Wandering through the press box Friday night at the American Airlines Center during the Stars’ 4-3 shootout loss to Toronto, Lites stopped to chat with a couple of reporters when Eric Nystrom
’s second goal of the night tied the game 2-2. Forgetting where he was for a moment, the 58-year-old new/longtime club president instinctively shouted, “Yeah baby!” and gave an energetic fist pump.
Suddenly returning to his senses, a red-faced Lites apologized effusively for his outburst, but the truth is, it was refreshing to see the passion exhibited by the club’s new regime.
So while the announcement of his return to his old post may have gotten a bit overshadowed by all the fanfare surrounding Tom Gaglardi’s purchase of the franchise, the significance of Lites’ return as club president should not be overlooked.
“On the business side, having Jim Lites at the helm of the Stars is really an owner’s dream,” said Gaglardi at his introductory press conference last Monday. “He knows the market, he loves the game and he is totally committed to putting the Stars back in their rightful position as one of the premiere franchises in the National Hockey League. Jim knows what to do. It’ll take some time, but it’s going to get done.”
After four years working on other projects, Lites is happy to be back and is uniquely qualified to take on the challenges facing the Stars right now.
“I’ve had the privilege of being in this position before, but the circumstances are different, and unique, compared to other situations I’ve been in, even in Dallas,” said Lites, who also served as franchise president when it relocated from Minnesota in 1993 through 2002 and again from 2003-07. “I’ve been pretty successful, my kids are grown, I only got one left in college so I got a bunch off the payroll, and I said (to Gaglardi), ‘I don’t really need a job, but I want this job.’ That’s what I said. And I meant it.”
That type of enthusiasm helped land Lites the job, as he continually worked at persuading Gaglardi that the time was right for him to return to Dallas after spending the last couple of years managing the New York Giants’ personal seat license program for the new MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
“I’d heard his name, but I’d never met Jim before,” recounted Gaglardi. “I had a bunch of people telling me, ‘You need to meet Jim Lites.’ A little bit of my philosophy is that I haven’t had a whole lot of success bringing people back to jobs they were at. And so I kind of came to it with maybe a little bit of a bad attitude. I met Jim the morning of the home opener here against Chicago and I read in the media that he said I was pretty tough on him, and maybe I was, because my attitude with Jim was, ‘You know Jim, you’ve done this before, you’ve had success, why would you want to come back and do this again? Why would you want to do that at your age, where you are in your career?’ Because I needed to know that.”
“You look at the circumstances, I’m a competitive guy, and I got to talking to him, and then he says to me, ‘Is this a job interview? I just sat down to talk,’” Lites recalled of that first meeting on Oct. 7 in Dallas. “And I said, ‘I don’t know, is it?’ It was that kind of thing and he said to me openly and honestly, he said, ‘Do you have the energy?’ Because, as Jacques Demers used to say, mixing metaphors, he’d say, ‘I’m no chicken-spring.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m a real energetic guy, I’ve had great experiences in the four years since I left, I’ve been really active and active in the business. I know more people now on a national scale than I used to.’ And the thing is, it boils down to the point where it’s a project and I think I’m a better project guy than I am a care-taker.”
Gaglardi was suitably impressed with Lites that first night, and in subsequent meetings became more and more convinced that he was indeed the best man to take over the reigns as president again.
“After that, I brought him up to Vancouver for a couple of days, just to spend lots of time with him, just to get to know him and get to know what makes him tick, and the guy bleeds green and gold,” said Gaglardi of Lites. “He is so committed and wanted this job so badly, that he really put me in a position where I had no choice but to bring him back. And I’ll tell you, I’m so thrilled to have him, there’s no question he’s the real deal. He has such a following and the respect of other owners and other managers around the National Hockey League and I tell you, one of the lucky things that happened is that the stars aligned, literally, to bring Jim back to the role. I think he’s going to be great.”
Lites feels similarly about the Stars’ new owner, who finally took control of the franchise on Nov. 18 after nearly two years of pursuing the club through a drawn-out bankruptcy process, and sees some similarities between Gaglardi and his highly-respected former boss, from 1982-93, in Detroit.
