Trying to be the toast of Texas
ALLEN, Texas -- It's owner Doug Miller who finally puts this wacky, mad-scientist hockey experiment in perspective.
The Texas native and lifelong hockey fan is watching his Central Hockey League team, the Allen Americans, play the first period of their final preseason game against nearby rival Fort Worth. Minority owner Steve Duchesne, he of the 16 NHL seasons and owner of a Stanley Cup ring, is standing nearby taking in the action, chatting with a fan.
On the same concourse in a different suite, Craig Ludwig, with 1,256 regular-season games to his credit and two Cup rings, is likewise watching, muttering when the Americans miss a scoring chance or give one up. Ludwig is, likewise, a minority owner of the Americans.
So is Hall of Fame netminder Ed Belfour.
So is a man likely to join Belfour in the Hall of Fame, Mike Modano, who will be honored in Dallas on Monday evening with induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
So is Richard Matvichuk, who won a Cup with his Dallas mates in 1999 and is now standing on the Americans' bench beside coach Steve Martinson. Matvichuk, as well as owning a portion of the team, is assistant GM (Martinson holds the GM post) and assistant coach with an emphasis on the Americans defense.
This is Miller's living, breathing hockey experiment.
"It's kind of a test," Miller said. "They don't know what they want to do, but they're having fun."
Had the cards come up a different way, Miller would be the owner of the Dallas Stars. But they didn't, so instead he is overseeing a unique confluence of hockey talent at the bottom rung of the professional hockey ladder in North America. The wealthy oil and gas man has opened the door to virtually every element of his hockey team to a bunch of neophytes whose only real expertise comes from having lived and played the game at the highest level.
"We're trying to win, and we're trying to have fun too," Miller said.
Miller has known Ludwig for years. Miller's son, Austin, an assistant coach at the University of Oklahoma, grew up playing minor hockey with the Ludwig twins Trevor and Tyler, both of whom are currently playing for the Americans. And Miller sponsors a successful AAA under-18 team that Ludwig coached after retiring.
When Matvichuk moved his family back to the Dallas area three years ago after working as a volunteer fireman in Kelowna, British Columbia, he started helping Ludwig with the AAA team.
Duchesne, meanwhile, never played with the other co-owners but moved to the Dallas area so his wife could be closer to family and ended up helping Miller with his various hockey projects.
Although his team was successful as the Americans were closing out their third season of play last spring, Miller began wondering aloud to Ludwig about whether he and his pals might like to get involved with the team. Not just as figureheads but as hands-on guys, who would be involved in every level of the operation, including ticket sales and player development.
"Doug came to me and said, 'Hey, I've got this hare-brained idea,'" Ludwig said. "I don't know if you could draw it up any better. It just sort of fell into place."
Matvichuk recalls the conversation he had about the offer with Ludwig.
"Before he finished his sentence I said, 'I'm in,'" Matvichuk said.
When Belfour, inducted into the Hall of Fame a year ago, heard what was going on, he called Ludwig to see if he could get involved.
Modano, the most recently retired and a Dallas fixture since the Minnesota North Stars moved to Texas in 1993, likewise jumped aboard.
Shortly after the new ownership group was announced, Miller decided he wanted a new head coach.
"I told them, 'OK, your first job is to find a coach,'" Miller said. "They were like, 'OK, we can do this.'"
There is a kind of happy, manic quality to this experiment.
On this night, Modano is signing autographs for a group of season ticket holders before the game. As he walks in, Matvichuk and Ludwig give him the gears about a recent trip with former teammate Brett Hull to Cabo San Lucas.
The former teammates who are now business partners joke about whether Modano is likely to shed some tears at his U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony. But the conversation quickly moves to the team's looming salary-cap issues and the start of the regular season on Saturday.
Of the group, Modano is easily the biggest name. Imagine if Troy Aikman or Roger Staubach decided to run a minor league football team or Nolan Ryan was running an Class A baseball team instead of the Texas Rangers. Modano has made it clear that he won't be biting off more than he can chew.
"I told them I'll be around and help out when I can," he said.
Still, the vibe around the club is contagious.
"I was flabbergasted. They really work their [butts] off," Duchesne said with a laugh. "This is great. This is going to be very interesting."
All five former players are regularly on the ice working out with the team. Throw in the fact that a handful of locked-out Dallas Stars have been training with the team in recent weeks and it has made for an unusual dynamic at this level of hockey.
"There's a lot of talent up in that office," said defenseman Tyler Ludwig. "I'm definitely looking forward to [the season."
Trevor Ludwig said one of the team's goaltenders came in early for training camp and ran into Belfour at the rink.
"He said I don't know what to do, shake his hand or ask for an autograph," Trevor said.
It's not a clubhouse, of course; it's a business. Yet it has a clubhouse feel with the easygoing nature of the personalities involved. That's what comes from having climbed the NHL mountain.
Ludwig, for instance, asks team president Matt Canavan to set up a computer so he can show a promotional video for a reality series the team is exploring with a local production company. The promo, what Canavan calls a jockumentary, has an HBO "24/7" feel to it, with high production quality. They are looking for sponsors and a broadcaster to show the series that will feature behind-the-scenes look at the team and their high-profile owners.
Belfour, one of the most technically sound goaltenders of all time, has not surprisingly taken an avid interest in the team's goaltending situation, recruiting players and critiquing their methodology.
As was the case when they played, the ex-NHL players have more than a little pride at stake.
"We all see the game completely differently," said Matvichuk.
But like teammates, the new owners have to trust the guys next to them, he said.
"The four of us have trusted each other for a long, long time," said Matvichuk, who credits Ludwig for taking him under his wing when he was an 18-year-old kid fresh from the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League.
Ludwig is the heartbeat of the group, Modano said, the straw that stirs the ownership group. He feels a burden of responsibility to make this work for all concerned.
"I have a responsibility to Doug because Doug wanted these guys involved, and I have a responsibility to the guys because their reputations are involved," said Ludwig.
The learning curve has been admittedly steep, as they have had to learn the ins and outs of sponsorship requests, season ticket campaigns and constructing a team that can succeed on the ice.
"They're finding out what it means to not sell tickets, to not have sponsors," Miller said.
Duchesne said there has been much to learn.
"I thought it was going to be easy. 'Hey, I'm Steve Duchesne. You should buy a dasher board [ad] for $10,000,'" he said. "It's like playing hockey. You really depend on each other. We have a lot to prove."
Matvichuk, who willingly signed on for monster bus trips with the team as assistant coach, would like to use this experience as a stepping stone to a coaching job up the professional hockey ladder.
Ludwig is hoping the experience opens a door to a management position at the NHL level. Duchesne is getting exposure to the business side of the game he might not otherwise have had.
One thing is certain, there won't be many dull days around the Allen Americans.