It’s time for the second installment of the “Getting to know” series that’s become a yearly staple here at Chasing Checkers thanks to the team’s ever-changing division. Last week, we learned about the San Antonio Rampage, and today I have a great interview about the Texas Stars.
The Charlotte Checkers season starts in just over three weeks with a weekend roadtrip to the great state of Texas, which on October 14, includes the first of eight games against the Texas Stars. Stephen from Hundred Degree Hockey was generous with his time to answer a few questions that Checkers fans would want to know about the team he covers, the Texas Stars. You can also follow him on Twitter at @100degreehockey.
Chasing Checkers - What can you tell a new South Division team about life in the newly named division?
Hundred Degree Hockey - The South Division is a tough one. In last year’s West Division, the Stars were the only one of the five teams not to make the playoffs. Houston and Chicago are the the flagship teams of the Western conference, in my opinion. San Antonio is on the rise with Dale Tallon taking the reins in Florida. OKC is on the up-and-up with drafted prospects starting to trickle in there. And Texas, finally, is starting to see results of the Joe Nieuwendyk era as GM Joe’s first draft class appears at the Cedar Park Center this fall. Charlotte, and every team in the division, has its work cut out.
Travel is pretty easy between the three Texas cities. For those unfamiliar with the geography, San Antonio, Austin and Houston are all within easy driving distance of each other. OKC is driveable, but many teams from Texas prefer to fly on tight timelines, since it’s a 6 hour one-way trip from Austin (the fathest north).
The Stars have good rivalries with Houston and San Antonio. I’d say the SA rivalry is stronger due to how many of the games tend to go to overtime.
CC - Can you give me a brief synopsis of how the AHL team came to Austin and the history of hockey in your city?
HDH - Dallas had previously had an affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa, but abandoned those operations after the 2007-8 year. Attendance was not great, apparently. Dallas was without an affilaite in 08-9 and then founded the Texas Stars in Cedar Park, a suburb of Austin, in 2009.
Austin had hosted a minor league team before, the Austin Ice Bats. The Bats were in the Western Professional League before joining the CHL. They folded in 2008. (I would recommend the book “Zamboni Rodeo” for those interested in life in the minors. Jason Cohen, the author, spent a year with the team and wrote a book about it.)
The cupboard was generally bare in terms of prospects that first season, so the team was built out using a lot of veteran talent. That vet-laden team took the campaign all the way to the Calder Cup Final, losing in six games to the Hershey Bears. Texas went to the playoffs again in their second season but lost in the first round to Milwaukee. In the third year, Dallas snatched up the coaching staff, Glen Gulutzan and Paul Jerrard, and Texas hired Jeff Pyle from the Gwinnett Gladiators. The Stars had the second worst record in the AHL last season, and Pyle was fired. This made way for a changing of the guard as many older players were not re-signed, being replaced by those recently drafted prospects I mentioned. Willie Desjardins, formerly an assistant coach in Dallas, was hired as head coach with Doug Lidster as assistant.
CC - How is the relationship between Dallas and Austin? With Dallas so relatively close by, is there a larger NHL presence at your practices and games?
HDH – We see hockey ops people a lot in Austin. I’m sure the numbers will increase this year even more with the lockout. We often see Joe Nieuwendyk, Stu Barnes, Les Jackson. Less frequently, we see Ralph Strangis (Dallas PxP), Glen Gulutzan or Paul Jerrard. Dallas is only three hours away, so it is very easy for team personnel to travel back and forth. On short notice, callups have been known to pile in their car and drive up I-35 for games. Maxime Fortunus did this in year one, I remember.
CC - I’m a bit of a beer connoisseur, and according to google maps, Shiner Texas isn’t too far from where the Stars play. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate Shiner Boch? Are there better Texas microbrews to be on the lookout for?
HDH - I’m a fan of Shiner Bock (7/10). Also on the list from Shiner is their Hefeweizen. The big thing around here is the seasonal brews (not sure if you get those out in Carolina). If you ever get a chance to enjoy a Shiner Ruby Redbird, a light summer lager brewed with Texas Rio Red Grapefruit, the signature sweet citrus of the Rio Grande Valley, and ginger, do it.
Austin is big on microbrews. I like a good Fireman #4 (American blonde brewed in the Hill Country) or a 512 Pecan Porter. 512 is the area code for Austin.
Editor’s Note: We do get some of the Shiner seasonals here. If I make it to a game in Austin, I’ll be sure to bring some find NC Beers in my bag for you! Asheville has been declared “Beer City USA” for a few years running, and some of the best microbrews in the country are here!
CC - What style of play do the Stars employ? Who are a few players that Checkers fans should keep on their radar?
HDH - That’s an interesting question. With a new coach coming in, it’s hard to pin it down 100%, but all indications point to a defensive style very similar to what Dallas plays in the NHL. There were a lot of issues last year with the systems alignment, which I wrote about here. This year, Coach Desjardins has been brought in to make sure that they are practicing what they preach in Dallas. It will make the transition easier for callups and improve the quality of play for the NHL club in the longer term.
Keep your eye on Jack Campbell in net. Drafted #11 in 2010, Campbell is the next big thing in net for Dallas. He played the last 12 games of the season in Texas last year and was a relevation. Fans are excited to see what he can do with a full campaign and a fully invested team (Texas was far out of the playoff race by then).
Also watch the defensemen Patrik Nemeth (#41, 2010) and Jamie Oleksiak (#14, 2011). A combined thirteen feet tall, these two will form a nasty defensive pairing for anyone that wants to approach the Texas net.
In the forward ranks, keep an eye on #2 scorer from last year, Matt Fraser (undrafted) in his sophomore season. Alex Chiasson (#38, 2009) came on strong with five points in nine games on an ATO last year.
Of course, things are going to change up a bit with new players coming down to Austin due to the lockout. The players expected to join who wouldn’t have played here otherwise are Cody Eakin and Tomas Vincour.
CC - Is there anyone Checkers fans should follow in the media or with the team to keep abreast of one of our new division rivals? Why did you start writing a blog about the Texas Stars?
HDH - To bo honest, coverage is pretty sparse. @100degreehockey is your best bet for timely news. Of course, following the team itself @TexasStars is good. The Austin American-Statesman beat writer does not have a Twitter and does not primarily cover hockey anyways.
I started writing the blog because I saw what Defending Big D had done for the Dallas Stars and realized that there was zero coverage of any quality for Texas. I started the blog in December 2009 and have been going strong ever since. I have been credentialed since the 2009-10 playoffs. I feel that my coverage provides hockey fans in Austin with something that goes beyond the box score. I strive to provide meaningful analysis while also writing human interest stories about the players and keeping tabs on the hockey community in Austin.