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Impressive Growth

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It was only fitting that Jim Lites was in attendance as the Dallas Stars Tier II U18 Midget Minor hockey squad rolled to a 7-1 victory over the Clifton Park (NY) Dynamo last Sunday, April 5, in Pittsburgh to win the USA Hockey national championship title at that level.

That’s because Lites, whose stepson Chandler scored five goals and seven points in six tournament games for the Stars, was the driving force behind the growth of youth hockey in the Dallas area, starting the program virtually from scratch when the Minnesota North Stars arrived in North Texas in 1993. 

In 15 seasons, to go from almost no amateur hockey presence in the area to having six different clubs at different age levels advancing to USA Hockey’s national championship tournaments last weekend is nothing short of incredible. Just to reach the nationals, each club had to first triumph in their state tournament to advance to the Rocky Mountain regional championships, then win that tournament as well. 

Held in four different age levels with two separate ‘tiers’ of play in each one, each national tourney featured 12 teams, representing each of USA Hockey’s regions. So for Dallas to have six participants in eight possible brackets is impressive. And all six advanced to at least the quarterfinal stage.

In addition to the Tier II U18 club winning their national crown, perhaps even more significant was the performance of the Tier I Dallas Stars U18 Midget Major squad, basically the highest level of youth hockey in the country below juniors. That team reached the final game of their tournament before losing the title to longtime power Little Caesars (out of Detroit, owned and operated by Red Wings owner Mike Illitch) 4-3 in overtime. 

Seeing Dallas teams competing on an equal footing with the traditional powerhouse programs from such hockey hotbed areas as Detroit, Boston and Minnesota, among others, is the realization of a vision Lites, now President of Hicks Sports Marketing Group, had way back when. 

“On an amateur level, the quality of play is getting better by the minute, and our kids are obviously playing great,” said Lites, who served 11 years as Executive Vice President of the Red Wings before joining the Stars as President for the move south in ‘93. “We don’t have any trouble playing at any level. The U18 AAA team getting to the finals for the first time, against Little Caesars and taking them to overtime in the final game, is really a tribute to what they’ve accomplished.  It’s unbelievable.”

“It’s a big deal,” added Marty MacInnis, coach of the Tier II Dallas Stars Selects U14 Bantam squad that advanced to the quarterfinals of their tournament before falling to the eventual champion LA Selects. “Here in youth hockey, that’s the Stanley Cup Finals to get to nationals. It’s such a big deal for these kids to get to the national tournament in amateur sports. There’s not many sports out there that hold a national tournament, so just to get there is really an accomplishment. For Dallas to have six of the eight slots that are available, that speaks volumes for how hockey has grown here in Dallas. The growth is phenomenal at the high end.” 

In other age brackets, the Tier I Dallas Stars U12 Peewee team, coached by Steve LaMere, participated in the national tournament in North Carolina, advancing to the quarterfinal round before falling to the LA Selects. 

The U14 Bantam tournaments actually took place in Plano at the Dr Pepper StarCenter there, further proof of the area’s rapid growth, while no less than three different Metroplex squads participated. Unfortunately, none of the three - the Tier I Dallas Stars and the Tier II Dallas Stars and Dallas Stars Selects - made it past the quarterfinals either, but just being there was quite an accomplishment. 

The Tier II Stars, coached by Peter Wood, came closest to advancing further, falling to the Red River Valley Hawks from Fargo, ND in overtime of their quarterfinal matchup.

“It’s a special thing, it’s the kind of thing that happens in more mature markets,” Lites said of hosting the tournament.

The home teams really enjoyed having the Bantam tournament in their own backyard, because they usually have to travel long distances to find suitable competition.

“Having it at home here in Dallas was a little extra special for the kids and for me, to have their friends and families come out and watch,” acknowledged Dave Fry, head coach of the Tier I Bantam squad, which ended up losing to the Chicago Mission. “Here in Dallas, our team and most of the top Tier I and AAA teams, have to travel all year to go out and get constant competition, so the majority of our team’s schedule is played out of town, so a lot of friends and families don’t get the opportunity to see these guys. So for them to get to see them on the national level was an extra thrill.”

“What a great experience to have it their home town, with their families and their friends, and they go to school and get recognition from their teachers,” MacInnis said. “It was a neat experience for them and not a lot of clubs get to experience it. A lot of times when you travel out of town to play, you don’t have many fans, just the ones that went with you, so here, they had their grandparents, their friends, their siblings - it was a big deal and they treated it that way.”

For the Tier II U18 team that won the national championship, they endured a tough road to reach the ultimate goal, but it was certainly satisfying once achieved.

“At the end of the season a few of the players quit the team, and on top of that, we had injured players so we ended up going to National Championship with a very short bench,” revealed Tier II U18 head coach Stan Tugolukov, who earned high praise from Lites for a job well done. “But the boys worked so unbelievably hard and showed great skills and amazing plays that no obstacles could stop up from winning.”

“We had to win in a shootout in the semi-finals of the state tournament to get there, against another Dallas team,” Lites noted. “And then we had to beat another Dallas team in the finals of the state tournament that had beaten us twice before. We had as much competition in the state tournament as we had any time the rest of the year, through the Regionals and through the national championship. We had to win 14 games from the start of the state tournament - in fact, we had to win 16 games, because we had a play down, a two-game series, just to qualify for the state tournament, so that’s a lot of games. You had to win 16 to get there - it’s like the Stanley Cup Finals.”

Tugolukov, a Russian who actually played on the same National Select Junior team as Stars defenseman Sergei Zubov (and Pittsburgh’s Sergei Gonchar, among others), got his team back to the national tournament after a bitter defeat last season.

