There has always been a perception of Dallas, and Texas as a whole, that they’re larger than life.
Who hasn’t heard the saying “Everything is Bigger in Texas?”
After all, Texas is the second largest state in the United States, roughly twice the size of Germany.
It’s known for big ranches, big belt buckles, big hats and big money.
Can you think of Dallas without images of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and the Dallas Cowboys blue star popping into your head?
Who hasn’t seen Friday Night Lights or heard about the madness that surrounds Small Town, USA, when two rival high schools face off for gridiron glory?
Yes, Dallas and the state of Texas have many stereotypes, but where does hockey fit into the booming market?
My Google skills revealed 14 NHLers hail from the state all-time, highlighted by one of the greatest defensemen of in league history, Brian Leetch. He’s from Corpus Christi, a city in Texas on the Gulf of Mexico.
So, how do you develop hockey in a non-traditional market?
The short answer is a long term plan.
WILD, WILD WEST
The Dallas hockey market lived up to it’s perception for a long period of time. It really was the wild, wild west.
See, there were a few different AAA hockey centres in the city and what would happen, as we hear all too much in the youth hockey world we live in now, is it would become political and then parents and kids would get upset.
The parents with money, the ones upset with their kid’s ice time or their kid’s coach or whatever it is, would do what any logical hockey parent would do: they’d start their own AAA club.
This was happening to the point that there were a handful of AAA centres in Dallas, and 10-12 AA centres.
As Eric Silverman, the Dallas Stars Elite’s Director of Hockey Operations and U16 Head Coach, explains, it was very hard to develop anything that way.
“If you tried to hold a 12-year-old accountable or to be a good teammate or something like that and the parent didn’t like it, there was someone 10 minutes down the road waiting to let you do whatever you wanted.”
Player development was suffering. Coaches were suffering. Hockey in general was suffering.
The work environment around hockey was not good.
Silverman and his group wanted to change all that.
He had built out relationships with a number of the top coaches in the area and had talked to them about the vision they had of building a player first development model.
Those coaches agreed, this was going to be the way the program was going to be run.
“It’s been a total group effort,” Silverman repeats numerous times in our conversation. “The cool thing about the ecosystem here is everyone is pulling in the same direction and working together. It is really unique in the youth hockey landscape.”
When Silverman says everyone was involved – he means everyone.
The Texas Amateur Hockey Association (TAHA) got involved to stop one-off organizations from popping up; TAHA made it more difficult to get AAA or Tier 1 status.
Silverman and company were able to use the StarCenter Valley Ranch as their primary facility and build it into a state of the art area for youth hockey.
And they were also able to use the Dallas Stars’ name.
“The Stars had let their name be used before and it didn’t go very well,” Silverman recollects. “For them to put the trust in us and for us to stick to our guns and not look for a quick smash and grab, we went in with the long game in mind and we are going to just do things right.”
A long term development plan is the smart money way to go, but in a market where families would jump from one centre to the next based on what they were promised, it seemed like it would be a tough draw.
Silverman admits it took some time, but explained it almost like a cleansing process.
“The first couple years you take your lumps, but over time our coaches did a great job, people bought in and when you do the right thing eventually you’re going to be successful,” Silverman recounts. “Yeah, it took time, but slowly all the top kids started gravitating to us and the competition couldn’t really match it.”
You aren’t going to please everyone. Believing in their philosophy was paramount to the program getting off the ground.
That meant some people had to go.
“We lost a bunch of players the first few years,” Silverman admits. “I remember meetings where I was told by a parent ‘we were offered this much to go play here and if you match it we will stay, otherwise we are leaving’ and our answer to that was simply ‘see you later’.”
“I would hear ‘You’ve got to promise me my kid is going to be on the first line, first power play or we are going somewhere else’ and they’d hear the same thing – ‘see you later’. We were determined to do it right.”
A HEALTHY CULTURE
One factor that made it easier to get through the leaner years was the culture that was being built.
That stems from the coaches in place.
Many coaches within the Elite program are full-time coaches. Hockey is their livelihood.
That also means they have a huge part in setting the tempo of the program, sticking to the philosophy of the organization and being able to add their own creativity into the mix.
“Our staff was a huge part of the conversation around our core principles. We created them as a staff and told our coaches this is what 80-85 percent of your time should be spent on,” Silverman tells. “They all know, at the end of the year when you are evaluating your players and your team, this is what they should be evaluated on. It also puts the responsibility on the coach at the end of the year, because that’s how they are evaluated as well.”
