Dawn of a New Era? Stars dump K-Wings, Sign with Grizzlies

By Keith Riskey
This Spring, the Dallas Stars organization severed its 13-year
relationship with longstanding minor league affiliate, the Michigan
K-Wings, and began a 2 (optionally up to 4 year) deal with the Utah Grizzlies —
another IHL team from Salt Lake City. The next day Stars fans everywhere
read the headline, shrugged, told themselves “one IHL team is as good as
another”, and immediately turned over to the box scores. Few fans considered
how an interleague affiliation change could have much ramification on the development
of Stars future talent. But, though at first the
wisdom of this new relationship with the Grizzlies was not apparent in
most circles, it is definitely an improvement and a step in the right
direction for the Stars future. Here are a couple of reasons Stars fans
can look positively forward to this new affiliate:

# 1) Cold, Hard Cash

Yes, columnists have been speculating for the last 2 years that the Michigan
K-Wings no longer had the funds to support an NHL affiliate team. The IHL
began largely as a “bus league” for the Midwestern United States. In the league’s
infancy, IHL teams popped up in smaller towns and players were bussed from location to
location. As time went on, IHL began moving to bigger cities (i.e.
Chicago, Detroit) and profits began skyrocketing.

The K-Wings, however, were somewhat outpaced by the growth of the IHL. They
remained small-time in Kalamazoo and at the bottom of the league in terms of
profitability. In time, Kalamazoo became a less than desirable minor-league team to
play for and one that would be not be able to continue paying top-dollar for equipment,
players, and frills. The Utah Grizzlies, however, represent a financial step forward.
Located in Salt Lake City, the Grizzlies find themselves in a successful, fairly large,
not overly saturated hockey market –a city large enough to hold a major sports franchise,
but one without an NHL team.

# 2) Travel

Over the past few years, transferring players between the IHL and the NHL has
become increasingly burdensome for Dallas. Since the Stars are no longer a Central Division
(or, for that matter, located in Minnesota), Kalamazoo is a considerably less appealing
The Stars experienced a great deal of difficulty with travel between the majors and
minors last
year. Since there are no direct flights between Dallas and Kalamazoo (or
between Kalamazoo and most major cities), called-up players often missed
connections, got little sleep, and just generally spent too long traveling
to reach Dallas or another city before the game. In a couple of
circumstances, players missed practice and were in danger of missing games
entirely because equipment was misplaced or lost by an airline that failed to reach Dallas in time.
Travel between the bigger locale of Salt Lake City is faster and more direct. No doubt,
the Stars should be able to recover faster and with less stress if a starter
should opt to terrorize a hotel room the night before and need replacement. In terms of ease
travel and stress-free movement between the majors and minors, Salt Lake City is certainly a
step up from Kalamazoo.

#3) Grizzlies a Match?

One of the more compelling reasons the Stars chose the Grizzlies as a
minor league affiliate is that Utah just “fits” as a counterpart to the
Stars. Both organizations have been very successful over the last few
years — winning about 60% of the time with their current management and
coaching. Utah coach/GM Bob Bourne has 4 Stanley Cups under his belt as a
player in the NHL and has turned the Grizzlies into a team to mirror the
Stars success. Under Bourne last year, the Grizzlies were known for a
spectacular penalty-kill (~ 88%) that set the franchise all-time record in total penalties
killed, a
.680 winning percentage, and a tight style that kept games so close that
no team defeated the Grizzlies by 3 or more goals. Sound familiar?
In many ways, Utah’s philosophy of what makes a successful, winning hockey team seems to
mirror the Stars’ own.
The successful Utah coaching should give prospects a focus on penalty kill, tenacious style of
play, and overall winning philosophy that will jive nicely with the Stars system. Prospects
should develop
right in line with the Stars expectations and those coming up from the
minors to the NHL should not face huge style and gameplay adjustments. The Grizzlies just
look like a miniature version of the Stars and a perfect match.

#4) Better for fans

As an added bonus, Stars fans should also be able to follow along easier with
the new IHL affiliate. All games are broadcast on the internet at
www.broadcastsports.com and, for some satellite owners, can also be viewed
on the Fox Sports Rocky Mountains network (the K-Wings had no television outlet).
In addition, the Grizzlies boast spiffy uniforms and induce far less subconscious association
that hated other Michigan team boasting a similar name.

Over the next few years, fans can expect subtle improvements in the way
Stars prospects are handled by their minor league affiliation. Under
contract terms, the Stars will provide at least 12 players to the
Grizzlies (10 skaters and 2 goalies). And given the present system and
coaching in Utah, the current environment in the Grizzlies organization should be
an excellent place for these players to develop, and a more convenient location
for “call-ups” from the minors.