Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Texas Stars creating a nice niche in Austin

Here's a commentary by Kirk Bohls of the Austin American Statesman on the successful 1st season of the Texas Stars and how they starting to create a strong fan base down in Central Texas.

From Kirk Bohls of the Austin American Statesman:

From Cedar Park, Texas: OK, so maybe they haven't officially renamed this community Hockeytown, USA. We'll cut 'em some slack. But it's a start. A real, bona fide, high-sticking start.

The Texas Stars aren't changing the culture in Central Texas so much as they're enhancing it. They definitely seem to be finding their niche in a part of the state that is willing to try the flavor of the Day. Football, however, was, is and always will be king in these parts, but there's nothing to say the sports stage isn't big enough for the Longhorns, high school football, the Round Rock Express, the Toros, Rick Perry coyote shoots and, yes, good, old-fashioned hockey.

Emphasis on the good.

The Dallas Stars didn't make the playoffs, but their off-spring the defensive-minded Texas Stars, did in their first season. Glen Gulutzan's gang won their first five playoff games and rode a third period goal from Dan Jancevski for a 3-2 win over the Divisional Champion Chicago Wolves to even the West Division Final of the American Hockey League Playoffs at two wins apiece Wednesday night.

These players are more then 2nd cousins to the Dallas Stars. They're the 2nd coming. Literally.

Of the 20-man roster, 13 have played in the NHL, eight of them this season. These are not the Ice Bats. In fact, one Stars official said after the 5-3 loss to Chicago on Tuesday, "If we were playing the Ice Bats, we'd have won 7-0 or 8-0."

While the Ice Bats played in a barn near Manor or an Austin Ice Rink, the Stars call home a glitzy, $55 Million, rock-and-glass Cedar Park Center that looks as if it opened yesterday instead of September 25 with a George Strait concert.

The Stars fell short of their goal of 2500 season seats by about 500 but ranked fifth in the 30 team league in ticket sales and already have a 60% renewal for next year. Management has also learned not to butt heads with football and will back-load next year's schedule to avoid conflicts with Texas and high school football.

Surveys have brought glowing reviews with the notable exception of complaints about $10 parking and seats offering little leg room. The club plans to address the latter before next season.

Tickets are priced reasonably enough at about $20, ranging from a low of $7 (for groups) to a club seat worth $34. With the arena only half full the last two weeknights, the Stars probably should have offered half-prince tickets for a better playoff advantage but are required by AHL rules to charge $1 more then the clubs lowest regular-season ind. ticket which was $10.

Friday's Game 5 should pack 'em in, and the Stars delight in saying they sold their 500 most expensive seats before this season. They weren't all that surprised because the Dallas Stars sent Texas Stars president and GM Rick Mclaughlin a list of 5,000 Central Texans who had bought tickets to Dallas Stars games over the last couple of seasons, so interest is there.

"We're not really opponent driven yet because we haven't established any rivalries (with San Antonio or Houston)," said Mclaughlin, who worked in the finance dept. with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the two Stanley Cup Runs in 1991 and 1992 and later for the Texas Rangers. "We don't feel were competing with the Round Rock Express, but were surprised how we took off (with about 2,000 more fans a game) after football season. "Our rule of Thumb is if we got you for more then three games, we got you."

The 6800 seat Cedar Park Center will have showcased more then 100 events in 8 months. The circus came to town. Disney on Ice, too. The Rock Band Tool comes soon. Olympic figure skating will do circles here next week. The Toros played two basketball games here. Seven are high schools will hold their graduations inside.

And the Dallas Stars played an exhibition here. You can tell the difference between the Varsity Stars and the Junior Varsity. NHL Players are more physical and more structured in their attacks. Passes are crisper. Plays are more sophisticated. The Puck comes out of the other end more quickly.

But the quality of the AHL remains very, very good. The 13 Stars with NHL Experience, including captain Landon Wilson, have been on the ice for 664 games.

"They're all one shift away from moving up," AHL Commissioner David Andrews said. "They're motivation."

Not to mention the NHL salary of $500,000. The AHL players, who are paid by the parent club, make between $65,000 and $175,000, but the young ones frequently qualify for six-figure signing bonuses.

The Stars may epitmize the relevant rise of hockey nationwide. NHL Ratings on Versus are up by 20%, but Andrews said ESPN will bid for the next contract. The first four weekend games on NBC grew 8% and earned a 1.3 overnight rating, an improvement but a world apart from the 46.4 rating for the Saints Super Bowl Win back in February.

It's big apples and oranges, but hockey's its trend. Corporate sponsorships are also up 20%.

"All major sports are down. All of them have suffered from the economy," said Andrews, who stopped in town for Game 3 on Tuesday. "But people still want to get out of their houses. We didn't expect to be up in the 2nd year of the economic downturn, but we are. I think we have weathered the storm."

They may have a variety of reasons, not the least of which seems to the NHL Website topped last year's record by 32%. Those numbers in top NHL Markets are going through the roof. Phoenix, for example, lured 121% more visitors then in 2009.

The interest has risen even more in those markets whose teams failed to make the playoffs. Dallas for instance, had in increased of 41% without a single playoff game. The NHL saw hikes in Toronto, Atlanta and Edmonton.

Much of the result of more talent. The NHL accounted for 26 combined players in the American and Canadian hockey squads in the Olympic Gold Medal Game, the sports most-watched final in history. More then 150 U.S. professional players made the Olympic Team. The Texas Stars are benefiting from that resurgence.

"We expected to play well and have," Wilson said. "There's a not a bad seat in this place, and we've created a little buzz about the team."

No other sport contributes to the parent club as readily and capable as hockey. Baseball players wind their way through a farm system for years. The Developmental League is still in infancy as an pipeline to the NBA.

Not so in hockey. Rookie forward Jamie Benn, for example, scored 22 goals with the Dallas Stars before refining his game in this AHL postseason, gaining invaluable experience.

"There's probably 10 to 15% improvement of players in the NHL," Dallas Stars Coach Marc Crawford said. "It comes down to poise and patience with the puck. Can you handle the pressure of the game and still make a play? Benn really has shown that."

He's not alone, as the rest of Central Texas is starting to discover.

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