Pro team aids growth of hockey in Texas

The Grapevine Mills mall located just north of D/FW International Airport is a massive complex. Among the many tenants are a Virgin Megastore, a Forever 21, a Rainforest Cafe and a 30-screen theater.

But nobody should be there at 6 a.m., not even for those killer sales on the day after Thanksgiving. Yet teenage boys are found staggering into the mall twice a week for months at a time during the school year.

That's part of the price some North Texas high school students pay to play high school hockey.

Yes, there is high school hockey in the Lone Star State. Has been for 12 years, just a few years after the NHL came to Texas when the Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars in 1993.

High school hockey has been growing slowly across America's Sun Belt in the past decade or so, with leagues sprouting up from California to Tennessee to Florida. But Texas appears to have the greatest participation, with 49 varsity teams and about the same number of junior varsity or junior high squads.

Jim Lites became the Dallas Stars' team president when the franchise moved from Minnesota, and he was behind the club's efforts to promote construction of hockey rinks in North Texas and, in turn, the development of high school hockey in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The expansion of rinks from one (where the NHL team initially practiced, in the Valley Ranch area of Irving) to nine also spurred the development of Dallas-area travel teams, like those found from coast to coast.

"There's nothing that I've done in my career more important to me than what we created from the amateur hockey perspective in Texas," Lites said.

Hockey in Texas isn't sanctioned by the University Interscholastic League, the state's governing body for high school athletics. It's played primarily in three of the most populated areas: Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin. Each of those areas operates its own league and will send teams to participate in the annual Texas Cup state tournament in Austin, held April 17-19. Another tournament for what's called Division II will be held at the same time in Houston.

High school play in Texas began humbly in January 1997 with four Dallas-area schools: Coppell, Jesuit (Dallas), Plano and Southlake. Last year, Jesuit beat Plano in Houston to win the most recent Texas Cup.

Lites enlisted the services of a fellow Michigander, Lance Lankford, to get Texas high school hockey up and running. Lankford, who played for Michigan state power Trenton, recognized what many of the transplanted Stars people saw: a natural link between hockey and a fan population that salivated over football.

"They liked the physical nature of hockey," said Lankford, an attorney by day. "The first night, we had a doubleheader with the four teams playing each other at the old Valley Ranch StarCenter. We figured we might get a couple hundred people. It was pretty much full. I think we had about 600, which was all that it could hold at that point. The fire marshal said, 'You should probably stop selling tickets soon.' "

Lankford's goal for Year 2 was to double the league to eight teams. He ended up with 12 varsity and eight JV squads.

"The first year, I met with the schools, the athletic directors, to make sure they were OK, that they knew what was going on," Lankford said. "The second year, it was all parents coming to me and saying, 'We want to have a team.' From the beginning, it has been more successful than I thought it would be."

Some of the state's teams, particularly in Houston and Austin, are combinations of multiple schools. Decisions regarding the number of teams and which ones will have combined rosters are made at the beginning of each season in an effort to accommodate as many kids as possible.

Competing outside the UIL allows teams to be coached by people who aren't members of school faculties. In many cases, the coaches were reared in the northern U.S. or Canada and have extensive backgrounds in hockey.

Such is the case with Tim Madigan, this year's coach of the year in the Dallas-Fort Worth area's AT&T Metroplex High School Hockey League. Madigan grew up in Minnesota and attended the University of North Dakota. He coaches the team in Mansfield, which draws from all four high schools in the town located just south of Arlington.

But the rosters across Texas are filled with kids who have been playing in games here for years.

"The growth of the game here has been such that I took our team up to Minnesota over the holidays and, while we haven't won yet, we are fairly competitive," said Madigan, who is a writer for the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth and an author. "I think people in Minnesota have been somewhat surprised by how skilled we were."

Kennedy O'Leary moved to North Texas from Nova Scotia two years ago when his father was transferred. The family could have picked a number of places in the western U.S. but chose the Dallas area because of the quality of hockey available for him.

"The skill level, I thought, was pretty decent," said O'Leary, captain of Flower Mound's team. "I came down here and played my normal game. The first couple of games, I got four penalties, which, I usually didn't get any penalties. I felt like the refereeing was kind of over the top. There [in Canada], you could do more, hit more, [be] a little more rough."

