Jim Lites Relishes the Chance to Re-Build the Team He Originally Built
In November of 2011, the Dallas Stars finally got the identity it had sorely missed for the previous four seasons. With absolutely no resistance from the NHL, Vancouver businessman, Tom Gaglardi completed his purchase of the Stars out of the grips of bankruptcy.
Immediately, the team took on a new look. There were new jerseys which abandoned the tradition green that was synonymous with the team going back to their days in Minnesota. Even the goal song changed as the Stars looked to re-invent themselves under a new owner.
However, not all things were brand new. In fact, with his first act as owner, Mr. Gaglardi reached into a time machine all the way back to the Stars’ first year in Dallas 20 years ago and brought back Jim Lites to assume his role as President and CEO. The man who was instrumental in making hockey visible in Dallas, TX where sports were controlled by two seasons: football season and football offseason. Jim masterminded the marketing of Mike Modano as the face of the organization and it was all culminated with a Stanley Cup championship in 1999.
Unfortunately, having missed the playoffs for 3 seasons straight, the 2011-2012 Dallas Stars were met with apathy. The average attendance was maybe 7000-8000 a night, even despite an unreal start that found Dallas atop the Western Conference. So, together with the new owner, Jim Lites came in and in one sweeping motion, lowered ticket prices to less than that of a movie ticket. The team continued to win (though would ultimately fall short of the playoffs again) and the crowds began to swell.
Then the padlocks were put on by the league and the lockout that many feared began.
Then, on a trip to Austin to watch the Texas Stars play, Jim received a text message from his oldest son 113 days later:
“All I could see…envision were empty seats,” Mr. Lites said. “You just assume the worst. This crazy thing which is completely out of your control just happened. We could have some really upset fans to the point it’s problematic.”
Jim said the last three weeks have been all “Stars centric.” “I love the league and everything it does, but right now, all I care about are the Dallas Stars.” They’ve had to rush to contact season ticket holders, print tickets (season ticket holders have been instructed for the first few weeks to log into their accounts and print tickets as the actual tickets have not been printed to reflect the new 48-game season) and reach out to the media to coordinate the coverage of games.
Of course, the media had to change their mindsets as well. There was going to be a week-long “training camp” and zero preseason games. The media outlets did not have the opportunity to learn about the new players the Stars had obtained since the entry draft in June. When I asked Mr. Lites his thoughts about the media coverage of the Stars and hockey in general, and he had nothing but great things to say.
“I look at how I get my information; I’m still a newspaper guy. The Dallas Morning News has been very, very good to us over the years. I’m fortunate to have a partnership with Dan Bennett and Cumulus radio. Of course, Fox Sports Southwest has been with us from the beginning and has been amazing.”
“Of course, it helps to be out of the football window. But Dallas sports fans like to be entertained. We have a unique team here and we’re doing things the right way. We’ve spent a lot on advertising and people are starting to realize that Jagr is a Dallas Star,” said Lites. “Starting in January isn’t necessarily a bad thing (laughing) but we can’t make a habit out of it, but there’s not a lot going on to grab attention away from us.”
Whatever the Stars are doing to get crowds engaged is working. The television ratings are up 80% in DFW and the game last week against Chicago brought in 40% more fans when compared to game two last season.
Jim said the early success can be attributed to two points, “I feel we have a combination of an interesting team with these legends (Jagr and Whitney) playing with us. But a major point is the new owner, Tom. People see him and they see blue jeans and a stewardship in his involvement.”
“He’s hired people that he trusts to get the job done. Bob (Gainey) and myself. People can relate to faces and names they remember,” Jim said. “DFW fans can get behind Jerry Jones, Nolan Ryan and Mark Cuban. Those are names and faces. Being owned by faceless banks and lenders doesn’t earn the fans’ trust. Now, when people decide to spend their money with the Stars, they see a guy who has a family and a business and is engaged.”
Mr. Lites focused on what Tom Gaglardi brings to the organization. When it came time to bring a veteran presence to the team, it was Gaglardi who said, “Do it,” in regards to signing Jaromir Jagr. “Do it,” when signing Ray Whitney to two years. He says that Tom calls NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman and tells him that realignment is important to the team (and ultimately Stars fans who find it difficult staying up for the late west coast games).
“What matters the most to the 17,000-18,000 fans, “asked Lites? “Tom Gaglardi. He’s doing it the right way. During the lockout, not ONE staff member was laid off.”
So, the Stars have been put in a position to not only celebrate a new era with a returning group of core fans along with a wave of curious new comers, but on the ice, the team is ready to get to work. It’s not going to be pretty at first. No training camp and no preseason games will leave little to no time for teammates to build a solid chemistry. However, with the vision of Jim Lites, the team that has been constructed along with the PR and media partners those issues were foreshadowed and will be addressed. In fact, Jim and the rest of the front office are several steps ahead of those with lesser vision, and that was evident in the announcement of the re-signing of Jamie Benn. Completed hours prior to the announcement made at the American Airlines Center, the release of the contract signing was temporarily withheld in an attempt to give Benn adequate time to reach American soil so that he would not get hung up in customs.
Next, Jim Lites will tell us what’s in store for the future, both immediate and long term for the Dallas Stars and how this team will contend this year and for many years to come.