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Stars have that empty feeling

Imagine you are the NHL.

The NBA, your wintertime friend and neighbor, has locked out its players. Of course, you don't wish the NBA ill -- your owners are its owners in cities like New York, Washington and Toronto, and you share many arenas -- but a lockout gives you the opportunity to win some hearts and minds among generic sports fans and collar some extra leisure or maybe even corporate dollars.

But the NBA and its players sign a new deal, scotching your hope, but the new split in revenue between ownership and basketball's hired help perhaps can serve as a template for your own labor pas de deux, which is just around the corner. Anyway, no harm, no foul as they supposedly say in that sport.

Now imagine you are the NHL again, a few months later.

You have a powerhouse New York team in the Rangers, which has coalesced around a feral style of play, a brilliant goaltender, and the inspired leadership of an American captain. The Rangers are an Original Six team. They have some innate juice. The last time they won the Stanley Cup, in 1994, a sports magazine with which you are familiar ran a cover headline that proclaimed the NHL hot and the NBA not. Whether that sentiment was true beyond the 212 area code, well ...

Anyway, the NHL always seems a happier place when the Rangers or the Chicago Blackhawks are terrific. So now the Rangers get priceless exposure from HBO's 24/7, play in the overhyped Winter Classic on Jan. 2, dominate the Eastern Conference ... and the New York Giants squeak into the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. The New York Knicks promote a fifth-string point guard whose name escapes us. Suddenly the hockey team is Judge Crater.

The Rangers actually took out an advertisement in Newsday recently touting their goalie, the nonpareil Henrik Lundqvist, as "Linqvist." Cute. If that point guard, Whatshisname, has half the career of the netminder, he will have done all right for himself.

OK, finally imagine you are the Dallas Stars.

Of all the my-girl-ran-off-and-my-dog-died rotten luck stories that routinely befall hockey, the Stars win first prize.

The Stars once operated a really nice franchise, the bellwether for the so-called non-traditional market teams. They were more than hardy playoff perennials. They were champions, in 1999, and they were Western Conference cornerstones, with Detroit and Colorado, at a time when the East sometimes seemed like it was the junior varsity. Now, just as the organization badly stubs its toe by missing the playoffs since a run to the 2008 conference final, the Texas Rangers keep playing into October -- "I honestly didn't know what the Texas Rangers were until three years ago," Stars pot-stirrer Steve Ott says -- and Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks win the NBA championship, taking some of the money off of the table and sucking most of the oxygen out of the room.

The Stars have not lost their way under general manager Joe Nieuwendyk, who has scrambled to keep the team a contender for a playoff spot, but they have lost their place at the adults' table in their own city. While the Texas Rangers were able to build themselves into a money-spending monster in the wake of an ownership change, the Stars have not rebounded vigorously since Tom Hicks' sports properties melted down. (Vancouver businessman Tom Gaglardi bought the team out of bankruptcy last November.) The season-ticket base has shrunk by half from the glory years, to roughly 6,000.

Currently the Stars rank 28th in total attendance, ahead of only the New York Islanders, who play in the Nassau Coliseum Crypt, and the wards-of-the-league, the Phoenix Coyotes. In terms of percentage of seats filled, however, Dallas is last. The Stars are the only team that draws -- officially, anyway -- below 80 per cent of capacity.

Following a dandy overtime winner against Calgary last week, center Mike Ribeiro, who was interviewed on the ice, said, "Hopefully you guys can invite your friends for next game, so we can have more people." While it probably is not wise to be offhandedly dismissive of the coterie of fans who actually did pay to see you, give Ribeiro full marks for cheek.

Since settling the ownership situation, the Invisible Franchise is trying to reintroduce itself into the community that once set the standard for Sun Belt hockey passion. There are five core players who are 28 or under -- forwards Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson (who has been referred to as underrated so often that surely he now qualifies as rated), defensemen Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley, and goalie Kari Lehtonen -- who have been dispatched to various radio stations for weekly segments. Jim Lites, the Stars president for many of the glory years, reassumed that position under Gaglardi, which should only help the promotional end of the business.

"The lockout really hurt the franchise," says Guy Carbonneau, who played on the '99 Cup champion and later served as Stars assistant GM. He is also the father-in-law of Dallas captain Brenden Morrow. "The city's attitude is about winning. There's always going to be football, but then the baseball team started to win and the basketball team won a championship. You're also going up against colleges and high schools, and too many people went off to spend their money elsewhere.

"Joe's done an unbelievable job under the circumstances. They've drafted pretty well. They have lots of players that they drafted on the roster. (Of the 23 that were available to face the Canadiens Tuesday night, nine were Stars draftees.) If they keep putting together a solid team and maybe have a long playoff run, I think fans will start coming back to them."

A playoff run is unlikely but not inconceivable for a team that generally slogs for goals. The Stars are, in Nieuwendyk's phrase, "in the soup," in 10th place entering Wednesday, two points out of eighth. He already had offloaded defenseman Nicklas Grossman to Philadelphia for draft picks -- Grossman can be an unrestricted free agent July 1 -- but is quick to point out that trade was not a sign of capitulation but of confidence in his group of blueliners. He is hopeful that before the trade deadline next Monday he can find a deal that will lend immediate help but also be good in the long term, a neat equivocation for a GM who dislikes the phrase "buyers and sellers."

Really, what GM wouldn't like that kind of deal? But if the Stars do tumble onto the right side of the playoff fence, Lehtonen represents a threat to steal a round. Color him optimistic. Just don't color him blue. Before a four-game wipeout against the Rangers in 2007, Lehtonen, then with Atlanta, dyed his hair a shade of Thrashers blue. The incident, which did not amuse his teammates, left him red-faced: he was 0-2 with a 5.59 goals-against average. For New York, it was Nice n' Easy.

"Before the start of the year we thought we'd be in the soup, that six-to-10 range, and that's exactly where we are," says Nieuwendyk, whose team won 11 of its first 14 before sinking into the muck with a handful of other teams that are now scrambling for a few more home dates in mid-April. "What we'd like to become is a perennial team, a team like Detroit that doesn't worry about making the playoffs but preparing for the playoffs."

Maybe Lites eventually will use that as the new marking slogan for a team that a town forgot: "The Dallas Stars, No Soup for Us."

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