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Growing the game: North Texas hockey booming after Stars' captivating run

The team's StarCenter rinks have seen record turnout following Dallas' first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years

by Josh Bogorad @JoshBogorad / DallasStars.com

This summer, the Dallas Stars made their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire playoff run took place in an empty building in Edmonton. However, while no fans were able to take in the Stars unforgettable march in person, some 1,600 miles away back in Dallas, a city was watching and was captivated by the journey.

Nowhere is that more evident than at local rinks throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

A couple months removed from the team's Western Conference championship, and even amidst a rare autumn offseason, hockey in North Texas is thriving with activity. The Stars operate eight rinks throughout the area, with seven different Children's Health StarCenter locations as well as the Comerica Center in Frisco.

All eight rinks have seen record numbers posted in the weeks since the Stars playoffs. Stars director of hockey development Dwight Mullins said the amount of people wanting to play hockey has never been higher.

"There's no doubt that the Cup Final run had a huge effect," he said. "We hear it all the time."

The largest influx of new players has come from kids, trying their hand at youth hockey.

The Stars' youth hockey program welcomes boys and girls of all levels from ages 4 to 18. Since 2013, one of the hallmarks has been the Rookies Program, presented by Lexus. It offers first-time players as young as 4 years old the chance to try hockey at no cost over a four-week schedule, with all equipment and ice time provided free of charge by the Stars organization.

The most recent Rookies session began in October, less than a month after the end of the Stars appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. Due to unprecedented demand, for the first time ever, all eight Stars rinks ran the program simultaneously. More than 650 children enrolled, with another 200-plus on waiting lists. That shattered the previous record for a single session by more than five times. 

It's no coincidence that the record number of newcomers took place just weeks after the Stars playoff run. Even though every game was away from home, support in Dallas was at a fever pitch as the Stars became the first major DFW sports team to reach a championship series or game since 2011.

One first-time player who got swept up in the excitement was 5-year old Jackson Gill, a recent Rookies graduate.


When asked about his favorite part of playing hockey, Jackson responded, "Scoring goals and winning the championship."

Along with his mom, Angie, dad, Riley, and little brother, Hudson, the Gill family watched all the Stars playoff games this summer. Jackson said that when he wins his first championship the first thing he'll do is, "throw off my gear."

As parents, Angie and Riley appreciated the convenience and no-cost aspects of the program.

"We love it," Angie said. "I feel like a lot of parents are nervous to buy all the gear to let kids try it, because at that age it's kind of hit or miss if they're going to be into something. It's a great way to let them try."

While the Gill family is well-versed in hockey, they have received similar feedback from those who were not as familiar with the sport, convincing friends and neighbors to join the program as well.

"It's definitely a great program," Riley said. "We've heard a lot of great things from other people that really don't know a lot about hockey."

Making hockey more easily accessible has always been a goal for the Stars. While limiting the expense plays into that, so does geography.

When the team first moved to Dallas, there were only two rinks in DFW, making it hard for a large part of the North Texas population to find a convenient place to play. Now, thanks to the spread out coverage of the Stars-owned rinks that stretches from places like Mansfield to McKinney, virtually everyone in the Metroplex has an accessible rink nearby.

The Gills live in Melissa and are able to make the trip to the Children's Health StarCenter in McKinney in under 20 minutes.

Another huge part of hockey's local growth spurt has been a large uptick in the number of girls playing. As the Stars are seeing record highs of new players overall, the amount of female skaters is also reaching new marks.

 

[JOIN ROOKIES: Learn more about the Dallas Stars Rookies Program at your local StarCenter rink]

 

Currently, the youth hockey program is home to more than 1,800 girls. That is more than double the amount from last year.

One young girl who recently enrolled in the Rookies program is 6-year old Cate Johnson. Johnson said she loves to scrimmage and "Superman," where she'll dive and slide face first along the ice.

Before she takes the ice, Johnson suits up with a pink helmet, pink tape on her socks, and pink tape on her stick. She always finds her parents in the stands to give a big thumbs up after goals, but even before that it's easy to tell who she is on the ice.

"I'll always have pink everything and the biggest smile," Johnson said. 

Cate's parents, Nick and Lindsay, recently moved their family to DFW from Minnesota and they were immediately impressed by the hockey landscape they found. Looking for ways to integrate into a new community, the Johnsons found youth hockey to be a great start that will continue as long as Cate would like.

"We want her to have fun and get that equipment on her," Nick said. "It makes me feel good that she's out there enjoying it. If we can keep having these great experiences, she'll just naturally want to come back."

Cate's younger sister, Maddie, is also taking part in the Stars Skating Academy. 

Nick described the hockey scene in DFW as "way above" what he expected it to be prior to his move.

"In Minnesota you work directly with the rinks," he said. "What's different here, and pretty neat, is that the Stars play such a role in youth hockey in the area. The Stars seems to have their prints on everything."

The Johnsons live in The Colony and enrolled Cate at the Comerica Center in Frisco. Nick said he was blown away by the caliber of the rink, and the youth program as a whole.


"Back in Minnesota it's a bunch of city rinks, so they're doing just enough to get the kids on the ice, but they're not big facilities like in Frisco," he said. "I've never seen anything like it before. This is the way to do it."

For any professional franchise, milestone moments always help drive interest in the team as well as local participation in that sport. Throughout the history of the Stars, three milestones stand above the rest.

The first was when the team originally moved to Dallas. The number of local rinks and players began to increase immediately. Then came the turn of the century when the Stars made back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances and won their only championship to date in 1999.

Shortly after winning the Cup, to accommodate the increased interest in local hockey, the Stars built multiple new rinks in the Metroplex and purchased other existing ice sheets, operating them under the franchise's umbrella. Over that period, the number of local participants of organized hockey exploded by more than 400 percent.

The most recent milestone was the one just experienced, with the Stars returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since. Unlike the prior two occasions, however, this time the Stars had already created an infrastructure that was in place to meet the local demand.

Time will tell the full, eventual impact that this Stars run has had, but based on initial returns it appears that thousands of new North Texas players will get their first taste of organized hockey off of its heels. While the recent on-ice success helped spawn an increased interest in hockey, just as important have been the continued off-ice efforts the organization has financially and physically committed to over the years.

Together, those two ingredients have transformed DFW into one of most reputable and impressive regions for organized hockey in the entire country.

Since first arriving on the local scene, hockey has been the fastest game in Texas. Now, thanks to the Stars, it's the fastest growing game as well.

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

Josh Bogorad is a contributing columnist to DallasStars.com and the Stars' TV/radio play-by-play broadcaster on FOX Sports Southwest and 96.7-FM and 1310-AM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter @JoshBogorad.

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