Through his time as a coach and all of his previous hockey experience, Silverman and the group have found five key points that make up the nucleus of their philosophy: skill, compete, the love of hockey, being good overall athletes and puck movement/puck support.
“By the end, we want our players to be as well rounded as possible so they can play in any system or any style and have success,” Silverman states. “If you give me a kid that has talent and sees the ice well and supports the puck well and he competes, loves hockey, he’s a good athlete and he’s a good kid, I can do anything with that kind of hockey player.”
As a player goes through the Elite system, they will be coached by four or five individuals who each have their own skill sets. That is part of the selling point of the program, according to Silverman.
“We tell parents their kid might pick this part of the game up from this coach or if that’s not his expertise, you’ll get that from this coach down the road,” Silverman boasts. “Hockey is such a read and react game that there is no one way to teach it, so we want to cover as many different ways as we can.”
Michael Young is a coach who has been with the club since inception.
He’s currently with the 2008 birth year program, one that has been recognized in the Top 5 in the United States.
Young, like all coaches in the program, has an eye on a specific part of the game with his age group.
At their age, it’s as important off the ice as it is on.
“At this point, we continue to focus on skill development, we try to look at everyone differently and see what they need for their skills,” Young explains. “For some it’s mental, for others it’s more strength and conditioning. We focus on character and holding players accountable, continuing to do the right things. We have a lot of team rules and habits which we are really hard on to make sure they are bought in and reward the guys who have bought in.”
Asking Young what it has been like to see the growth of not only his team, but the program as a whole, brings about a sense of pride he shares with everyone.
“The parents didn’t know any different when we first started, so they were just trusting the process,” Young shares. “We were fortunate to have a track record as coaches to move players along. We have a great team and support throughout the organization and the Dallas Stars. It’s exciting for me to see us get recognition at the national level and see our players move on and continue their careers all around North America.”
Turnover amongst staff is not something you would see or expect from a program like the Elite. There hasn’t been a new head coach that has come in within the last six years.
Some of their assistant coaches have been very impressive, including guys like Vern Fiddler, Joe Nieuwendyk and Craig Ludwig, to name only a few.
“When we first started, we had some younger guys behind the benches, so we did some mentoring stuff, like pairing a young coach with an older one type thing,” Silverman remembers. “We do a lot of getting together and talking hockey and getting ideas from each other. It has helped our entire organization really build out the three phases of how we see player development.”
WHERE TO BEGIN
The first introduction into the Elite program starts at U9.
From U9 to U12, the focus is on skill development and the five core philosophies mentioned earlier. At that age, Silverman points out, players are still developing those habits and behaviours. They’re essentially building that foundation.
Checking is introduced at U13; from there you start introducing some concepts and take it to the next level.
By 14, it’s like running a hockey team. There are a lot more tactics.
At U15 and U16, it’s still those five points with habits, puck skills and shooting skills all built in.
Like any long-term development model, Silverman and his team are not looking to create the best 10-year-olds.
“On a week we don’t have games it’s more skill work, more small area games but if we have games coming up then we will work on our penalty kills and our powerplay or our breakouts,” Silverman details. “Even at the older levels we try to build on those core traits but you can’t get away with just being talented when you get to a certain level, there has to be some substance to your game.”
“What’s important to explain is, unless you get granted exceptional status, you have to play youth hockey until you’re 16,” Silverman emphasizes. “Until then you don’t even worry about that next step.”
“We try to help our kids get to the highest levels they want to, whether it’s the USHL, WHL, college, national teams, as quickly as they can,” he continues. “In reality that’s more of a 17-or 18-year-old goal, but we want to ultimately get them to the next level.”
With the 2008 age group on his plate, Young knows this is a key time in their cycle with the Elite, being the first year they are eligible for the WHL Bantam draft.
“We have always tried to put players in situations to be successful where development is number one and trying to create cultures and mindsets that are team first mentalities,” Young says. “If that means we are focused on their attitudes and body language, we’ll work on that. This is the first year when they transfer from minor hockey to ‘big boy’ hockey.”
COACHES ARE KEY
Trevor Hanas started coaching in the Elite program when there were multiple programs trying to say they were AAA hockey.
Once the Elite started making its mark in the area, it started getting the best birth kids from each AAA center and started to separate itself from the rest.
In those crucial years when players are just entering the program, Hanas doesn’t underemphasize the role of coaches.
“The coaches, to me, create the environment for the year for these kids,” Hanas replies. “We work a lot on individual skill development and positioning and different types of breakouts. I had a Pee Wee Minor team, so we were working now on our PP and PK and they can move the puck around. The first couple years it’s really individual skill stuff – passing, receiving, skating, learning how to shoot the puck properly, all that stuff.”
