The Big Mac Blog

Hitch here to save the Stars, and the sport

Hired on April 13, 2017 to return the Dallas Stars back to playoff glory, coach Ken Hitchcock, middle, retired on Friday after the team again missed the playoffs.
Hired on April 13, 2017 to return the Dallas Stars back to playoff glory, coach Ken Hitchcock, middle, retired on Friday after the team again missed the playoffs. AP

Ken Hitchcock is the increasingly rare Canadian Civil War buff. He knows all about the infamous Texas Brigade, the hellish conditions at Andersonville Camp, and is well versed in the particulars of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Ambrose Burnside.

Hitch is one of those Civil War fanatics who goes to re-enactment battles.

Don’t pin Hitch as a historian of just the Civil War; the man is versed in history beyond just the attack on Fort Sumter, or Gettysburg, or his own time as a head coach in the National Hockey League.

His legacy in this league, in this sport, and specifically with the Dallas Stars, is Hall-of-Fame secure. The trick for Hitch, now that he has returned to the franchise he led to the Stanley Cup title in 1999, is to repeat the feats without dwelling on them.

“I am always tied to that time period because we had success and I want that legacy to last forever, but I want to learn from it,” Hitch told me in a phone interview this week. “I don’t want to live in it. There are parts that we can take from that time, but you have to learn from history without living in it.”

Let’s be real clear on this: As the Stars’ start training camp in Cedar Park, Ken Hitchcock’s assignment on his second tour with the team is not to save the franchise, but the future of the sport in North Texas.

Since Hitch was fired by the Stars in 2002 the team, and the entire sport, have fallen into the pond of obscurity in DFW. The Stars are in a tight struggle to ensure its place remains ahead of FC Dallas.

This is not the same team, nor the same sport or sports market, that Hitch arrived to the first time in 1996 when he replaced Bob Gainey behind the bench.

“When I was in St. Louis (as head coach the last five seasons), I’d drive by people at 60, and when I got here I was going 70 and people were drivin’ by and giving me the finger,” Hitch said. “It’s a big city now, eh?”

A big city where hockey is in a death match to ensure it still has its place in town.

Immediately after the NHL’s lockout season of 2004-05, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told Stars executives that this market could sustain an increase in ticket pricing. There is no way the Stars could get away with that attitude today.

The competition for the sports dollar is savage, and the lack of success by the Stars for the better part of a decade has damaged the team’s ability to penetrate the market to create new fans, despite the area’s constant population growth.

The math is not complicated: Since 2008-09, the Stars have been to the playoffs twice, including that pitiful run of five consecutive years without a postseason appearance.

“The NHL is in pockets; there are some unbelievable pockets that are white-hot and in others they are trying to recover,” Hitchcock said. “It’s all based on the fans and the relationship with the team. If it’s a strong bond, it’s white-hot. You can sometimes go into a city and literally feel it.”

The Stars have simply not given their home region a reason to be hot. Not unless it’s anger. The team posted the best record in the Western Conference two years ago and followed that by missing the playoffs last season.

The Stars ranked 16th in the NHL in attendance last season. The season before, when the team was the best in the West, they ranked 15th. The season before that, in 2014-15, they were 19th.

To be fair, most American hockey cities are “fill the building” teams; TV ratings tend to be rather ish for local hockey. The NHL will forever remain a sport where the fan needs to be in the arena, rather than on the couch, to enjoy.

The only way the Stars’ place in the market trends north is if the team can have a playoff run or two. The last time the Stars made the West Finals was 2008. After that, they made the West semifinals in 2016, but were exposed by Hitch’s Blues and lost in Game 7 at American Airlines Center.

The Stars’ roster is loaded with solid young players, starting with forward Jamie Benn. The team has scorers, and it might have a real goalie in off-season pickup Ben Bishop.

The problem remains the blue line. Since the departures of Sergei Zubov and Derian Hatcher, the franchise has not been able to locate, develop or even sign top-tier defensemen.

In this version of the NHL, a team cannot win without special defensemen.

The Stars thought they had special one in John Klingberg, but he regressed last season ... as did so much of the team.

The Stars have prospects, and you can bet Hitch will lean on every single player to defend, so the results should improve.

“I do see a passionate fan base, but it’s up to us now,” Hitch said. “We’ve put them through highs and lows, and they want to believe in us. It’s up to us to show them that we can do this and be consistent. It’s really an unbelievable opportunity.”

History shows us he did it once, back in the ’90s.

He just has to do it again, without dwelling on it. The team, and the sport, are at stake.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram