What’s hockey? This is Texas.
That was the common reaction when it was announced that pro hockey, in the form of the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars, was coming to Texas in 1993. They would be renamed the Dallas Stars.
The Stars’ 1993 arrival impacted not only the area sports scene, but Dallas-Fort Worth in general.
All these years later, hockey is part of the DFW’s sports fabric as well as the state overall. The Stars will be celebrating their 25th anniversary season when the team opens against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights on Friday at the American Airlines Center.
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When the Stars hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1999, it gave DFW a new and different championship identity to go along with the Dallas Cowboys’ Super Bowl titles.
Along with the title and interest in the sport came the building of several StarCenters and a unique fan base in a unique state. Contrary to naysayers, hockey has gained a foothold in a football state.
That’s something in which Ken Hitchcock, the Stars’ former coach who led them to the ’99 Cup and who was hired a second time in April, takes immense pride.
“Well, I think the thing that impresses me is when I watch the youth practices is how advanced the teaching is (now). The same stuff you see going on in Canada, you see going on here,” said Hitchcock, who has 781 career wins, fourth most in NHL history. “You see the skills development coaches, the intricacies of hockey schools. It looks like any other training center that you’d see in any part of the world. When I first came here, a lot of people wanted to play hockey, but it was kind of chaos. Now it’s this organized machine.”
The Stars played their first game in Dallas on Oct. 5, 1993. They beat Detroit 6-4 at Reunion Arena. They also made the playoffs in their first season and four times in their initial five seasons in Dallas.
Dallas first hired Hitchcock in January 1996 and he coached 43 games that first half-season. The following season, he led the Stars to a 48-26-8 record and a Central Division title, the first of five consecutive division crowns, the franchise’s first division crown since the 1983-84 Minnesota North Stars captured the Norris Division title.
Hockey went beyond the games and the Stanley Cup title. It changed the community and became a player in the business circles. Former Dallas Mayor Steve Bartlett saw the impact the team had off the ice.
“The (arrival of the) Dallas Stars was the first of the major building blocks for rebuilding downtown Dallas,” said Bartlett, who was Dallas mayor from 1991-1995. “The first step was to recognize that sports are not merely a game. For a city, sports are an economic boost that can be astounding. The Dallas Stars created an immediate sensation of vibrancy. We sold out every single game for the first season and several seasons thereafter. The Dallas Stars (continue to) add value and vibrancy to the entire DFW region. Nothing says ‘major league’ like major-league sports.”
Craig Ludwig has a close perspective on the Stars’ tenure in Dallas. As a player, he relocated with the team from Minnesota, later playing for Hitchcock and was part of the 1999 championship team before retiring after that season.
Since then, Ludwig has coached the game, including a stint with a Stars youth team. More recently, he has held several roles on the Stars’ television broadcast, including his most recent gig working as a color analyst alongside longtime fan favorite Daryl “Razor” Reaugh.
A Wisconsin native, Ludwig quickly fell in love with DFW and never left after retiring.
“It’s amazing how fast it goes,” Ludwig said. “I had no idea there was this 25th thing coming up. It’s been great because being involved with the team since basically Day One until now, you’ve seen it (the game) grow.”
Ludwig recalls there only being a handful of high-school hockey teams in DFW when the Stars arrived. That number has since grown to more than 100, growth he and the organization spurred.
“I think when we first got here, obviously it was new and not a lot of people knew exactly what to expect,” Ludwig said. “We had a pretty good first couple years and they climbed on board. It’s funny how many people you talk to now and they all talk about Reunion (Arena). They were all there when we came.”
The Stars’ focus on youth hockey played a big role in the franchise’s success, according to Brandon Worley, a longtime Stars fan and former managing editor of Defending Big D, a popular SB Nation site that covers the team.
“I grew up playing hockey in Dallas, Texas, because of the Stars. From the moment the franchise arrived in North Texas, they made fan engagement and growing the game among local youth a focus, and you’ve seen that impact both in the stands and in those that have grown up in the sport in Dallas,” Worley said. “We’re starting to see not just NHL prospects, but first-round talent, come out of Dallas youth jockey and the development programs here. Twenty-five years later, despite some stumbles on the ice, there remains an incredibly loyal, knowledgeable and intense fan base for a hockey team in an area no one ever thought it could work in.”
The Stars have floundered over much of the past decade, making the playoffs twice over the past nine seasons and winning one playoff series under four different coaches.
They’ve brought Hitchcock back to revive a franchise that he helped put hockey on the Texas map.
“Yeah, I think it’s an awesome time for us. Nothing really took hold here until he arrived here,” Reaugh said of Hitchcock. “He understands where he’s at now. He was getting his first head coaching job in the league the first time around. He knows that he’s not going to coach here for a decade. When you do what they did in the late‘’90s and win the Stanley Cup, that sort of bonds you forever. Now he comes back in trying to resurrect what once was. I think it’s a real unique and probably apropos time for him to step back in here.”
Stars vs. Golden Knights
7:30 p.m., FSSW