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Thinking locally

The sparse crowd that dotted the American Airlines Center stands for last Friday's game between Dallas and Ottawa was treated to one heck of a tilt. Though the visitors handed the Stars a 4-2 loss, the contest delivered the best the game has to offer: gritty physical play, some deft goaltending and a number of quality scoring chances.

But the buzz among the patrons as they filed out of the building had little to do with the big hits, the resurgence of Mike Modano or the mockery Antoine Vermette made of the Dallas defense with a dazzling first-period assault. No, everyone was talking about the amazing behind-the-back, lacrosse-style goal scored by Max Gerlach.

Don't know the name? Maybe you will down the road. At the moment, he's a bit under the radar. Gerlach, after all, is just nine years old.

During the first intermission, this whiz kid stunned those who had stayed in their seats to watch a midget shootout exhibition with a showy move reminiscent of the stickhandling wizardry of Sidney Crosby and Rob Schremp. Already, a clip of Gerlach's goal has generated more than 100,000 views on YouTube and was named the NHL's highlight of the week on TSN in Canada.

As amazing as it was, it's likely those fans in Dallas have already forgotten the kid's name. But what if they had a good reason not to? What if there was a chance that they had just seen a future member of their beloved Stars?

As the NHL struggles to grab its fair share of the spotlight in so many American markets, it makes good sense to appeal to the most basic emotion of the sports fan: hometown pride. Even the most hockey-savvy crowds aren't immune to the tug. Look at how Edmonton-born Fernando Pisani is treated by Oilers fans, for example, or how every trade rumor out of Montreal involves Les Habitants bringing home some local boy and granting him his bleu, blanc et rouge birthright.

These connections create excitement. So why not tweak the NHL's current draft system to create more of those situations, especially where they're needed most, by giving teams first right of refusal to local prospects?

Wouldn't be the first time such rights were the order of the day. One only has to look back a few decades to when the Canadiens were given a territorial imperative that allowed them to control the fates of two local players each year in order to maintain the distinct francophonic flavor of the franchise. Looking at the current state of that club, is there any doubt that the Habs, and the league itself, would be better off if they'd been allowed to maintain that privilege instead of morphing into a McFranchise that's no more uniquely identifiable than those in Columbus, Nashville or Phoenix?

Acting locally may be more important than ever. As teams endeavor to separate themselves from the pack while working under the constrictions of the salary cap, there are really just two options: an outstanding front office and the best possible scouting staff. Allowing teams to tend their own backyard gardens would create a third avenue that rewards the worthy, rather than those teams who are drafting early as a result of either gross misfortune or good old-fashioned mismanagement.

The Stars are a perfect example of how to make this work. Although the franchise has slipped on the Dallas sporting scene since the glory days of a decade ago, there's no denying the remarkable success story of its efforts to expand the appeal of the game at the grassroots level. The team has created the blueprint, expending considerable capital to build rinks around the Metroplex and filling that ice time by making it affordable for parents to get their kids on hockey skates along with -- or instead of -- sneakers or cleats. Once they've got them on the ice, the Stars have developed a well-honed system that funnels the most promising talent into high-end streams bolstered by elite coaching.

Though the prominence of football suggests the area is unlikely to generate the sheer numbers of participants you'll see in more traditional northern settings, Dallas already has begun to develop players who've experienced significant success. Among them is goalie David McKee, who set a number of NCAA records while attending Cornell and had a cup of coffee with the Ducks after signing as a free agent. Several Dallas-born or trained players have been drafted, including defenseman Trevor Ludwig, son of former Stars defenseman Craig Ludwig, and right winger Austin Smith, who was selected just this past summer.

It's unlikely that any those players will become a star in the NHL, but they're proof that a local hothouse can, over time, develop prospects. With a little luck, a real star (and maybe, a real Star) will emerge in short order.

There are a couple of possible scenarios for implementing a homegrown prerogative. Probably the most simple would be a claim system. By a certain date, a team would put in a claim on the local player of its choosing. In exchange, it would forfeit its first-round pick in that year's draft. Most years, the at-large pool would be more promising for the majority of teams, but the potential for a local hero to emerge would generate ink and airtime during the development period -- something the league always could use a little more of. And when a real star was cultivated, then you've got a marketing opportunity.

This works out well for the players, too. After all, what kid doesn't grow up dreaming of playing for the hometown team?

There are snags that would have to be ironed out, including how to define a team's territory and what, exactly, makes a player eligible for exclusivity: place of birth or where he plays his minor hockey. But those problems could be dealt with.

Does it give an advantage to traditional talent hotbeds like Toronto, Edmonton and Detroit in the early stages? Absolutely. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's good for the game to have strong teams and identifiable stars in core markets.

But the whole point of this concept is that the league benefits by turning ALL of its towns into hockey hotbeds. And maybe by putting the onus on teams to expend every possible effort, aided by the carrot of exclusive access to homegrown talent, they take a step toward making that happen.

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