As the clock wound down on the Dallas Stars in their Game 6 Western Conference finals loss to the Detroit Red Wings, owner Tom Hicks was already making plans to meet with team president Jim Lites and general manager Bob Gainey. It may have been a memorable playoff run, but it was certainly unfulfilling for a Stars team that fell a series short of their ultimate goal.
|Bob Gainey |
After a promising season in which Dallas earned the President's Trophy for the best regular season record, the Stars dreams of winning the Stanley Cup vanished in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena in June 1998. Determined to erase the bitter taste in the organization's mouth, the front office immediately went to work, looking to improve upon a club that already boasted a strong mix of youthful energy and veteran leadership.
The '97-98 Stars team, under the guidance of bench jockey Ken Hitchcock, made its mark by playing back-breaking defense. It was commonplace for that bunch to allow 15 shots on goalie Ed Belfour while mustering just enough offense to win a low-scoring and tight-checking affair. Against the Red Wings, the Stars quickly found out that sometimes your best defense is a good offense.
Dallas' power play was sickly in the '98 postseason, converting on just 1-of-30 man advantage opportunities against the Red Wings. So with Hitchcock's defensive-minded system firmly in place, Hicks and Co. were determined to get some more "O" that was lacking at "The Joe."
Coincidentally, there just so happened to be one of the most explosive goal scorers available when the free agent market opened less than a month later.Follow The Golden-Brett Road
As the free agent feeding frenzy began on July 1, St. Louis forward Brett Hull was a highly sought after commodity. After turning down the Blues $15 million contract offer in March because it didn't include a no-trade clause, Hull's name shot straight to the top of the wish list for many teams in the NHL. One of those clubs was the Dallas Stars.
After being acquired from Calgary by the Blues at the end of the 1988 season, Hull had become the most prolific scorer in the league. The six-time All Star scored an amazing 228 goals in a three-year span that began in 1989, and had already accumulated 554 goals and 433 assists in 801 career games. The soon-to-be 34-year-old was an asset waiting to be had.
It was widely speculated that the Stars weren't interested in doling out big dollars for the outspoken Hull, who was perceived around the league to be a selfish and one-dimensional player that wouldn't fit in the team-oriented mold the Stars had created under Gainey and his Montreal Canadiens roots.
But on Thursday, July 3, Hicks shocked the hockey world by signing Hull to a three-year, $17 million contract that included the no-trade clause the sniper dearly wanted.
"A few weeks ago, we decided Brett would be our No. 1 priority free agent," Hicks said. "We thought he'd be interested in coming here because we think we have a chance to win the Stanley Cup."
"When you first break into the league, you want to establish yourself as a player, financially, building a home, a foundation and a future," Hull said. "Then the main thing is to be a champion. I've always wanted to do that. I wanted to do that in St. Louis, but I'm not in St. Louis anymore. When Dallas called, I thought they were as close to anybody to winning the Stanley Cup. It's a great honor they want me to be a part of that."
Added Gainey: "He provides added depth, and his abilities, skills, experiences and passion to play on a successful team will help us."
With Hull delivered, the Stars instantly became a top favorite to dethrone the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings. Gainey, though, knew his summer job was still a work in process.NEXT: Part II of this first installment on 1998-99 -- More key signings, Training Camp and the Regular Season Begins