He describes the coaching staff and organization as a whole as one heartbeat. No one being bigger than anyone else.
“We all have our teams and we create those environments, so I would say the nucleus of our coaching staff is what makes it,” he continues. “We’ve been together maybe 7 or 8 years, we are passionate about developing kids.”
Hanas gets the fortune of wearing two hats – the coach and the dad.
When his son Cross came into the program as an ’02 birth year, the Elite as we know them now were still in their infancy.
“Cross had the hockey sense and had a passion for the game, but he really worked on his skill sets through those eight years and became a good player,” Hanas says of his son. “The first four years is a great stepping stone for their skill development and then after that is when they start taking off.”
And take off he did.
“It was pretty crazy being one of the first years it started,” Cross shares. “When we are younger, no one really needs to know the game that well because the ice is so open, so you start working on your individual skills like skating and shooting.”
“The guys who want to get better get really good because we have great coaches in every age group who emphasize that skill development.”
Cross knew, even at a young age, what they were doing in the Elite program was different.
He had a lot of people around him that could see it too.
“I’d talk to buddies from other teams and our practice days are 20 times harder than theirs, and our workouts are 20 times harder than theirs,” Cross laughs. “We had practice, we had dry land, we had the shooting room and we got pushed a lot. You strive to be winners and you create winning habits by working hard.”
After his run through the Elite program, Cross was drafted by the Portland Winterhawks in the 4th round of the 2017 WHL Draft.
Portland, which has deeper Stars Elite roots we will discuss later, got itself a truly gifted offensive talent, who exploded with a 26 goal, 60 assist campaign in the 2021-22 season.
That output was coming off what Cross calls one of the best days of his life.
A DAY HE’LL NEVER FORGET
Cross was at home with family and friends watching on TV when the Detroit Red Wings selected him 55th overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.
We’ve talked about how the Elite program is cooperative, very player centric and strives to use one heartbeat.
It’s a culture that was laid before anything else.
If you want to hear what makes hockey in the Stars Elite program special, you look no further than the story of Cross’s draft day.
“Something really cool that my Dad and I talked about was bringing some of the kids in the Stars Elite program that were younger that we know have a chance to go far in this game,” Cross says. “To have those kids there to experience the emotion of it, maybe put a little more fuel on their fires and for them to see someone born in the south, who played all their youth hockey in Dallas, getting drafted into the NHL and maybe they could do the same thing.”
Trevor picks up from there.
“We wanted to bring some of the other kids in the program over to our house; hopefully they’ll get their names called one day too.”
JP Hurlbert and his father, Jeff, were at that party. They lit up when asked about Cross’ draft party.
“I was in the room when he got drafted to Detroit,” JP recalls. “He was so pumped up; I’ll never forget that. It was a great experience.”
“Trevor was JP’s coach for two years,” Jeff fills in the blanks. “He was nice enough to invite us to that. I can still see it, everyone jumped up before they could even get his name out. I’ve never seen anything like that. It was a lot of fun.”
JP also dreams of one day hearing his name get called.
Until then, the ’08 birth year forward is making sure his name is known already.
“JP last year was an under age guy, but you could tell there was a lot of hockey sense there,” Young – JP’s current head coach explains. “Where he really separates himself is his passion and work ethic. We could be at a tournament and go 6-0 and get home Monday morning at 2 am and he’s at the rink before I am shooting on the goalie before he’s got to go to class.”
“I’ve loved it every day. I thought it was great from the start,” JP begins as we talk about his run through the Elite program to date. “When we were young, we were always competing against each other and challenging each other and now that I can reflect on it, it was great from Day 1.”
Jeff gives a lot of credit to Silverman and his staff, not just for helping streamline hockey in the Dallas area, but to have the structure to build the upward mobility within the program.
“It’s a long process, but it makes it great for everybody,” Jeff regales. “Kids can sign up for a few different showcases during the year to show off their abilities, the coaches know what they are getting, and it lends it hands to kids that develop at different ages and different paces.”
JP also credits his coaches for his development to this point, knowing this process was not an instant result. JP admits he’s loved this process.
“When we were younger, they introduced us to our positions, but they didn’t expand on that,” JP remembers. “Now that we are older, we get more detailed on our strategy, our positioning, our structure. It comes year by year, it’s a gradual process. The coaches here have helped me learn structure, I’m very grateful for them, they’ve done a tremendous job.”
JP makes a point in the conversation to explain how they role four lines in Bantam Major and up, how you get to play in different roles and get to experience different things.
There is a delicate balance between wanting to win, but not wanting to win at the expense of long term development.
