players know him as much as we do, but for us coaches, it’s pretty neat.”

And the fact that several of those players representing their NAHL squads are originally from the Dallas area further underscores just how far the sport has come in the Metroplex over the past 8-10 years.

“It’s grown a lot, especially since the Stars won the Cup, it started to get a lot more attention and rinks started popping up all over,” noted Tornado forward Marc Biggs, who is a Stars fan from Plano and progressed through a variety of local youth programs, including the Stars’. “We go up (north) and we play with them all the time, in AAA tournaments, so they know how good we are. They’re surprised with how serious we take it.”

“We’re going to have a home-grown guy here who’s probably going to go in the top-five in the Draft next year,” said Gulutzan, referring to 17-year-old Plano native Seth Jones of the U.S. National Team Development Program, who many believe could even be selected first overall in 2013. “You can see the steps that Dallas and Texas have taken towards developing hockey players. It all starts from giving them an opportunity at the grass-roots and building the arenas and having the Dallas Stars involved.”

After spending a lot of time in other non-traditional hockey areas like Austin, Las Vegas, and Fresno, Calif., where he played several seasons, Gulutzan is impressed with how much the Stars’ involvement in youth hockey has helped boost the sport’s growth here.

“To be quite honest with you, Dallas is far more advanced than those other emerging hockey markets. One-hundred percent of that is because of the Dallas Stars and the Dr Pepper StarCenters they’ve built here,” Gulutzan said. “When I was in Fresno, we had one ice rink with one sheet that we used primarily and Austin had three sheets like that, and when you come here and see the opportunity with the rinks here, you can tell the Dallas Stars have had a big impact.”

“It’s really neat to see how big hockey has become in the State of Texas and how they are developing a ton of great hockey players. That’s directly because of the Dallas Stars,” added Amarillo coach Williams, who has two Metroplex products on his roster. “Being from Canada, I can tell you I never thought I’d have kids from Texas playing for me, but they’re great hockey players, they’re well-coached down here and we look forward to getting more players from this area.”

As for his own players, Gulutzan has been reviewing the Stars’ season while also watching the ongoing NHL playoffs, and he’s convinced the team isn’t very far from contending with the league’s best - especially considering how Los Angeles, the Pacific Division rival who snagged the eighth and final playoff spot ahead of Dallas, have advanced to the Conference Finals.

WATCH: Gulutzan speaks with the media about the Stars season and the IIHF World Championships

“Nothing dramatic or nothing we didn’t think throughout the year,” said Gulutzan of what he’s learned from his post-season analysis. “Obviously everyone points to the power play and our discipline has to be better, but there’s not a huge re-vamping in order here, I think we’ve got to tweak things. The game’s a lot simpler than you think it is and you just got to get back to the simple things that win games. You look at the playoffs now, I’ve been around (Kings coach) Darryl Sutter for six, seven years and I learned a lot from him and his team’s playing simple, hard-nosed, battle hockey - there’s nothing elaborate going on there.”

“You can see that if you do the little things right, good things happen.”

That was the essence of his speech and he is living proof of that, providing a great example for the young players and coaches to emulate.

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