“It’s an amazing feeling to know that hard work of my team paid off by winning National Championship,” Tugolukov said. “The core of my team that played for me went to the national championship last year and we lost the semi-final game in overtime to the national champions. From the very beginning of this season we worked towards making those final steps, and it is very gratifying to know that we have accomplished what was planned.”

As for the Tier I U18 squad, falling in overtime of the championship game was simply devastating. 

“It’s going to be a tough one to swallow for a long time,” admitted Tier I U18 head coach Adam Robbins of his team, which rallied from a 3-0 third period deficit to tie it and force OT. “But then, I’ll take a look at that silver medal and it’s a pretty good accomplishment. It would have been nice to win it, but looking back, it was a really successful year. Towards the end, we started realizing we had something special with the group of guys that we had. We knew we were a talented team and a tight group, unity-wise. As long as I’ve been coaching, I’ve never had a team as tight as the one we had this year.”

And while his team didn’t come out on top in the end, Robbins feels good that his players will continue to advance up the hockey ladder, either to the top junior league in the US or college. 

“Success is measured not even by how we did, but the outcome and the exposure of the players making it that far in nationals,” Robbins said. “A lot of players are going to go on now because of that. A lot of them got exposed to a lot of D1 colleges. Hopefully, we’ll wrap up some scholarships there and hopefully some will be getting drafted into the USHL.”

And even though the three Bantam teams and the Peewee team did not make it past the quarterfinals, just reaching the ‘elite eight’ was an impressive achievement.

“You’re always disappointed for your boys not to go farther,” admitted MacInnis of the Tier II Dallas Stars Selects. “But we’re very satisfied with the performance of our kids and the fact that they got to nationals and competed with the best. Unfortunately, there’s always a winner and a loser, and we weren’t able to get past the quarterfinals, but we finished in the top eight in the tournament. We were disappointed but also extremely proud of the accomplishments these kids had. We were a team that wasn’t supposed to be there, we were underdogs, but we won our way in and really performed well.”

MacInnis was particularly proud of his team that had to overcome seven injuries just a month before the regional tournament they needed to win to reach the nationals. Most of the players made it back for that, including number one defenseman, Brad Harley, who had suffered a lacerated liver and arrived just in time for the tournament after receiving medical clearance.

“He was one of the inspirational points for us,” MacInnis said. “Once the kids knew he was coming and he was there, their spirits just went through the roof and they really thought they could win now. He’s a difference-maker - the kid hadn’t been on the ice for a month, but just the emotional lift he gave our club was phenomenal. It was just an incredible experience to see that team come together after nearly being torn apart because of these injuries.”

None of these success stories could have been possible, though, without the Stars’ - and Lites’ - direct involvement and lots of hard work back in the mid-‘90s.

“It sounds funny, but in my 10 years in Detroit, before I came to Dallas, amateur hockey was never anything I even thought about,” Lites said. “It wasn’t part of the program, you didn’t need to do it. Detroit had rinks everywhere, kids were playing - it just wasn’t part of the thing. But when we came to Dallas, we kind of fell into it because we needed a place to practice and bought what at that time was the Dr Pepper StarCenter Valley Ranch - it was the only ice surface in town, so we had to buy it because we needed a place to practice. And once we bought it, we inherited all the figure skating programs and whatever amateur hockey was played in that building - at the time about 250 people, kids and adults. That was 1993, so we built a second sheet because it was so busy, then we started going to other communities.”

Over the years, the Stars have built nine facilities in the Metroplex, and when the newest one in McKinney opens next September, they will control 17 ice sheets in the area.

As the overall quantity of players has increased, so has the quality and over the last several seasons, more and more youth clubs have been reaching and succeeding at USA Hockey national tournaments. It was a benchmark when the 2006 Peewee Ice Jets squad became the first team from Texas to win a Tier I national championship and the barriers continue to fall.

“I think this year, obviously sending six (teams to nationals) has been great,” noted Fry. “And over the past six years, we have sent a couple of teams at different age groups each year to nationals, but never six teams. I think it just shows how good the coaching down here is and the development of the players that get an opportunity to move on to the next level. Hockey is really growing here in Texas.”

In addition to these developments, having the first Dallas native drafted by an NHL team (Austin Smith, who just completed his freshman year at Colgate University, was selected by the Stars in the fifth round - 128th overall - of the 2007 Entry Draft) and other younger players gaining more and more attention from major junior teams in Canada and Division I colleges, further demonstrates that the future looks even brighter.

“I started my coaching career in Dallas in 2003,” Tugolukov pointed out. “With Texas being a ‘football state,’ hockey was not such a popular sport for young athletes, and it was hard to be competitive on the national level. In 2003, I could not even dream of my team becoming national champions. Now the number of hockey teams in Dallas is unbelievable and so many of these teams are very successful and competitive on the national arena. We have a Dallas hockey player who was drafted into NHL, a few players are involved in the USA National Team Development Program, and many local players play college hockey. This year, six local teams went to national championships and two Dallas U18 teams played in the final games. It’s an amazing achievement.” 

With its recent wave of success, the North Texas area has been universally recognized, along with the Los Angeles metro area, as a model for growing hockey at the grass roots level. Lites even relates how executives in more established NHL cities have come to him for advice on building up their youth programs.

“To have gotten to the point now where the president of the Pittsburgh Penguins came to me while we were there,” Lites recounted. “And he calls me all the time about, ‘How did you do it? How can we do it?’ And Pittsburgh’s been in the NHL for 40 years.” 

And how appropriate that Lites himself was there to witness and experience for himself just how far his pet project has come in just 15 seasons.

“It’s been such a privilege for me to work with Jim Lites, who has contributed so much to the growth of youth hockey in Dallas,” Tugolukov said. “Jim has provided tremendous amount of support to not only our team, but also many other organizations in town.”

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