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
That sentiment is tough.
It’s tough for parents and players alike.
It was tough for Jeff Hurlbert at the start.
“I’m as intense as the next guy, coming from the University of Michigan where there is only one thing and that is winning, to turn that switch off was challenging when he was 8-years-old,” Hurlbert admits. “There were definitely games that we didn’t win that I thought we should have won, but in hindsight, it was without question the right approach.”
“Do you really want to be the best 10-year-old team in the country, or do you want to be the best 15-to-16-year-old team in the country and be ready for junior hockey and that next step in your careers?”
Look no further than two rising NHL stars for that answer.
When Seth and Caleb Jones moved to Texas, the Elite program wasn’t around yet.
Seth started U14 with the Elite, which had finally amalgamated the best kids in the Dallas area and gave them the opportunity to play against the best in the country.
“It was a great learning experience,” Seth says. “I think the coaches know where you stand going into some of these tournaments, so they prepare you, but it’s good to understand the level of competition that’s out there.”
Caleb has a more honest view.
“I actually think playing in those tournaments in some big markets was great for us,” he discusses. “We would get killed in some of these games, I’m not gonna lie. Some of those tournaments, they didn’t go well, but it would be an eye opener for us to see how much more we had to work to catch up to those kids.”
Seth went from the Elite program to the United States National Team Development Program.
In the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, he went 11th overall to Everett, but before he ever played a game for them, he was traded to the Portland Winterhawks.
Jones was a star in Portland, helping lead the team to an Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions. He then heard his name called 4th overall by the Nashville Predators in the 2013 NHL Draft.
Caleb, who is three years younger, followed a similar path, but was with the Elite when they had become a bit more established.
“I don’t think hockey was a big thing in Dallas when we first moved there,” Caleb recalls. “There was one kid who may have been able to play at the college level. I was in the program a lot longer than Seth, so it’s crazy now to see all the kids getting college scholarships and even higher levels. It all started when we first got there, and they started narrowing down the number of teams.”
Caleb was drafted in the 3rd round by Portland in 2012 and by the Edmonton Oilers in the 4th round, 117th overall, in the 2015 NHL Draft.
The two now patrol the Chicago Blackhawks blueline together.
The Jones brothers know their hockey roots are sewn in Dallas. They return every summer and speak with members of the organization almost daily.
So, when it was time to gave back, the Elite program entered the affectionately nicknamed “Jones Zone.”
ALUMNI GIVES BACK
“The program has done so much for us. To this day, Eric has an important role in our careers,” Seth recalls. “The shooting room has always been there, but it’s gone through phases of being usable and not usable, so that was something we came up with last summer.”
“We redid that room, made it nice and made it a good space for kids to go in and work on their shots and stick handling and we got some insight from Eric and some of the other coaches on what they thought would be good for their kids to work on. It’s complete now and we are really excited about it.”
The past is as important as the future with the Stars Elite.
The alumni is as valuable as the next family coming through the program.
“Our building is almost a shrine to our alumni,” Silverman brags. “There are banners for our NHL draft picks, every kid that plays junior has their name on the wall in our area, pictures everywhere. We want to those young players to aspire to get their names on the wall. It’s a very player focused and player driven place. We love our team accomplishments, but we are more proud of where the players go and helping them get there.”
That wall is something that is spoken about often.
It’s a target, it’s a goal, it’s a mission for the players in the program today – they want their name on that wall.
“Looking at those banners around the arena is great motivation on the days you are fighting it,” JP Hurlbert shares. “You know those guys came to work every day and you want to get your name on that banner one day too. In 10 years, you want another kid to be walking through there and see your name and be motivated by that, so there is definitely some fuel there.”
“When I was super young, we didn’t have the posters on the wall, but when they put them up, I thought ‘wow, this is really cool, I want to be up there too,’” Cross Hanas details. “One day I was on the ice with my dad and a couple other guys and the rink guys were putting my name up there. To look over and see my name, it was pretty amazing.”
“All of our staff is really proud there is a real sense of pride for our alumni coming back,” Silverman exclaims. “We’ll bring our alumni back in the summer and there’s a real sense of pride of where they came from. We are so proud that we’ve been able to build this kind of culture.
“We would rather talk about where our players end up than our national championships or team accomplishments – that is just our philosophy.”
A HOCKEY HOTBED
The other thing I think is very clear to an outsider is the people of Dallas and the state of Texas are proud of where they come from.
It means a lot to the people of the Stars Elite program that not only have they created a hockey hotbed in their city, but the locals have embraced it as well.