Fights are prohibited, as they are throughout most of amateur hockey in the United States and Canada, and result in game suspensions. While hockey isn't a UIL sport, violations of the state's UIL-related no-pass, no-play standards also lead to players sitting out.

Growth of amateur and high school hockey in North Texas has swelled with the success of the Dallas Stars, who finished with the NHL's best record in 1997-98 and won the Stanley Cup the next season. A similar scenario took place in South Florida after Miami's Florida Panthers reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1996.

"You need a successful team down here to generate interest," said Peter Pearlman, who started the Florida Scholastic Hockey League 11 years ago and still serves as its president. "You need to have that team involved in the community to generate that interest."

The San Jose Sharks have been instrumental in that area's high school league, now in its ninth year. The Anaheim Ducks helped start Orange County's first high school team this past season at JSerra Catholic (San Juan Capistrano), which played area travel teams. The plan for 2009-10 is a four-team high school league including three of JSerra's fellow members of the CIF Trinity League: Mater Dei (Santa Ana), Santa Margarita (Rancho Santa Margarita) and Servite (Anaheim). Individuals with both the San Jose league and the planned Orange County league have cited the D-FW operation as a model.

Big league hockey in Texas actually arrived in Houston long before the Dallas Stars, with the World Hockey Association's Houston Aeros (featuring the return of Gordie Howe) in the early 1970s. While four WHA teams were absorbed into the NHL in 1979, the Aeros folded a few years before that. Houston now has a minor league Aeros team.

Ontario native Bill Mackey has been working in Houston for 12 years at NASA for the Canadian Space Agency, supporting the International Space Station program robotics division. He has coached high school hockey there for five years, the past three for the "Brook-Creek-Springs" or "BCS" team, which gets players from three high schools located southeast of Houston near the NASA complex: Clear Brook (Friendswood), Clear Creek (League City) and Clear Springs (League City).

Mackey is disappointed that the Houston high school league -- 15 varsity teams and seven "prep" teams, playing in what's called the Interscholastic Hockey League -- hasn't grown more. There aren't as many facilities as there are in North Texas and, possibly related to that, fewer high school players also play for travel teams than in the Dallas area. He'd like to see elementary school children exposed to hockey.

Austin is the little brother of Texas high school hockey. It has five varsity teams, all composite rosters from multiple high schools, playing in one facility in the Central Texas High School League. The Dallas Stars are building a rink just north of Austin to house their American Hockey League affiliate next season, but Jason Maurer of Austin's Chaparral Ice rink doesn't anticipate the local high school league growing substantially because of that.

Lack of facilities is probably the biggest obstacle to the growth of Texas high school hockey, leading to practices at odd times like 6 a.m. at the Grapevine Mills rink and some games being played late at night. Another issue is that the length of the schedule makes it difficult for students to participate in other sports. In the North Texas league, for instance, the 24-game schedule runs from early October to early April. Scott Zinser, a senior center for Plano, is one player who gave up football to play hockey after the eighth grade. His mother, Sheila Guyer, said it's refreshing that Plano hockey coach Greg Gerhard not only doesn't prohibit his players from trying to play other sports, he also cooperates with the coaches of the players who play travel hockey.

"Scott enjoys the camaraderie of the hockey team," she said. "And the stress is all gone."

It's actually easier for a high school hockey player to participate in other sports in hockey-crazed Minnesota. There's little overlap there between the football and hockey seasons, and hockey ends in mid-March.

Texas is part of USA Hockey's Rocky Mountain District, and the North Texas team from Allen won the recent district tournament played in Phoenix. Next season, the district tournaments are being replaced by a national tournament in which any state can send a representative as long its players all come from the same school.

And the state is beginning to make noise in the sport at higher levels. In 2007, the Stars selected right wing Austin Smith in the fifth round of the NHL draft. Smith played his first two years of high school hockey at Dallas Jesuit before finishing at The Gunnery school in Connecticut. He's considered the first NHL draftee who is a product of Texas high school hockey, and just finished his freshman year at Colgate University, where he was one of nine players to get into all 37 games.

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.