MAYBE THE Big D in Dallas really does stand for dysfunction. The Cowboys often have a jones for turmoil, and now the Stars are embroiled in a tumultuous season of their own, having won only two of six games through Sunday following a Krakatoa-like eruption.
On Nov. 1, All Saints' Day, the 2008 Western Conference finalists were anything but. After weeks of substandard goaltending, indifferent penalty killing, dumb penalties and long shifts—the diametric opposite of traditional disciplined Stars hockey—the team jumped the rails in a Boston Gong Show, racking up 69 penalty minutes and three misconducts against the Bruins. Thirty-nine of those minutes and one misconduct apiece went to pot stirrers Sean Avery and Steve Ott, whose low hip check on Stéphane Yelle set a sour tone that led to a brawl. Avery also engaged in unseemly arguments with the referees.
According to sources who were on the ice at the time, Boston center Marc Savard was settling in to face off against 38-year-old Mike Modano in the third period when he said, "Too bad you'll be retiring after having to play with those clowns." Modano replied, "I know." While Modano, the most prolific U.S.-born scorer in NHL history, laughed and said last week that he can't remember the exchange. He also told reporters that the debacle in the 5--1 loss to the Bruins was "idiotic and stupid ... one of the most embarrassing things I've seen."
"We've always prided ourselves in keeping our emotions in check; we've always been disciplined," Modano told SI last week. "[This season] we've let things distract us that we hadn't in the past, things that weren't part of our game.... Brett and Les [Hull and Jackson, respectively, the co--general managers] thought we needed more of an edge even though we won tough playoff series against Anaheim and San Jose.... We seemed to get through those series all right."
Ott has been with the Stars full time since 2003--04. Avery, the other guy who sits in the front row and shoots spitballs at the teacher, is the newcomer, lured by a four-year, $15.5 million free-agent contract. While Avery's infamous antics didn't hurt his former team, the Rangers, he has not yet truly insinuated himself in Dallas. He is, essentially, skating on eggshells. "It's a great group of guys, for sure, but they're still trying to figure me out," said Avery, who had two goals and 66 penalty minutes. "The [Stars] don't seem to want the full deal with me. That takes a lot from my intensity.... Games [like the one in Boston] are the ones where I'm most effective, where I get my blood going." Avery has not spoken with Modano about his debacle remarks, nor does he plan to. "What's he going to say?" Avery asks. "That's not something I would have done, but everyone has a prerogative to speak his mind."
Goaltender Marty Turco has also exercised that prerogative, telling reporters that his defensemen had contributed to his early-season struggles by not allowing him to see shots. In a way those comments were more stunning than Modano's because Turco—"Probably our best team guy," Jackson says—has always held himself accountable. The goalie, who had an .837 save percentage in the first 10 games, says he meant the remarks as "a wake-up call."
The Stars, though, are still groggy, playing better defensively but still not winning. Stuck in last place in the Pacific Division, Dallas remains searching for an identity—and tranquility.