It's amazing what a good competitive season of hockey does to a starving fan-base. Four years of no playoff hockey has made the hockey fans in this town desperate for a return to the postseason, a return to a time when this team was taken for granted. As the season has wound down, the fan sentiment has gradually changed from "let's just not finish last" to "playoffs or bust" as they see how well this team has done.
The thing is, this season has already been a massive success for this team, even if they don't make the playoffs. First and foremost, this team finally (finally!!) has an owner. Not only do the Stars have an owner, he's one that actually knows hockey and instills confidence in the fans that he knows how to best improve this team. Heck, he's holding team watching parties at his home just to cheer against division rivals. Can anyone imagine Tom Hicks ever doing that? For any reason besides a hope to suck money out of other people (otherwise known as being a pure businessman)?
For the first two months of this season, this team struggled (and I mean struggled) to get fans to go to the games. A part of this was due to how the Texas Rangers were doing and their run to the World Series, but another was due to how people felt about his team and the lowered expectiations.
From the beginning of October till Dec. 3, this team had the worst home attendance in the league. The capacity for the American Airlines Arena for hockey is 18,532, which is thirteenth highest in the league. During those first two months of the season), the Stars played 14 homes games and were only averaging 11,469 a night (61.8% full). Those numbers are even inflated because of one home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in which Leafs Nation bought a bunch of tickets and sold out the place. There was a two week span in which this team could barely reach the 8K mark (about 40% full), including a game on October 10 when only 6,306 came out to the game. That's the lowest in franchise history.
After Dec. 3, the team went on a five game road trip and during that time, management announced that ticket prices had been lowered to as low as nine dollars a seat. This could only be done because the team now had an owner in Tom Gaglardi.
The next Stars home game was Dec. 19 and the effect was immediate. From that game on, the Stars attendance was boosted and Dallas saw their second sell-out of the year happen on New Year's Eve against the Boston Bruins. Dallas has played 25 home games since then and averaged 15,503 per game (83.6% full). Just two weeks ago, during the March 16 game against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Stars set a franchise record for highest attendance when 19,099 attended the game (103.1% full). That's right, the Stars reached over capacity. Dallas is a frontrunner town, but even so, this team is relevant again. People care. At the beginning of the year, that would've seemed impossible.
There's a more conscious effort to brand this team. I hear the players all the time now on radio ads or doing interviews and TV spots are much more visible now. The Stars are finally getting back a fanbase that has been dying to root for something that has promise.
It's not just the off-ice stuff that's made this season a success.
The loss of Brad Richards in the offseason just killed any and all expectations anyone had for this team this year, but the fans have learned since then that Brad Richards' impact on this team was vastly overrated. Offseason signings (Michael Ryder) and the natural talent and progression of the team's best players (Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn) has made Richards' loss actually a welcome surprise. Benn is turning into a force to be reckoned with and Eriksson has quietly been one of the best players in the entire league. Kari Lehtonen has shown he can be a franchise goalie and has paid about 100 to 1 dividends on the Ivan Vishnevskiy trade.
There's a depth to the team that has been sorely missed for five years and Dallas doesn't have a huge amount of cap space taken up by one guy as they would have if Richards had re-signed. There's money to spend in the offseason now to improve this team even more. The only part of the team that has really missed him is the power play (which in all honesty, just sucks the life force out of fans. It's that bad).
The best part about all of this is that the future of the team is here. Youngsters like Philip Larsen, Mark Fistric, Richard Bachman, Tomas Vincour and Reilly Smith are have been or are now starting to see regular ice time. Even more guys: Jack Campbell, Austin Smith, Alex Chiasson and soon Jamie Oleksiak are starting their professional careers down with the Texas Stars. The core of the team is set and ready to go for the next decade it looks like.
Reaching the playoffs would be a wonderful thing but this season has been much more than that. Fans shouldn't despair if the Stars ultimately don't reach the postseason this year. They should instead take comfort that the management is now full of real hockey guys and the team is finally back on track to return to the years where a playoff spot is taken for granted. For this year, a playoff spot would only be the cherry on top of an already successful season (but boy would that be a beautiful sundae).
For more of Luther's coverage of the Stars, head over to Stars of Big D and check out Defending Big D for all the latest news and notes on Dallas' NHL team.