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Texas Stars enjoyed stellar first season

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

They might have fallen just short of the ultimate goal in gut-wrenching fashion, but by just about any standard of measurement, the Texas Stars enjoyed a wildly successful first season.

The top farm club of the Dallas Stars, based in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park, jumped out to a 2-0 lead over the Hershey Bears in the best-of-seven Calder Cup Finals and looked to be on their way to the championship. But after dropping three consecutive home games last week at a sold-out Cedar Park Center, including a heart-breaking 2-1 overtime defeat in Game 5, the Stars succumbed in Game 6 to the Bears, who had posted the league’s best regular season record and claimed their second straight AHL title.

Still, for a first-year franchise, Texas far exceeded expectations both on and off the ice. For the Dallas prospects who gained such valuable experience in high-stakes pressure situations, their accelerated development bodes well for the future of the entire organization.

“I think it’s important because any time you attach yourself to winning, it’s a good asset to carry forward,” noted Les Jackson, Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development in Dallas. “Those are experiences that, the more they have, they know how to recognize the situations that are tough and know how to deal with them. When you’re looking for players, you always try to attach yourself to guys who have a winning background and this is a great experience for these young guys.” 

The fact is, this is the first time since before the Minnesota North Stars relocated to Dallas in 1993 (and probably ever) that the franchise saw its primary minor league affiliate advance to its league finals. It’s that big a deal for the organization. 

“Of all the farm teams that I’ve been a part of, in my history with the Stars, this is the best situation we’ve ever been around,” said Jackson, who first joined the organization back in 1985.  “We’ve had a number of times that we had good teams that just haven’t got through (the playoffs). This year, we’ve been pretty fortunate. It’s a great situation. Win or lose, they put themselves in a great spot and for our organization, it’s been good.”

“I think we saw some of the benefits with that last year with Mark Fistric,” added Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk, referencing the Stars defenseman who enjoyed a big season after a trip to the AHL Finals in 2008-09. “He had a long playoff run with Manitoba. But to have everyone under our one umbrella is huge. They’ve done a terrific job down there (in Cedar Park). It’s been very important in our young kids’ development.”

And off the ice, the additional attention that the Texas Stars received by their stellar post-season, helped by the presence of electrifying Dallas rookie Jamie Benn, captured the enthusiasm of the local sports fans to an impressive degree. The club fared very well at the ticket window during the regular season, averaging 5,500 fans per home game, ranking fifth in the AHL in that category, but their success in the playoffs helped push that figure far higher. For the three Finals contests at the Cedar Park Center, the Stars drew over 7,000 spectators in a beautiful new building that only seats 6,800.

“It really helps out a lot,” said Texas Stars President Rick McLaughlin of the post-season drive. “We’ve already sold 300 new season tickets for next year, we lead the American Hockey League in that category right now. Having a long playoff run helps develop the fan base, it just helps drive the roots a little deeper down into the community. I think we’ve got a lot more exposure from a lot more people. I think a lot more people now know who we are that might not have known who we were in January or February, so it’s a big boost.”

Seeing the Texas Stars compete for the Calder Cup in front of a rabid, overflowing Cedar Park Center was the culmination of two years of hard work for McLaughlin, who re-located his family from the Metroplex in order to oversee the building of the club from the ground up.

“June 1, 2008 we broke ground and then shortly after that, I started to hire ticket sales staff, and then in October ‘08, we started selling tickets,” recalled McLaughlin, who previously served as Executive Vice President of Business Operations for the Texas Rangers and as Vice President of Finance and Chief Financial Officer of the Dallas Stars, as well as a variety of positions for the Hicks family’s sports businesses. “So it gave us a full year to sell tickets and sponsorships and to build the business the right way and to hire everybody.  Initially, we were selling the dream. We were asking people to put a $100 deposit down on a seat until we could bring them over and show them a little bit more - it was not a big commitment maybe, and they were able to invest that. The biggest thing that helped us was getting people over to the construction site and seeing that this was not just an ice rink, it’s a real arena, and the further along the construction went, people could see what this thing was becoming, the more excited they became and then the commitments really started coming in.”

McLaughlin, who joined the Stars franchise when it first arrived in Dallas and went through the challenging process of selling hockey to an area full of football fans, being able to draw on that experience was important.

“It certainly helped,” McLaughlin said of going through those early days in Dallas, which ultimately resulted in getting his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup in 1999. “We got down here in ‘93 and people were asking us questions that made us say, ‘Uh oh, what have we gotten ourselves into?’ Questions like, ‘Is there a pond in Reunion Arena and how do you freeze it?’ We just dug in and moved forward. 

“So I kind of knew some of the hurdles, but there’s always unknowns. This is a new market, it’s a different market, but we like this market a lot because it’s a good sports market and it’s a good football market. And we found that if people like football, they’ll like hockey, in Texas. You see that in Dallas, we saw it here. So once we punched through the October/November football frenzy, with both high school and the (University of Texas), then we started to see our attendance really go up.”

After providing plenty of thrilling moments for their fans throughout the 2010 post-season, including two consecutive home overtime victories in the Conference Finals to become the first AHL expansion club to reach the championship round since 2002, the Texas Stars certainly hope to keep pushing that bar higher and higher as they head into Year Two.

“We’re certainly encouraged by the level of new season tickets sold, where we are with renewals, how we’re doing with sponsorships, so we’re really looking to build on the success we’ve had here,” McLaughlin said. “It certainly gives us a really good opportunity to really do good this summer and start at a higher place this October than where we were last October and build on that. I’m cautiously optimistic that things will come together.”

And from the Dallas Stars’ perspective, having all of their top prospects in one place, just three hours away, has been an ideal scenario - especially after last season, when, lacking their own affiliate, they were forced to scatter their players across the AHL. The fact that their guys produced a lengthy playoff run just takes it to another level.

“Obviously, you have more control of your players and you can put them in and out of the lineup and positions that you feel helps them grow,” Jackson said of the huge advantage having their own AHL club provides. “We have our own coach (Glen Gulutzan) that’s tied in with our organization, so they’re really just an extension of what we do in Dallas. It’s like any organization, you get a group together and you try to put the right guys in the right chairs to run your group, and obviously, with the guys here, right from our trainers up to our coaches and to (Texas GM Scott White) - we got a real solid group. And the facility, it’s an exciting place. Having the guys here, they get to see how we operate and we get a better relationship with them, because we come down here and we have total access to them, so developmentally, it’s perfect. It’s been a great experience.”

Even if they couldn’t quite reach the summit of that final mountain.

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