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Sturm Blog: Changing the Culture

by Bob Sturm / Dallas Stars

Bob Sturm

The Stars made some interesting moves this summer that they must get right.
The most publicized were the decisions to say goodbye to some icons of the organization.  When talking about the Stars of the last decade, easily 2 of the most famous and accomplished names were Mike Modano and Marty Turco.
It was risky issue, but in both cases, they knew that their resources were likely to be better spent on something with a gaze to the future.  Keeping Modano and Turco might have pleased some fans, but it wasn’t going to pay off in 2013 on the ice.
The results of these moves as I check the early returns are very noticeable.  Yes, the play in goal has been solid and Modano has not been missed on the ice – but I am actually more interested in the dynamics in the room.
Nothing is more difficult to quantify in sports than the dynamics on a team when we discuss leadership, cohesion, and chemistry.  Some will tell you that it is results based – if you are winning you have good chemistry.  Others will tell you that it causes the results – if you have good chemistry you have a better chance of winning.
The debate is a good one, but in the case of a team that had seemed to found its own rock bottom, the organization was in desperate need of change.
With accomplished veterans in your room who are set in their ways, it is very difficult to have a very sudden change in the way your organization does business.  They can set the tone about how new coaches and new philosophies are heard and followed.  A new coach will say something and the young pups in the room look to their leaders and see what they think before they know how to respond.
This isn’t to say that Modano and Turco (and Zubov and Arnott and Guerin and Boucher) were bad guys in the room.  They weren’t.  But, it is not easy to get guys to buy in to something they have not been accustomed to.  “Set in their ways” is not a great characteristic when you want your team to change its ways.
I think we are seeing the real Joe Nieuwendyk and Marc Crawford this year.  I think last year, they were a bit more timid and careful on how they began to speak their minds.  To the common fan, you might not understand that “losing the room” is a very real concern for new management – but trust me, when a coach comes to a team filled with veterans, they often do not sprint in there with guns blazing and sermons blaring.  
They soft sell.  They listen more than they talk.  They attempt to be the pot of water on the stove that gradually raises the temperature to a boil with slow, steady adjustments.   
A dozen games in, all of the players say similar things.  The Stars organization had slowly evolved into a bit of a “country club” over the last several seasons.  That is not a flattering label.  They would play hard, but in the end, it was just another game in a career of hundreds of them.  If they didn’t get tonight’s game, there are always more next week.  This, of course, is true and is false.  You have to be able to deal with defeat, but not to accept it.  
When losing becomes slightly more palatable than it used to be, you must change the culture.  Sometimes, to do so, you have to change the personalities.  Especially the ones with all of the credibility in the room, and that is why you have to sometimes subtract coaches or players – and the fans will not understand the real reasons why it happened.

The fact is that the Stars organization – from top to bottom – started using excuses rather than find solutions.  When bad things happened, the “here we go again” rolling of the eyes began to set in.  That had to change.  
Was losing the most dreaded thing to every one of the guys?  If not, it needed to get back there.  And that is what Nieuwendyk preached as he tried to change a culture on almost no budget.
I didn’t expect to see the differences so soon, but it does seem as you watch this team night in and night out that there are fewer nights where the team is flat and disinterested.
Oh sure, you will still lose games.  And sometimes, like Saturday in Denver, it will be pretty ugly.  But, the question for Nieuwendyk, Crawford, and anyone who cares about this organization is this:  “Is this team as good as it can be?”  Honestly, I don’t believe they have Stanley Cup talent right now.  But, they do have the talent to make the playoffs.  
But the only way they get there is if 20 players are all buying in.  If the entire room pulls in the same direction, they can exceed expectations.  If they have pockets of agendas on different parts of the bench, then they fall short of expectations.
Again, this is not a reflection of Modano and Turco.  They were wonderful players, but the Stars needed more blank slates and new power brokers in the room that when the young pups looked to the older players, those men were drawing their swords to fight and not accept a loss.  It was time for new louder voices.
As fans, we see the highlights and think we have an idea of what wins and what loses.  The truth is, nobody fully knows.  But, those put in charge of running this organization are running an experiment to turn this franchise back in the right direction.  Their careers, to an extent, depend upon the results.  
Night after night, I detect something is feeling different.  Could the Stars have the same record with no changes this summer?  Sure.  But, they couldn’t have begun to change the culture.
And the culture needed to change.  Country clubs don’t win Stanley Cups.

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