Destination Big D

Dallas Serves As The Center Of The Hockey Universe As Nationals And World U18s Come To Town

You know what they say, everything is bigger in Texas. From the sprawling freeways connecting the Children's Health StarCenter rinks that served as host sites for Chipotle-USA Hockey National Championship tournaments to the size of the cowboy hat tournament director Brad Buckland wore during the medals ceremonies to the smiles on the faces of players and  parents who were happy to have hockey back in their lives.

Add to the mix the massive undertaking required to host 10 international teams competing at the IIHF Men's Under-18 World Championship, also held at Stars-run facilities, and it's easy to see that Big D stands for Destination when it comes to hosting hockey tournaments.

"I wouldn't call us Hockeytown just yet, but I would definitely say that we're driving a lot of events to Texas and to Dallas," said T.C. Lewis, a resident of Houston who served as the National Championships chairperson.

All told, the Dallas area hosted four different USA Hockey events over the course of several weeks in late April and early May, including the Tier I 14 & Under and 15 Only tournaments, and the Tier II 14 & Under division, which included 32 teams representing 30 states.

Bringing so many youth hockey teams together under the banner of the Chipotle-USA Hockey National Championships took a Herculean effort on behalf of an army of local and national volunteers along with USA Hockey staff.

After last year's National Championships were cancelled during the early stages of the pandemic, USA Hockey's youth council knew that pulling the plug for a second year would be a hard pill for many to swallow.

Working with medical professionals, state and local governments, rink owners, volunteers and youth hockey associations around the country, it took months to create a plan to stage the event with the health and welfare of all participants in mind.

Several host sites such as San Jose and Irvine, Calif., and Amherst, N.Y., were forced to pull the chute on hosting the events under the weight of local regulations. Up stepped Denver and St. Louis, who did a masterful job of hosting tournaments with little time to prepare.

In the end, it worked out well from the drop of the first puck to the awarding of final championship medal.

"It was so critically important to hold this event this year, for the many youth athletes that play our wonderful game. They worked so hard, in a challenging year, to earn their way to Nationals and we owed them the tournament," said Keith Barrett, who was taking in his first Nationals as vice president of USA Hockey's youth council.

"I was overcome with emotion on watching the final 14U Tier II game and seeing the on-ice celebration of the Alaska Stars, and knowing this was being repeated in multiple sites across the country, all due in part to your participation and dedication to our game."

While many states were dealing with closures and restrictions during the height of the pandemic, Texas hung out the welcome sign as the Dallas Stars Tournament Series never missed a beat. Starting with its big Labor Day kickoff tournament, the Texas Shootout, and going right on through the state tournaments, youth hockey teams converged on Dallas like a Texas flood.

According to Buckland, who oversees the Stars tournament series, they were able to hold events by following strict guidelines that put the health of the participants at the forefront. Those same protocols were augmented by additional guidelines supplied by USA Hockey's medical people when it came time to host Nationals.

"We wanted to do a lot of the same things that we always been known for when it comes to the operations of a tournament and the things that we do, but do it in a safe way," Buckland said.

"I really think that we served as a model or one of the models for the way to do it during a challenging time. We did it right and were successful; everybody still had a great time and stayed healthy."

It was the same across town as the Comerica Center in Frisco and Children's Health StarCenter in Plano hosted 10 international teams inside a controlled environment.

While COVID spacing restrictions kept the crowd sizes under the 3,500 capacity at the Comerica Center, the enthusiasm inside the building was noticeable to the U.S. players who were spurred on by the support.

"There was definitely a lot of buzz in the building," said Team USA forward Dylan Duke. "It was an electric atmosphere."

That's exactly what the Stars were hoping for when they stepped up to host the event after organizers were uneasy about how COVID protocols in Michigan would impact the event at the USA Hockey Arena, the original host site.

"We had an idea that it would work out well, but it's really been such a success," Stars President and CEO Brad Alberts told the NHL.com. "The crowds have been fantastic. Honestly, if we could sell to full capacity, we could do it easily because there has been that much interest."

Over the course of the three weeks teams were in town, not a single player, coach or tournament staffer tested positive for COVID, which speaks to the effectiveness of the plan the organizers put in place to keep everyone healthy.

Being able to put their best foot forward and showcase Texas as a destination for future hockey events, large and small, is part of the Stars game plan when it comes to expanding the game in parts of the country more famous for the high school football games played under the  Friday night lights than what typically takes place on the ice. 

"When you have people coming in from all over the country and realizing how many rinks we have and quality of the rinks and the quality of events that makes people on notice, 'Hey, there's hockey down here in Dallas, there's hockey in Texas, and it's a good place to go," Lewis said. "And the sport is growing because of it."

After losing out on hosting the 2020 USA Hockey High School Nationals (which will be held here next April) and the ACHA (college club) Nationals, the Stars roared back with a vengeance, pulling off a hat trick of youth events in addition to shining on the international stage. It was a big undertaking, especially under the cloud of a pandemic, but once again it just goes to show that everything is bigger in Texas.   

"It feels good at the end of one hosting one National tournament, much less three at the same time," Buckland said. "Just to hear the feedback we've received makes it all worth it. I think the overall sentiment was that we ran a well-oiled machine, like we always do. And modestly, I have to say, I feel like we knocked it out in the park."

Issue: 
2021-05

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