“We’ve had families that have wanted to relocate to our area just because they like what we are doing down here,” Silverman boasts. “People have a lot more flexibility now coming out of COVID of where they want to live and working remotely, so it’s been interesting to see some high end players from across the country say they really like what we are doing, which is something you would have never thought in a million years.”
Former players feel it too.
“When we first moved to Texas, you’d have to travel to Chicago, Michigan or Minnesota to play against the best players, that’s where the best tournaments were being played,” Seth Jones says. “Now, you see these big tournaments in Dallas and in Texas.”
“Eric does a great job recruiting kids to come play with the Elite, so now you actually see kids coming to Dallas from those big hockey markets like Michigan, coming to play for our program. That’s just a clear sign that what they are doing is working.”
“Being a part of the whole ‘everyone staying at home to play in Dallas’ is really cool to see,” Cross Hanas brags. “I’m big on the whole loyalty thing, I don’t get why people would want to leave and go to other organizations, I mean, what do you not have in Dallas? Dallas has it all.”
Silverman recalls a conversation he had with a D1 college coach that put things into perspective.
“He told me, ‘Dallas was a market where they had all these kids that looked like a million bucks, but when you see them at a higher level they couldn’t play. So we would stay away from the Dallas kids. Now, it’s the complete opposite, that they seek out the Dallas kids.’”
USA Hockey has taken notice as well.
Members of the Elite staff have been to recent conferences and actually presented themselves and their philosophy to the board, because it’s in lock step with where they hope every hockey centre will be.
“We have had a good relationship, because we have great relationships with the individuals in the Stars organization and the Elite,” Joe Bonnett, the Manager of Player Development with USA Hockey.
“What they have done is invested in knowledge. They have used the American Development Model to find ways to interpret that for themselves and their market. They really rolled their sleeves up to learn what development is all about.”
Bonnett recalls a conversation he had with Silverman about the Elite program’s coaching and how it is an immediate separator.
“He’s got Vern Fiddler, Joe Pavelski, NHL guys who understand player development,” Bonnett flatters. “They are telling me how on board they are to get more kids playing for a longer period of time and how it has populated the Elite program is a true testament to long term development, cooperation, leadership and an understanding of what player development really is to get to the end product.“
The Elite program is always building. The core philosophies will stay the same, but now the challenge is how to get better.
“We had a coaches meeting about a year ago where we said ‘ok guys, we think it’s time to take the next step,’” Silverman explains. “For us, our two bantam teams have both been in the top five in the country this year, our 2011 group had five or six impact players that were in the Brick Tournament that made the finals. We have the guy who was named top forward at the Brick and top goalie at the Brick. That doesn’t just happen.”
Silverman admits the first few years it was mayhem, but the way he sees it now, their goal is to dominate.
“We want to be the best across the board. We want to get the best players, we want to develop the most players, we want to be considered a powerhouse in not only this country, but this continent. We want to have a day where they are five kids going high in the NHL draft. That is what we strive for and we are heading there.”
“Texas hockey is really a model for a lot of states in the country, or it should be,” Jeff Hurlbert concedes. “Everyone is in lock step here, with the same belief, and without that I don’t think you could do what the Elite are doing right now.”
Throughout our Hockey Factories series, we’ve talked about programs that are rich in history, with alumni lists longer than the ice surfaces themselves.
The Dallas Stars Elite program does not have that yet.
But you better watch out.
“It’s really cool to turn on the TV to college, juniors, whatever level and see your former players playing at that level,” Silverman reflects. “The exciting part for us is we had that before we’ve really been clicking on all cylinders. The ’07 class is only 15-years-old right now, that’s what I keep telling people.”
With a player like JP Hurlbert, and dozens of others like him, it’s easy to get excited.
“Being in a non-hockey market we don’t get the respect we think we deserve, but the skill and development at our level is a lot of fun,” Young touts. “The ’08 group I have now is a lot of fun to watch. It’s really hard to score in this game, but our team has that creativity to excel.”
Everyone has a perception of what Dallas, Texas is like.
Everything is bigger, everything is better.
As far as their hockey is concerned, they might be right.
“There have been a lot of cool things that have happened here,” Silverman admits. “But what we are about to see is going to be wild.”
- More Hockey Factories stories:
- Hockey Factories: the story behind Djurgårdens IF
- Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug
- Hockey Factories: The story behind Frölunda HC
- Hockey Factories: The story behind Jokerit
- Hockey Factories: The story behind Adler Mannheim
- Hockey Factories: The story behind Okanagan Hockey Academy
- Hockey Factories: The story behind Shattuck-St. Mary’s School
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