More than 20 years before Tom Gaglardi was in front of a bankruptcy judge working toward buying the Dallas Stars, he was sitting in a courtroom in Vancouver, British Columbia, hoping the company his father Bob started in 1963 wasn't about to fold.
Northland Properties was around $150 million in debt and was begging for protection from the courts in the late 1980s. Tom was in the middle of his classes at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and still working in the business, something he began doing at age 13, when he was a busboy in one of the restaurants.
"We were bankrupt and just trying to save it," Gaglardi said, a few hours after he was introduced as the new Stars owner last Monday at age 43. "I would skip university to go to court and see whether a judge would give us an extension. They did. We got ourselves reorganized and got a new lease on life and then grew right out of it."
Gaglardi became president just a few years after he graduated and helped springboard the privately held company to one that now generates a reported $600 million in annual revenue, turning the Gaglardi family into billionaires. It was lessons learned from years of working in nearly every aspect of the company -- busboy, cook, server, front desk attendant, construction and then into operations -- that helped him turn the organization around.
"He worked hard," Bob Gaglardi said. "He doesn't give up. He's wanted to own a hockey team and now he does. He's going to do a great job."
A gaggle of Gaglardi family members watched last Monday's win over the Edmonton Oilers in the owner's suite at American Airlines Center. Tucked inside was Gaglardi, wearing a sport coat and jeans as he completed his first full day of work.
"I'm not a suit guy," Gaglardi said. "I think the world got more casual and I roll that way. It's OK. I go to meet bankers now and even they are wearing jeans."
Gaglardi tried to purchase the Vancouver Canucks, his hometown team, in 2004, but it fell through. So last Monday, Gaglardi didn't even try to mask his excitement as he took control of the Stars.
He talked about committing the Stars to returning to a place of prominence in the NHL, answered numerous questions from reporters, went on a few radio and TV shows and even dropped the ceremonial first puck.
"It's been a fun day," Gaglardi said. "I can't wait to really get things going now."
Gaglardi knows Stars fans have suffered the last few years as the Hicks Sports Group, led by previous owner Tom Hicks, ran into financial difficulties and the many creditors of the Stars attempted to the sell the team while keeping it on a shoestring budget. An organization used to making regular playoff trips hasn't made one in three seasons.
"In the medium to long term, this has to be one of the top payroll teams," Gaglardi said. "We're in a big enough market to support that. But that doesn't mean you just spend money. I don't think it makes any sense to do that. You build the team with good young players and do what you can to hold on to them."
Gaglardi knows from the tough days trying to get the family business back on solid ground that spending money wisely is the key to success.
"I think when you've been in a business in that bad a shape and you have a tough time paying your bills, it changes you forever," Gaglardi said. "You become fiscally responsible. Those are important lessons. I want to stay responsible and as a consequence, we are more risk averse because of that process. We've never taken on those levels of debt. We're now the largest family-owned hospitality business in Canada. We're in good financial shape and we don't have a lot of debt."
Gaglardi supports general manager Joe Nieuwendyk's plan of identifying the core players on his team and doing what he can to sign them long term. The new owner will give Nieuwendyk more resources to add players, but doesn't want to "make a splash" and do something that will hurt the organization's ability to keep some of its talented youngsters in the future.
Gaglardi plans on getting a home in Dallas and spending time here helping to lure fans back into the arena. Gaglardi saw firsthand how many empty seats were in AAC last week and he doesn't want that to last.
"People have to trust you," Gaglardi said. "A season-ticket holder buys a season ticket because they want to have an emotional attachment and be a part of your team."
Gaglardi knew he needed someone with a history in the Dallas-Fort Worth market and talked to Jim Lites about returning. A casual lunch turned into a 2½-hour job interview of sorts. Gaglardi was sold, and Lites is president of the Stars again.
"It's clear he's smart, very hard-working and a tremendous communicator," Lites said of his new boss. "He listens. Fans have to have faith. They have to know you stand for something. Just having an owner and knowing there isn't financial trouble helps."
Gaglardi was furiously texting Lites on Friday as the Stars had a nice walkup crowd to earn a sellout the day after Thanksgiving in a 4-3 shootout loss to Toronto.
"It's going to take time," said Lites, whose most recent job in sports was heading the group that sold seat licenses for the New York Giants in their new stadium. "We have to roll prices back. Season-ticket prices have been rolling back over a period of time, but we have to roll back individual prices. We have to find the happy medium of what fans will pay and what the value is. We have to get fans back in the building to test the product before they buy 20 games or 40 games."
Gaglardi believes in the management team in place and is confident fans will return as the organization works hard to win them back.
"This is a great market with a rich history of good hockey," Gaglardi said. "We're committed to making it that way again."
Richard Durrett covers the Stars for ESPNDallas.com.