When the Minnesota North Stars moved to Texas in 1993, there was no guarantee the NHL could sell its sport in the south. At the time, the Dallas Stars were one of three southern franchises, along with the newly created Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. They would have to win over new fans to a sport that can be tough to follow if you don’t grow up playing it, in a city where ponds never freeze and where the Dallas Cowboys are the top sports story 12 months a year. The franchise sewed seeds by constructing ice rinks around the region and running youth camps. A Stanley Cup in 1999 didn’t hurt either.
But that cup win was 20 years ago, and the Stars haven’t come close to one since. Still, the sport of hockey and its fan base continue to grow in this city. Which is what made the Cotton Bowl’s hosting of yesterday’s Winter Classic, the annual New Year’s Day outdoor NHL game, so remarkable. Forget the 4-2 scoreline for a minute. Forget the novelty of freezing an outdoor rink on a 57-degree day in Texas. Who would have thought way back in 1993 that Texas would one day host an outdoor hockey game at the Cotton Bowl that would attract 85,630 people, the second largest crowd for an NHL game in history? Incredible.
And the spectacle wasn’t only about crowds. The Stars, the NHL, and Fair Park whipped up a somewhat ridiculous, perfectly Texan sideshow. There were pig races, kids riding lambs, bull riding, corn dogs, and the entire Stars team decked out like cowboys. Plus, the game itself was one of the most entertaining Winter Classics ever.
One commentator saw it all as part of a bid by the Stars to rise in the ranks of the NHL’s most prominent franchises. This city has now hosted the NHL draft, the Winter Classic, and hopes to add notches for a second All-Star game and an international game to its belt. After yesterday, anything seems possible for the team. Everyone was quite impressed with the show put on by the city and its fans. My favorite story from the day was when, after Alexander Radulov scored the go ahead goal in the third period, Stars defenseman John Klingberg said the Cotton Bowl crowd was so loud he couldn’t even hear Radulov screaming in celebration on the ice.
The game demonstrated two things:
- Dallas can claim to be a legitimate hockey town with a fan base whose allegiance and enthusiasm rivals any of this city’s other sports franchises.
- The Cotton Bowl is an absolute jewel and can offer a sporting experience that is unmatched by any other venues in the region. We can only hope that Fair Park’s new management will find a way to create more experiences like yesterday’s.