Dallas Stars president, Jim Lites with owner Tom Gaglardi at American Airlines Center on November 21, 2011 in Dallas, Texas.
(November 20, 2011 - Source: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America)
It’s been well documented that one of the most successful aspects of the Stars move to Dallas from Minnesota in 1993 has been the infusion of hockey amongst Texas youth. No doubt the marketability of Mike Modano and the success of the Stars increased interest in young Texans who normally would be picking up a football, but it’s the vision of Stars President and CEO, Jim Lites, that has helped make hockey as popular as ever in the Lone Star State.
“It’s easier to market when you’ve got a great team,” said Jim. “If you’re competitive and building, people see this and will come.”
“We need to develop and draft. You can’t buy a team. You can buy parts, but the core has to be developed. Benn, Loui, Goligoski and Lehtonen are important parts to this team. Now you’re seeing [Reilly] Smith and Eakin and finding Nilstorp was key.”
Mr. Lites addressed the signing of veterans Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney as proof of owner Tom Gaglardi’s commitment to this team and their success.
“Tom said, ‘Do it,’ with the signing of Jagr and Whitney. ‘Trade for Derek Roy.’ I told him he might have a hurt shoulder which will require surgery. You’ll have to pay him. Tom answered, ‘I don’t care. Do it.’”
Jim said that Mr. Gaglardi has called NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman and said, “realignment is important to us and needs to be discussed.”
“But you have to build the right way,” Lites said. “You can win, but if it’s with a group of 38-40 year olds, the fans will recognize that as a “win now” scenario. Although that’s fun, the fans won’t buy into it because what happens the following year, and the year after?”
Mr. Lites referred to himself as a “development guy.” In 1982, he joined the Detroit Red Wings organization, and after missing the playoffs 9 out of the previous 10 seasons, Jim was instrumental in bringing many of the eastern European and Soviet players who later became the foundation for many successful seasons in Detroit, thus re-instilling “Hockeytown.”
Now, having missed the playoffs in the last 4 seasons, the Stars are ready for the same infusion of talent and youth that Lites brought to the Motor City. He said that size and character are important pieces that must be inserted into the lineup. That has already been established with defenseman Brenden Dillon establishing himself as arguably a top-2 blue liner in his first “full” season with the big club. At the time of my interview with Mr. Lites, he mentioned that 2011 first round pick, Jamie Oleksiak “will get here in the next few weeks and will never leave and he’ll play here for 10-15 years.”
Looks like they may want to increase production of number 43 jerseys as Oleksiak has been called up and has played very solid defense, though seems to be shaking some of the nerves out as he has yet to truly dominate the ice when he’s out there.
In regards to the size, Mr. Lites pointed to the likes of “[Alex] Chiasson (6’3”, 206 pounds), [Patrik] Nemeth (6’4”, 233 pounds) and [Matt] Fraser (6’2”, 209 pounds) fit these molds.”
But where drafting is vital to a team’s success in the future, teams still need to be able to compete on the ice and that’s where trades and other acquisitions come in. Referring to the Chicago Blackhawks, Jim feels they have the blueprint to success. They have size and talent and even though their goaltending is subpar at times, they know their goalie will not lose games for them. With that blueprint, Mr. Lites referred to having Kari Lehtonen locked up as the goaltender for the Stars for the next 5 years.
“I have no doubt in my mind, on a consistent basis…night in and night out, Kari is one of the, if not the best goalie in the league,” Jim said. It was easy to see that his statement wasn’t just bias rhetoric, but he truly believed in his mind and heart that Lehtonen should be considered as one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL.
The Stars also have to be pleasantly surprised with the play from young Cody Eakin. Acquired in a trade from the Washington Capitals for Mike Ribeiro, Eakin has given nothing short of 100% every time he has been on the ice. Despite not finding the back of the net, as long as Cody continues to fight every shift, he will become a premier scorer in this league and in a hurry.
In regards to Eakin’s role, Jim mentioned that once Chiasson makes the jump up and Reilly Smith establishes himself into the everyday lineup, they will play wing alongside Cody and “that will make Cody a very hard player to play against.” In fact, the move to obtain Eakin from Washington was noticed by minor league scouts. Mark Lamb, and friend of Jim said, “Cody Eakin was the best junior player I’ve ever coached, and you absolutely stole him from Washington.”
The Dallas Stars are poised to make a serious run this shortened season to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 playoff run that saw them fall 2 games short of the Stanley Cup Finals. Where Stars fans can take great pride and excitement is they’ll have a serious run next year as well, as well as the following year and so on. Even with the signing of Jagr and Whitney, the Stars have the 5th youngest team in the league. No doubt Jagr and Morrow will be playing their final seasons with the Stars and it’s possible that Stephane Robidas is shopped to a team in desperate need of physical defensive help.
Jim Lites poured the concrete and now the foundation is starting to settle. On a wider scale, the foundation for hockey in Texas has been established and has been built upon for years now.
“It’s overwhelming to see guys like Stephan Noesen and Seth Jones. (chuckling) I wish Jones was coming back home this summer, but it’s deeply gratifying to see this build from where it was in 93.”
Perhaps the Stars can continue the resurgence they were accustomed to in the 90’s and early 2000’s with habitual trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and hockey in Texas can regain its momentum as one of the more popular sports in DFW.