No big Deal in big D

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

DALLAS -- You don't need to fry an egg on asphalt outside the Edmonton Oilers hotel to know hockey isn't the big game in Big D in September.

The buzz yesterday was about the Cowboys blowing a 13-0 lead in a 14-13 loss to the Washington Redskins, not who'll form Dave Tippett's top forward line with the Stars when the NHL season starts.

The people of Dallas love their Cowboys and love their winners. Everything else is back-page material in the newspapers right now, even with the relaunch of the NHL after the lockout.

That's why you could count the fans rattling around the American Airlines Center using fingers and toes yesterday when the Stars opened their morning skate to the public on a day the mercury pushed toward 100 F.

And that's why, despite their success since arriving from Minnesota for the 1993-94 season - two Western Conference titles, two President's Trophies and the 1999 Stanley Cup - the Stars might have a tough sell in the NHL's new era after a year out of the spotlight.

Hockey? Big D-eal.

EXPECTATION LEVEL

"There's an expectation level from the fans about what's acceptable," said GM Doug Armstrong. "It's a great expectation level to have, and we're not changing that expectation level just because the parameters have changed."

Armstrong has cut a payroll that was about $65 million at the start of the 2003-04 season to $36.5 million. Excess in Texas is a thing of the past under the new CBA. Time will tell if success goes the same way.

The questions, with season tickets sliding to just over 11,000 from 12,500 before the lockout, despite price cuts of 16%, is whether Armstrong can put a winner on the ice and if fans will come back.

"Our attitude has been, 'Let's go back to 1993 and take nothing for granted.' We have to sell the game, the players and the excitement again," Armstrong said.

"Markets like Dallas that have traditionally been strong have to come out of this work stoppage strong."

Mike Modano, who arrived with the Stars from Minnesota and has been a part of all the Dallas-Edmonton folklore that's unfolded since, knows a hockey town when he sees one. This isn't one -- not the same way Edmonton is.

Still, Modano inked a five-year deal worth $17 million to stay in the Lone Star State for his 16th NHL season, even though he had a couple of offers that were more lucrative.

"This is a very demanding city," Modano said. "Our first three or four years here, it was like a honeymoon. You could do no wrong. Everybody said, 'It's the biggest party in town, let's go to a hockey game.'

"We've had success. Once fans get a taste of that, you want it every year. If it doesn't happen, they want to know why. It would be tough if things went the other way."

Fan support for the Stars in Dallas has been exceptional. The franchise had a streak of more than 250 consecutive sell-outs on the go until early in the 2003-04 season.

Still, this franchise doesn't want to put that loyalty to the test. What would a couple of mediocre seasons mean here?

GREAT TRADITION

"Every town loves a winner. This town in particular," said former Oiler Bill Guerin, a member of the NHLPA bargaining committee.

"People expect certain things out of their teams. They have a certain tradition here with the Cowboys, a great tradition with the Stars. In this market, we've got some serious competition."

The Stars slipped to 97 points the season before the lockout. Darryl Sydor is gone. So is Derian Hatcher, casualties of cost-cutting with the old CBA on its last legs. This is still a very good team with Modano, Guerin, Marty Turco, Jere Lehtinen and Jason Arnott.

But who the heck are Yared Hagos, Janos Vas and Jussi Jokinen? And how did Big Tuna's Cowboys blow that 13-0 lead?

"It's a great sports town," Armstrong said. "But, when the (NBA) Mavericks weren't as competitive as they are now, they didn't have the attendance. We don't want to test that theory in hockey."

Hot enough for you, Army?


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