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Lighting The Lamp: Lonestar Hockey

You might recognize the "Lighting the Lamp" feature from the Game Time paper. Rick Ackerman has been nice enough to send over his column for the website. "Lighting the Lamp" will be featured every home game day.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman

Dallas has now had an NHL team for 22 seasons and has been quite successful, winning seven divisional titles, two Western Conference titles, two President's Trophies and one Stanley Cup championship, thanks to Brett Hull’s triple overtime goal in 1999 against Dom Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres. As most fans are already aware, the Stars began as the green-clad Minnesota North Stars, birth-mates with the Blues in the great expansion of 1967, which doubled the size of the NHL from six to 12 teams.                    

Despite a number of excellent players, including goaltenders Cesare Maniago and Gump Worsley, HHOF 1980, defensemen Ted Harris (the club’s first captain), Tom Reid, Barry Gibbs and forwards Bill Goldsworthy, J.P. Parise, Dennis Hextall, Lou Nanne and Danny Grant, the North Stars only won two divisional titles (in 1982 and 1984), two conference titles and only two appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1981 (lost to the Islanders) and 1991 (lost to the Penguins). However, despite some post-season success, the North Stars organization was hemorrhaging money due to poor attendance and rising operational costs. High school hockey tournaments were regularly outdrawing the NHL at the Metropolitan Sports Center in suburban Bloomington.

A precursor to how serious the situation was came during the summer after the 1991 playoffs when management adopted a new logo, the word "STARS" in gold letters over a small green star. The club also adopted black as the primary color for the road uniforms. New owner Norman Green (who purchased the team in 1990 from the Gund Brothers) was a prominent shopping-mall developer and original director of Sage Telecom, a private telecommunications company in the U.S. He was also one of the original investors in the Calgary Flames and remained as co-owner until 1990.

It can be easily surmised now that Green obviously bought the team in order to move it, as evidenced by his immediate request to relocate the team to Anaheim, a request that was denied since it was the intention of the NHL to put an expansion team there in 1992.

Green was finally given permission by the NHL to relocate the team to Dallas in 1993. Green carped about poor attendance, high operating costs and the failure of either Minneapolis or St. Paul to help refinance a new revenue-generating arena. What was less known and not revealed at the time was that Green was facing a sexual-harassment lawsuit filed by his former executive assistant and that Green's wife threatened to leave him and make it public unless he moved the franchise out of Minnesota. Combine all those factors and the NHL had no choice but to allow Green to move the team to Texas. An angry, disappointed North Stars booster club president remarked, "When he came here, he said, 'Only an idiot could lose money on hockey in Minnesota.' Well, I guess he proved that point."

So after 26 seasons in Minnesota, the new Dallas Stars opened play on October 5, 1993, defeating the Detroit Red Wings, 6-4. Neal Broten scored the first goal. Immediate success on the ice and the inspirational play of Mike Modano, HHOF 2014, helped the Stars gain popularity and attendance soared. The Stars set franchise records for wins (42) and points (97) that first year and qualified for the playoffs, shocking the hockey world by sweeping the Blues in the first round. They lost to the eventual Western Conference champion Canucks in the second round. Ironically, Green was forced to sell the Stars to businessman Tom Hicks in 1995 due to financial difficulties resulting from poor management of non-hockey business ventures. Hicks came in just in time for the owners' lockout in 1994. The following year, Hicks' first full year as owner, the team continued to struggle and GM and head coach Bob Gainey, HHOF 1992, traded for center Joe Nieuwendyk, HHOF 2011, from Calgary for center Corey Millen and prospect Jerome Iginla. After the Stars only won 11 games in the first half of the season, Gainey stepped down as coach and replaced himself with the Michigan K-Wings head coach, none other than Ken Hitchcock. It would be Hitch's first head coaching position in the NHL. Unfortunately, the Stars missed the playoffs that season, the first time in eight seasons they did not qualify in Texas. Under Hitchcock, though, better times were ahead, climaxing with a Stanley Cup championship in 1999.

Yet things quickly soured as Hitchcock’s “sandpaper-like personality” (as reported by Chris Foster of the L.A. Times) grated on players and upper-management alike and he was fired on January 26, 2002. Hitch's relationship with the players, which was already quite strained despite earlier success and good times, quickly deteriorated as things went bad on the ice and losses piled up. At the time, a strong Dallas team was seventh in the West, trailing Pacific Division leader San Jose by four points. Coincidently, on the same date assistant G.M. Doug Armstrong was named General Manager of the Stars. Dallas would go on to finish fourth in the division, tenth in the conference, out of playoff contention under interim coach Rick Wilson, a Blues’ alum. Dave Tippett, now the head coach in Arizona, was brought in as head coach for the 2002-03 season.

Since the lockout of 2004-05, Dallas has failed to qualify for the playoffs six times. The Stars made it to the Conference Finals in 2008, yet lost in six games to Detroit. They would not return to playoff contention until 2014, yet lost in the opening round to Anaheim in six games. Dallas did not qualify last season, finishing sixth in the Central Division and tenth in the conference.

Attendance has been a problem since the lockout as well. A steady decline began in 2008, reaching a low of 14,227 per game in 2011-12. However, the last two seasons have shown a decent increase at the American Airlines Center, seating capacity 18, 532. Average attendance steadily increased to 18,376 this season, 99.2% capacity, mostly due to the improved play of the team under head coach Lindy Ruff. Ruff joined the Stars in June, 2013, after 15 seasons as the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres.A little known fact is that Ruff played almost 700 NHL games in 13 seasons as a defenseman and winger with the Sabres and the New York Rangers, scoring 105 goals and 300 points, along with 1,264 penalty minutes. No wonder he loves Stars’ ruffian Antoine Roussel.

A victory tonight would give the Blues a commanding three games to one lead and make the next game Saturday in Dallas an elimination game for the Stars.

Let’s git ‘er done, boys!