The Dallas Stars take on the New Jersey Devils Saturday night (7:00pm on My27) in their second game of the season, and besides it being their home opener, the game will feature a rare chance for Dallas fans to see former Star right winger Jamie Langenbrunner.With the new NHL's heavy emphasis on intra-conference play, it means that Star-gazers only view Eastern teams like the Devils once every three years.
In fact, since he was traded to New Jersey on March 19, 2002, Langenbrunner has only returned to the American Airlines Center once, and it was a trip he'd like to forget. But Langenbrunner has fond memories of his days in Dallas and is looking forward to the experience.
"I came back once, but in the first period, I blew out my knee," he said of the injury he suffered on Nov. 28, 2003 that caused him to miss 28 games. "It's always fun to go back there, I had a lot of good times there, and it will good to see some familiar faces I haven't seen in awhile."
Langenbrunner, now 31, played the first six and a half years of his NHL career in Dallas, becoming a full-time player in 1996-97 and evolving into a key contributor. Of course, he was an important component of the 1999 Stanley Cup winners (scoring 10 playoff goals) and the 2000 team that lost in the Finals.
After spending so long in one place, Langenbrunner set down some roots and still has ties to the Metroplex, including some of his ex-teammates on the Stars.
"I still have some people there that I talk to on a regular basis, and friends of the family that we keep in touch with," Langenbrunner said.
"He's been around in the summertimes," new Stars captain Brenden Morrow said, "and we've played golf a little bit here and there."
One of his closest friends still in the area is actually Stars broadcaster Ralph Strangis, who originally bonded with Langenbrunner because of their common Minnesota roots.
"We keep in fairly close contact," Strangis said. "I'd say we talk probably once a month on average."
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Langenbrunner acknowledged that the visit back to Dallas will be a little sentimental for him.
"You know, it's always emotional going back to a place that you called home for a long time," he admitted. "But a lot of time has passed and most of the guys on the team have changed, but at the same time, it will be a little emotional going back to a place that you called home." Langenbrunner was dealt to New Jersey at the trade deadline in 2002 with Joe Nieuwendyk in exchange for Jason Arnott, winger Randy McKay and a draft pick.
"When you want to get something, you've got to give something up," Strangis noted, summing up the deal. "And we knew that. What we gave up was a real good player, and what we got was a real good player."
Langenbrunner remarked that as incredible as the 1999 Cup experience was for him, he couldn't say it was better than winning it again in 2003 in New Jersey.
"I don't think you can compare the feelings," Langenbrunner said. "It's like having kids, you don't love one more than the others. They're all unique, they all have things that make them special. Maybe the second time around, you knew what was going to happen to you, so you could just enjoy the ride a little more, but other than that, it's special any time, and they're both special memories."
Langenbrunner had another solid season last year, continuing to contribute in all three zones as he scored 19 goals and 53 points. He also added three goals and 13 points in nine post-season games as the Devils lost to eventual Cup champion Carolina in the second round.
"I think I've grown up as a player, I know the game a little bit more now," he said. "It definitely helped that I played with some of the best players and leaders that have ever played the game, in Dallas. It was a pretty special team to be a part of and I learned a lot from them and I've tried to transfer that into my game, and I've tried to play a little bit more consistently."
"Jamie has always been a big-game player," Strangis said. "I remember his father telling me that when he was a young kid playing in peewee and in high school, the bigger the game, the bigger Jamie played, always. And in Dallas and in New Jersey, he got a chance to play in some very big games and he was always up for that. I always had a belief that he was going to mature into a very good NHL player."
New Jersey giving him more responsibilities on the ice has also helped foster that development. For example, he averaged 18:36 of ice time last year, significantly more than the 15:45 he had in 2001-02 with the Stars before he was traded.
"In Dallas, I was a younger player and had to earn my way to be counted on in certain situations," Langenbrunner said. "We had a lot of guys that could play good there, so it was tough to find a lot of time to play. Here, they've counted on me a little bit more, and I've found myself in a good spot, and we've been able to have some success with it."
From his ex-teammates, Langenbrunner receives nothing but glowing praise and admiration. "He's all passion and all heart," added Morrow. "He goes out and works hard and does all the little things. And he's a real playoff performer. I think his stats in the playoffs show he's a real winner and is a good character guy and a guy we miss around here."
There was actually the slightest of chances that Langenbrunner might return to the Big D when he became an unrestricted free agent this summer. With New Jersey struggling to remain under the salary cap, some observers thought the Devils might not be able to afford him, and if they let him go, Dallas would jump into the mix to sign him.
Alas, for Stars fans, it was not to be, as Langenbrunner a new five-year pact worth $14 million on July 1.
"I think my first choice was to come back to New Jersey," Langenbrunner said. "We were in talks all the way up through July 1st and we did a lot of work on the terms of a new contract, went back and forth, and right at the end, they offered me a contract that answered all the questions for me. I didn't ever really get a chance to look at other places and I don't regret that."
Interestingly enough, Langenbrunner is now joined in New Jersey by no less than three other members of that 1999 Dallas Stanley Cup squad. In fact, with forward Grant Marshall, and defensemen Richard Matvichuk and Brad Lukowich now with the club, the Devils actually have as many alumni of that Cup team as the Stars do. The only remaining Cup winners still in Dallas are Modano, winger Jere Lehtinen, and defensemen Sergei Zubov and Darryl Sydor, who just returned this off-season.
"Yeah, there's a few of us here," Langenbrunner said. "It's kind of funny. And Joe Nieuwendyk was here for a little while, too. It's fun to play with those guys again, because any time you go away from your friends, you wonder if you'll ever play with them again."
As the 2006-07 season begins, Langenbrunner points out that his club's goal is nothing less than the Stanley Cup.
"You always go into a year looking to win the Stanley Cup," he said. "That's our only goal, our only focus, and we want to take the steps to be there at the end. Anything less here is considered a failure, and that's a good atmosphere to be in." That sounds very much like what the Stars are saying. Clearly, if he had to leave Dallas, Langenbrunner has ended up in the right place after all.
Strangis offered a rare inside look at the real Jamie Langenbrunner that the fans don't usually have access to.
"He's a real quiet, typical northern Minnesota guy," Strangis said. "Jamie would just as soon be in a boat fishing or sit on his couch watching a Vikings game, or watching a Twins game. He plays cribbage, like everybody in Northern Minnesota.
"When we were on the road, we would say we were do-ers. We'd go do things, go take in a show, or go to a museum, something different. We went and saw a 'Becker' taping one night and I've got a picture on my wall with me, Jamie and Ted Danson. He sent it to me, and the caption on the picture says, 'Cheers to the doers.' It's one of my most favorite things.
"He and I like the same things. We like to go to the track, we've been to Las Vegas together, we play golf. We both come from the same area of the country and we understand that culture. He's probably got shirts that are in his collection that he had his first year here. He's not going to spend his money on fashion or flashy cars or anything like that."
They say history repeats itself, so how about this tidbit: In 1995, Dallas traded longtime Star (and North Star) Neal Broten to New Jersey, and the Devils won the Stanley Cup that season with Broten playing a key role.
Fast forward to 2002 and the Devils acquire Langenbrunner and Nieuwendyk. It took them until the next season, but once again, New Jersey won a Cup with former Stars helping to lead the way.