“He’s got a really good sense of humor, which I really like,” said Lites, who joined the Red Wings as Chief Operating Officer and remained in that capacity until former North Stars owner Norm Green lured him to Dallas. “He’s smart, obviously self-made, I really like that. And I got to tell you, he reminds me of Mike Illitch. Mike was my mentor in this industry, he was my father-in-law and my first boss with the Red Wings. He comes from the same business, they’re a hospitality business, they know what customers want, they know how to deal with that. And he’s a hockey guy, he knows hockey inside and out. He gets it and I think that’s a good thing.”
Regarding the Stars’ current situation, which sees the club boasting a young, up-and-coming team but enduring a disappointing downturn at the box office, averaging just 11,305 fans through 12 home games, ranking 29th in the NHL and the franchise’s lowest since it arrived in Dallas, Lites is excited to tackle the challenge of bringing back the fans and is confident it can be done.
“I’m really good with a project,” noted Lites, who was happy Friday night that the Stars sold out the American Airlines Center for the first time this season. “I mean, I started in Detroit when there were no fans. In 1982, we took over from nothing, it had fallen farther than this, if you can imagine, in Hockeytown. I got to come to Dallas to start it and it feels more like 1993 to me than at any other time, because, really, it’s a fresh start.
“People ask me, ‘Do you think the job is more difficult, are you more afraid of it now, when you need to re-engage the community than when you first got here?’ And I can tell you categorically, while it’s a tough job and we have a lot to do, it feels a little less daunting today than it did in ’93, when we didn’t know if there were going to be any fans here. It was literally, ‘Holy smokes, what are we going to do now? What if nobody comes?’ In this situation, we have an unbelievable building, a proven marketplace, great television partners in Fox Sports Southwest and Channel 21, and people know us. It happens in many situations where the fans get lost and go away from us, and we have every intention of pulling it back together and I’m really fired up about it.”
Lites pointed out how changing demographics in the area can alter the franchise’s approach in marketing the team and requires continual attention.
“I think someone suggested more than a million people have come to the Metroplex since we got here in 1993, which means there’s an awful lot of fans we haven’t touched yet,” Lites said. “We need to re-engage with our old ones, and with the people that have been part of the Stars family since the golden days, and with all the fans that we haven’t made yet, all the opportunities we’ll have. Tom and I had a very good discussion with the existing staff today and from here, the Gaglardi-owned franchise starts today and we’re going to dig into the community and re-engage everyone in getting to games, watching on television and watching Joe and the guys turn it around on the ice. We’re excited for the opportunity.”
One aspect of Lites’ plan involves re-invigorating the Stars’ presence on the local youth hockey scene, something his original vision 18 years ago helped launch in the first place. While the number of Dr Pepper StarCenter rinks owned and operated by the organization has diminished a bit in recent years, the club’s commitment to growing the game at the grass roots level has not.
“About growing youth hockey here, one thing I think has shown a little bit is the need for fans to emotionally engage with the Stars and the team,” acknowledged Lites. “We intend to do as much as we can do to engage our players, their desire to be involved with us to kind of regain our position in the marketplace with kids, so kids are making choices to play hockey as well as the other sports that are here. And if anything, the number of StarCenters will go higher, I’ll assume they will increase, either with our involvement directly or with our help in that regard.”
“I think the Dr Pepper StarCenter strategy is a marvelous one,” Gaglardi added. “It’s something that I think is wonderful, it’s part of our future plans here and I wouldn’t be surprised if we pursue further growth in that area, in terms of educating kids on what a great sport this is and educating them on how to support Stars hockey here in Dallas. It’s something we’re excited about, I’m excited about and I look forward to spending more time on that area of the business here.”
With Jim Lites back at the helm, Gaglardi’s already got a trusted lieutenant he’s confident will make an impact quickly.
“Let’s face it, the hockey team, it’s not a rebuilding situation,” Gaglardi pointed out. “On the business side, we got a guy (Lites) that knows what he’s doing, so there’s no learning curve for a new president to come in and learn what he’s doing. He knows the market, he knows what it takes, and he’s going to hit the ground going.”