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'It's been incredible': With growing fan base, Stars on fast rise

Fresh off a playoff run and selling out the 2020 Winter Classic, the organization's future looks brighter than ever

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

The Dallas Stars' business rebirth is an overnight success story seven years in the making.

When Tom Gaglardi bought the team out of bankruptcy in 2011, much of the infrastructure had been stripped down by banks who were trying to guard their investment, so the focus was on reducing more than expanding.

But after hosting the NHL Draft last summer, selling out the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic in record time, and now grabbing a whole new layer of sports fans in Dallas/Fort Worth with their 2019 playoff run, the Stars are looking like a hot sports commodity.

"I'd put our organization up against anybody in the league," Gaglardi said. "We have very talented people throughout our organization, and I really do think that makes a difference."

 

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The past few months have been a chance to reflect the successes, but team president Brad Alberts said he believes the foundation for these victories has been building every season. The team had to work hard to convince the NHL that Dallas would be a good place to hold the 2018 Entry Draft, and then once that was accomplished, it could go to work selling the concept of an outdoor game at Cotton Bowl Stadium.

"We have a very prepared group and a very organized group. This work has been going on for five or six years, and it's been happening behind the scenes," said Alberts. "Now, the Winter Classic has brought some attention and the playoffs have brought some attention, and everybody in New York knows that the Stars are very buttoned up and very prepared to do what needs to be done. It's what we do."

The presale for Winter Classic tickets exceeded 60,000, and then when the remaining tickets went on sale in April, they sold out in less than a day -- guaranteeing a crowd of 80,000 for Jan. 1, 2020. When you consider the concept of the game being played in Dallas with Nashville as an opponent, there could have been some trepidation about possibly limited fan response, and Stars CEO Jim Lites said the team knew it was treading into new territory.

Video: Stars discuss their excitement for outdoor game

"I can't say we were entirely confident when we first started talking about this. But I think once we switched to the Cotton Bowl, it all started to make more sense," Lites said. "It just works so well in setting up the entire event where we're not trying to fit it in at another venue, we're completely focused on what we can do to make this as big as possible. I think that's been a key for us."

And by giving that flexibility to a team that knows how to use it, the process has actually been pretty smooth. The Stars' sales and marketing departments, led by Matt Bowman, combined with the NHL forces to get the word out quickly and efficiently.

"The fact that we sold it out so quickly surprised some people. It certainly surprised the NHL," Alberts said. "But our guys have a good plan, a good process, and the fans have really stepped up and embraced it."

Alberts said creating a strong season ticket base was a huge factor in making the Winter Classic an easier sell. The Stars had a home average attendance of 18,178 or 98.1 percent capacity in 2018-19. That's coming off two seasons of missing the playoffs, and just two playoff appearances in a 10-year span.

While it's easy to say the team is draw now, it was a big question mark before the season started.

"I told Matt, 'You will not get credit for the genius of what you and your group have done,' but what they were able to do manifests itself in what we are experiencing now," Alberts said. "You have to have that foundation, and that's not easy to build. That takes a lot of hard work, and they put that hard work in.

"The crowds are great now, the crowd at the Winter Classic is going to be great, but the genius of that group was making the crowds in the regular season great and keeping the energy going when it wasn't always there for us."


Lites said building a strong foundation with people like Bowman, Dan Stuchal (vice president, brand development and broadcasting) and Alana Matthews (vice president, business operations and general counsel) have been crucial in the team's business success.

"So much of the stuff that goes on that you never see, and each one of these people has done an incredible job," Lites said. "And they're part of 30 or more people doing the same things. We have good people here, and I think that's one of the things I'm most proud of.

"We're as good as anybody in the world, in my opinion."

And the positive repercussions from their work go out like ripples on a pond.

Northland Properties, the Vancouver-based asset management company run by Gaglardi and his dad, Bob, is looking at several Texas properties for hotels, restaurants and various investments. Lites now devotes a lot of time to helping Gaglardi with his ventures, and that allows the Stars to build a firm business footprint in Dallas/Fort Worth, Frisco, and the Austin area (where Gaglardi also owns the Texas Stars AHL hockey team).

"I think it all works together," Lites said of the relationship between hotel and restaurant businesses and the Stars. "One feeds the other."

Gaglardi said he's happy to be building in Texas. His mother is from Longview, he has a lot of relatives in the area, and he said spending more time with family here has been fun.

Video: Nill confident in direction Stars are heading

"We're doing lots of business in Texas, so that's been good for us," Gaglardi said. "We're buying lots of land and looking at a lot of different opportunities, it's exciting. My mother is from here, we have so much family here, so it's got real meaning to me. It's an incredible market, and I know how fortunate I am to be here. It's worked out all very well for me."

Gaglardi, who grew up a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, said he's not surprised the Stars are having success. He said the plans to invigorate youth programs and introduce hockey to new customers has been a key. And he said that winning also helps bring new fans.

"It's always been a good sports market. There's a reason why maybe the most valuable sports franchise in the world is in Dallas," Gaglardi said in reference to the Cowboys. "It's always been there, and the market continues to grow and thrive. We see that at the grassroots level with our Children's Health rinks and our youth programs.

"It's exciting that our fan base is growing. The response to the Winter Classic and our playoffs season right now, it's been incredible."

And even with the loss in Game 7 last week in St. Louis, the excitement should continue to grow. The Stars saw the development of young players like Miro Heiskanen, Roope Hintz and Jason Dickinson in the playoffs, and have the ability to bring in even more youth next season.

"We feel good about where we are," Lites said. "We're building good momentum now, and I think we're in a place where it might be our time. The team is young, it's fun to watch, the atmosphere in the building is great, people are responding to us, and that's always good to see.

"I'm excited. I think everybody is."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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