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Hockey

Dallas' new darlings

Stars bring first Stanley Cup to Sun Belt

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Posted: Tuesday June 22, 1999 08:35 PM

  Stars goalie Ed Belfour thanks Dallas fans that welcomed the team back home by letting them get a feel of the Stanley Cup. AP

DALLAS (CNN/SI) -- Six years after moving to the Lone Star state, the Stars have taken over the "Big D." The Cowboys no longer rule the roost.

The Stars won the NHL title early Sunday, the first Stanley Cup for a team from the Sun Belt.

For the Stars, who moved from Minneapolis in 1993 to raised eyebrows about their prospects on the sunbaked plains, the Stanley Cup validates hockey's place in the pantheon of Texas sports.

"We've come from the point where people didn't know what a goal was or any of the rules to everybody being crazy about the sport -- it's gone 180 degrees," said Craig Ludwig, one of three former Minnesota North Stars still on the roster. "It's incredible."

The Stars won the first title in the 32-year history of their franchise early Sunday when Brett Hull scored in triple overtime, giving Dallas a 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in Game 6 and a 4-2 series win.

The Cowboys, who have won five Super Bowls, are the only local team to win a major sports title. Baseball's Texas Rangers have won one playoff game since arriving in 1972; basketball's Dallas Mavericks haven't made the playoffs since 1990.

While football will always be king in Texas, for now the guys with stars on their sweaters are more popular than the guys with the stars on their helmets.

"This is the first time somebody besides the Cowboys has won a championship. This is a whole new ball game," crowed Joe Nelson, 22, resorting to a non-hockey metaphor to describe his feelings. "There's something besides football in Texas."

"It's great," Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman said earlier this week of the Stars' championship run. "It brings back a lot of fond memories for us."

The Stars' headquarters is less than a mile from the Cowboys' training facility in Valley Ranch, a section of suburban Irving. Many football players are regulars at hockey games, and the city has been swept into a Cowboys-like frenzy.

"If they win, you will see this city stop talking about the 'Boys and talk about the Stars," running back Emmitt Smith predicted Tuesday.

Many Stars fans were asleep when the game ended at 12:32 a.m., missing many newspaper deadlines but not The Dallas Morning News', which splashed "Overjoyed" across the front page. Local television coverage of the locker-room celebration lasted until 2 a.m.

About 200 fans greeted the team's arrival around 6:45 a.m., shouting "We want cup! We want cup!" as players climbed aboard a bus. Goaltender Ed Belfour obliged, hoisting the trophy over his head as he walked along a chain-link fence, allowing fans to touch it.

On Monday, Dallas will throw a parade followed by a rally at Reunion Arena. That's the 17,001-seat venue where the Stars sold out their last 49 games despite being ousted in last year's Western Conference finals.

Just the opposite happened in Minnesota after the North Stars lost in the finals in 1991.

Small crowds prompted then-owner Norm Green to consider leaving Minneapolis. Dallas seemed an unlikely choice, but it was part of the NHL's overall plan to spread its sport.

Texans weren't always sure what was happening in games, but they bought into the slogan that the NHL was "the coolest game on ice." Reunion Arena quickly became the place to be.

Two decent seasons were followed by a last-place finish and a front-office shakeup in 1995-96.

The 1995 NHL lockout hurt the team's already shaky finances, forcing Green to sell the team to local businessman Tom Hicks in December of that year.

A month later, Bob Gainey gave up his duties as coach to focus on being only the general manager. Gainey replaced himself with Ken Hitchcock, a Captain Kangaroo look-alike with no NHL head coaching experience.

Those changes set the foundation for the championship.

The Stars were first in their division the next season, but lost in the first round of the playoffs because of bad goaltending. So Hicks let Gainey sign Belfour, the best goalie available.

In 1998, a lack of offense let Detroit win the conference finals. So Hicks let Gainey sign Hull, the top scorer available.

The Stars went on to have the league's best regular-season record for the second straight year, then 23 playoff games later won their first title.

"When I bought this team, I was told we had a great nucleus but a lousy club," Hicks said. "The thing we want now is two Stanley Cups."

 
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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