Under The Umbrella

Dallas Youth Hockey Making Major Strides With Greater Emphasis On Grassroots

After Tom Gaglardi bought the Dallas Stars back in 2011, he and his incoming management team began a thorough review of all aspects of the organization. While there were changes made to the hockey operations side of the house, including the hiring of general manager Jim Nill in 2013, less obvious adjustments took place behind the scenes.

One of those concerned the team's involvement in the local youth hockey scene, which underwent a dramatic shift starting in 2014 with a new philosophy and the creation of an "Xtreme Team" of coaching and development experts that implemented a new vision for all of their youth programs.

"Basically, the Dallas Stars made a decision to actively remove themselves from high-performance hockey, travel hockey, and focus all their energies on grassroots hockey, recreational hockey, and trying to grow long-term hockey players," said Dwight Mullins, the Stars' director of Hockey Development and a key member of the Xtreme Team. 

In addition to Mullins, the Xtreme Team consists of longtime local youth hockey pioneer Jouni Lehtola, and three former NHL players-former Star (and two-time Stanley Cup champion) Brad Lukowich, Andy Wozniewski, and Bob Bassen, who also is the president of the Stars' Alumni Association. Their mission is to travel around the Dallas Metroplex and other cities of the Southwest to help their associations grow.

Another key piece of the program was the creation of the Dallas Stars Metro Hockey League, a rec league that provides a fun environment for kids to develop their skills and passion for the game at one of the seven Dr Pepper StarCenter facilities in the area (including a new one in the Fort Worth suburb of Mansfield). 

The idea was initiated by Damon Boettcher, the Stars' vice president in charge of the StarCenter ice rinks, who believed that by allowing the elite-level travel organizations to become independent entities, the Stars' grassroots programs could become a feeder program, which would benefit both sides of the equation.

"We looked at it and stepped back from the rat race of everybody trying to win banners and stuff for their rinks, and said, 'It should be our duty to not worry about the kids winning trophies but helping to find more kids to play and helping to build the base of hockey fans,'" Boettcher said. 

"We said, 'We don't need to compete, we need to help.' So, we pulled out of the whole travel industry. 'We'll help all you guys by building a house program and getting grassroots built from the bottom to keep filling the funnel to make every other travel program healthy.'" 

The new setup has exceeded all expectations, already surpassing their five-year target for participation numbers, heading into year 4. 

"We're seeing large growth in our grassroots, in our Mites, in our Squirts," Boettcher said. "And we didn't limit it to certain age groups, we'll take everybody."

In addition to focusing on skill development, by utilizing the principles of the American Development Model at all age groups and skill levels, the Stars' Xtreme Team has also adopted several practices that borrow from organizational blueprints established by youth hockey clubs in Finland, as well as in North American youth soccer.

"We've really kind of taken that from the soccer model, with the club and the academies and the development all the way down," said Mullins, who coached in the CHL and ECHL from 2009-14 before returning to Dallas.

"One of the biggest things we did was create a club culture for all of the teams that play within our StarCenter system. They  all wear Dallas Stars jerseys and apparel. So, everybody's a Star. ... That in our eyes, has been fantastic." 

Another key aspect has been the Xtreme Team traveling around the region to help other youth organizations in smaller, non-NHL cities within the Stars' TV broadcast radius. So, Mullins and his coaches periodically visit nearby cities like Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Amarillo, Odessa, El Paso (in Texas), Shreveport (Louisiana), and Tulsa and Oklahoma City (Oklahoma), among others, holding clinics and instructing the local coaches and players. 

The Stars also adopted the NHL's 'Learn to Play' program, which it operates in 14 cities in six states. The program is designed to help families ease into the sport by outfitting players, head to toe, and providing a six-week structured program, all for $85. 

"We can see the growth in those markets coming up, too, because a couple of years ago, it was almost non-existent," Boettcher said. "Now there's house teams, travel teams, everything's starting to pop up, which is great for the league and great for building hockey fans." 

Ultimately, the Stars' grassroots focus is feeding players into the travel programs, while sustaining the growth with new, incoming kids to replenish the system at the younger levels. Overall, business is booming and everybody is thriving.

"Basically, our premise is to give every child the ability to do what they want with the sport," Mullins said. "Whether it's the recreational player, whether it's the late-interest child or adult, we want to have the opportunity for them to develop and continue along a path however they see fit for their own personal desire. 

"And the nice thing is, a lot of the travel associations have such quality coaching and infrastructure, we rely on them and their assistance to help us nurture these kids along, so that they have those players in the future. And we have a number of [travel organizations] hosted in our buildings, obviously, and they also have a vested interest in seeing the growth and development of the sport as well."


John Tranchina is a freelance writer from Broken Arrow, Okla.




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