DALLAS — Once his cell phone stopped buzzing and the text messages settled down, Patrick Sharp took one last call from the one new teammate who understood these challenges best: a midsummer trade from a longtime home, a young family to move, an entire organization to learn. A veteran winger and father of two daughters, Sharp had anticipated heading somewhere else, no doubt about that, as collateral damage in the Blackhawks salary cap crunch situation after their Stanley Cup run last spring. So when Chicago GM Stan Bowman told Sharp that the Dallas Stars had pitched an enticing offer, Sharp quickly accepted, waiving his no-trade clause and thereby choosing his next destination.
Fifteen minutes later, he says, the deal was announced.
A week or so later, Jason Spezza rang.
“It’s a big change when you’ve been in the same place for such a long time, everything you take for granted is all different,” says Spezza, a father of three daughters who arrived in Dallas on July 1, 2014 after 11 years in Otttawa. “As much as anybody can tell you what it’s going to be, you have to live through it.”
Nine games into his first season with Dallas, toeing the line between decorated veteran and fresh face on the block, Sharp feels fully adjusted, since the deal’s timing afforded him a full off-season of turning the page. He brought stories with him here, memories of three Stanley Cups and an Olympic gold medal, which Spezza and others have asked to hear. He scored his first goal with the Stars and the 250th of his career on Tuesday night against Anaheim, a one-timer from the slot he launched from one knee, upon which captain Jamie Benn rushed into the crease to retrieve the puck. Sharp has continued pestering Spezza with more questions—about the facilities, the neighborhood, the system, “you name it”—and still occasionally slips up while separating the old home from the new.
“Dallas was one that was always top of the list,” Sharp says the next day at the team’s practice facility in Frisco, Texas. “It’s a class organization, it’s a team that’s on the rise. I think they have a great chance—I mean, I think we have a great chance to win in the next few years, so when the opportunity to come down to Texas popped up, I was more than happy to say yes.”
In this transition, Sharp was hardly alone. Aiming to supplement a young core that boasts Benn, who was last-season's NHL scoring champion, along with dynamic forward Tyler Seguin and up-and-coming defenseman John Klingberg, Stars GM Jim Nill brokered three separate deals during the summer that brought aboard Sharp, defenseman Johnny Oduya (via free agency) and goaltender Antti Niemi (via trade from San Jose, and then signed in free agency), all of whom had won championships with the Blackhawks.
“I think everybody’s always trying to do it, but it’s a juggling act,” Nill says while watching his team’s morning skate at American Airlines Center on Thursday. “You have to have cap room. Usually guys with rings are good players and are making good money. It becomes a cap situation. Anytime you can add guys who have won at every level, it just makes your team better. We have a lot of young kids, or young players, I should say, and the next step is learning how to win, how to do things right.
“It’s the little things. It’s not always play on the ice. It might be practicing, how you work out, how you take care of yourself. There’s so many things that go into it. Trying to set that right template in your dressing room and these guys have been there, they’ve done it.”
Take, for example, the blossoming relationship between Oduya and a fellow blue-liner who is 11 years his junior. Already latched by their Swedish roots—both were born in Stockholm—Oduya and Patrik Nemeth quickly bonded over what Oduya called a “nerdy” obsession with training and nutrition. On the road, it’s not uncommon to see them together searching for a local juice bar or the nearest Whole Foods, just like after a recent win in Florida they retreated into a tunnel for a postgame workout.
“Oh god, we go deep into stuff,” Nemeth says. “We talk about everything. We’re not only talking about food, we’re talking about the way you can recover faster. We’re talking about mindset, we’re talking about leadership, we’re talking about a lot of stuff that we think is interesting. I think when you want to learn stuff and when you go deeper into something, that’s when you notice how much there is to learn. If you, as example, go to a boxing gym, then you learn a couple uppercuts and stuff like that, you think you’re a good boxer, right? The longer you’re boxing, the more you know how much there is to it, and it’s the same thing when it comes to nutrition, it’s the same thing when it comes to hockey.”
Entering unrestricted free agency at 34 years old, Oduya held little desire to, in his words, “[start] over from total scratch” with a younger, less established club. In Dallas, though, he saw himself as a complementary piece for a “very dangerous group” looking to break through. “All the ingredients are here, “he says, “and it’s a matter of time. Obviously that’s something I could add onto.”
Coach Lindy Ruff’s system presented some slight differences, and since Oduya signed 10 days after Sharp’s trade, he too made a call seeking advice. Together, they represent what Spezza calls “the next step” in the march back to the postseason. The Stars have qualified only once since losing the 2008 Western Conference Finals.
“They’ve been outstanding,” Nill says. “To win and be leaders, you don’t lose that. That’s something that’s engrained in you. From day one, when they came on board, you knew what you were getting. They’ve been everything we could ask for. They’ve brought the leadership, they’ve brought the accountability and on top of that they’re good players. They’re elite players at this level. They’ve been everything you could ask for.”
Says Spezza: "It gives us a chance to take the next step as a team. There’s no secret that Jim’s trying to build a team that can win here and he’s doing everything in his power to get us the right pieces and we just have to gel together as a team."
Off to a 7-2-0 start and one point out of first place in the tough Central Division, the hoped for signs are there.