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Ice Boom in Big D

by Bob Matuszak / Dallas Stars

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Mike Modano doesn't recall much about his first trip down MacArthur Blvd. to see the facility he and his Dallas Stars teammates were soon going to be practicing in for the first time. That's because there wasn't much to remember.

Modano and the Stars migrated to Dallas from Minneapolis in 1993, and after finding a townhome near the Las Colinas Country Club, the soon-to-be top U.S. born scorer made the short trip to what is now the Valley Ranch Dr. Pepper StarsCenter. He wasn't all that impressed.

  "There wasn't a store on that strip, and it was all brush and nothing else," he said. "But the growth around that whole area since I've been here has been amazing."

  The same could be said about the youth hockey programs in and around the Metroplex. Since the Stars came here, the explosion of hockey-playing kids and adults has been eye-popping. Where once stood just one true hockey rink in Dallas that housed an approximate 150-kid youth hockey program, 23 full sheets of ice now exist in an area that boasts well over 8,000 children playing the game.

"It all started out of necessity, but it now has become a marketing plan," said Jim Lites, who presided over the team's move south nearly 15 years ago. "We now have kids playing the game at the highest levels."

Lites was the architect of the Stars youth program back when North Stars owner Norm Green picked up his gear and left Minneapolis. It was then that Lites figured out how to make things work among individuals that were more familiar with ice storms than ice rinks.

"For us, it was important to have kids playing," Lites said. "It seemed silly to me to not create fans out of the kids that wanted to play. So we went to the different communities to see if they were interested in building an ice rink, much like building a swimming pool. Our pitch was that it was unique, and it would give residents something nobody else would have. We would take all of the risk out of it for them."

One by one, rinks started popping up in suburban locales as the demand for ice time increased exponentially.

"I think Jim Lites and everyone did a great job down there trying to promote the game," former Stars captain Derian Hatcher said. "I was down there the first year and it just got huge. I'm not sure why, it just did. The fans really seemed to like it and the organization did a great job promoting the game. They did a lot of things with youth hockey that they were hoping to spill over, and maybe it did. I think everyone was surprised how it got down there."

One person who isn't the least bit surprised on the explosion of hockey's popularity in North Texas is Keith Andresen, the Stars senior director of hockey programs and ice scheduling.

"Hockey's addicting," he said. "Once you start playing it or getting involved with it, you get hooked."

  A native of Chicago, Andresen moved to Dallas and latched on with the Stars over 10 years ago. He now leads the Dallas Stars Youth Hockey League, an over 60-team house-league organization that has players in all different ages and skill levels. The program is divided into three leagues, with the main one running from October to early April. The teams practice 20 times and play a 20-game schedule before participating in the playoffs.

In addition, each squad will have a game at American Airlines Center this year, complete with the player's names being announced over the booming P.A. system while they leap onto the ice through the smoking Star, just like Modano and Co. do.

"That's been really well received. Everyone's excited about that," Andresen said. "The kids really get star treatment."

The program's success is also due to the hundreds of volunteers that get involved. These volunteers are the lifeblood of any youth hockey organization, and it's no different in Dallas.

"Without them, we wouldn't have a program," Andresen said.

One of the main objectives this year for Andresen has been re-stocking the 5- 6- and 7-year-old age groups. It's these youngsters that in 10 years will be moving on to bigger and better things, like Austin Smith did. Smith was drafted by the Stars in this past June's draft, the first native of Dallas to be drafted by an NHL team.

"We want to make sure that the grass-roots levels are full," Andresen said. "Those are going to be the kids that get to play for many years to come. We've concentrated the last couple of years on bringing those numbers up, and we've been very successful getting more little guys and gals playing the game."

The impressive spread of hockey's popularity in the latter part of the '90s in Dallas prompted businessman Quentin Bourjeaurd to form the Texas Tornado, a Junior A hockey team that won three consecutive North American Hockey League championships starting in 2004.

  "I think people just took to the speed of the game, the grace and skill of it, and the fighting and the hitting," Modano said. "We had great runs here throughout the '90s, and obviously winning helps an awful lot. But there's tons of minor hockey teams spread out all over Texas, and a lot (NHL) farm teams down here. The growth has been great."

In 2003, the Stars outgrew their original Valley Ranch home and decided to head north to Frisco, where they built the pinnacle of all the StarsCenters in the Metroplex. The facility currently houses the team's corporate offices and two sheets of ice, including a 3,700 seat arena that is home to the Tornado.

"When we evaluated the situation, we realized that it would be in the best long term interest of the entire organization if we started from scratch and built a facility that could suit our needs for the next 40 years," said Geoff Moore, the Stars executive vice president in charge of sales and marketing.

It's hard to believe the momentum hockey gathered in Dallas beginning in the summer of 1993, and how it has steamrolled since the development of a Stars youth hockey program that has become the model for communities that hope to build off the sport's ever-expanding fan base.

"Hockey started as a niche sport in Dallas, but has become mainstream in not only the Stars, but the marketing of the game," former Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said. "The Stars focused so much on minor hockey, and that helped build it into a mainstream sport. To see how many kids play minor hockey, and to see how big high school hockey is there, to me, I think that's the legacy for the Stars."

Modano, for one, is thrilled with his part in helping foster and nurture that legacy.

"Being a part of that whole transition from Minneapolis to Dallas has been quite rewarding," he said. "To see the growth of the game, and the last couple years having kids actually born in Dallas, drafted from the Stars, or moved on to college scholarships or the junior leagues in Canada to further their development as well. It has expanded without a doubt here in Texas, and I think if you asked around it's probably been the biggest franchise move and the most popular one that has happened in the league, and the one that has taken off and helped really develop hockey in a southern mentality."

And to think it all began with a building that was bankrupt and almost in shambles.

"There was a bigger picture in sight," Modano said.

And a brighter one. 

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