Dallas Stars president Jim Lites had planned to spend his Sunday evening in Cedar Park, watching the Texas Stars take on the Houston Aeros in an American Hockey League game. Those plans changed Sunday morning when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr announced a tentative agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Lites received the news in an early morning phone call from his son.
“I was in Austin with my wife, having coffee. It was 9 a.m., and I hadn’t looked at my phone yet,” Lites said. “My son, Chase, called and said it was game on.”
Exactly when the games will be on is still up in the air. The deal has to be formally approved by both sides. Lites said the NHL Board of Governors will meet in the next few days to vote on the deal. The players will have to approve it as well. There will be a short training camp, and then let the games begin.
“We anticipate we’ll be playing sometime the week of the 14th of January, and that the season will be between 48 and 50 games,” Lites said. “We don’t have a schedule yet and I don’t think we’ll have one until the thing is ratified by both the players and ownership. I am happy to say we are playing. It’s game on. The Stars are looking forward to being back in the mix and playing at American Airlines Center. We’re fired up for the opportunity.”
Lites was back in Frisco by Sunday afternoon, where Stars employees were already gearing up in anticipation of the team getting back on the ice. There’s a lot of work to do.
“I’ve got season ticket holder reps calling people, on the phone with people as we speak,” Lites said. “It’s a Sunday afternoon and everybody is really fired up about getting back at it.”
And there are some fences to mend with fans upset with what’s happened over the past few months.
“I am sure fans are upset, and I don’t blame them a bit. We have to win back their trust,” said Lites. “They have done nothing but give to us here in Dallas, and they been the best fans in the world. We have to do everything we can to improve our game, make our players accessible to the fans, make ourselves accessible to the fans. We have to win back their trust, and we have to try as hard as we ever have to build our fan base here. It’s a tough go and we can’t take anything for granted.”
Asked for specifics about building that fan base, Lites offered a few quick thoughts.
“We are going to be price sensitive. We are going to try everything we can to get people back. Be good to our existing fans and be great to our existing season ticket holders, do everything we can to say yes to them,” he said. “You saw what Tom Gaglardi did with prices last year; he made the ticket a lot more achievable for the casual fan. I don’t think any of that is going to go backwards this year. We’re going to do everything we can to be relevant in this community.”
The Stars president believes a quality on-ice product will be key as well. The Stars have two of the game’s top young players in Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson. The prospect pool has been replenished and several good young players have been playing well with the Texas Stars, the team’s AHL affiliate. And the team brought in veterans Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney and Derek Roy in the offseason.
“I don’t think our future has ever been as bright as it is today. We’re just going to have to get everybody together and get the team going,” Lites said. “It’s going to be a tough go for Glen Gulutzan and his staff to pull a group together and get them going in ten days. But it’s no different than it is in all the other markets.”
“We’ve got a lot of new players on this team . We made a lot of significant changes over the summer, and it’s going to be fun to watch Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney play on our team, particularly in a short season. We are thrilled with that opportunity to put those two guys, who are as strong and capable scorers as our league has seen in the past two decades, playing in our uniform with our younger players. It should be exciting.”