Three Themes for Opening Night: The Banner, The Kids and The Culture

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

The Texas Stars open their 15th season this evening at home against Tucson.

Through three Calder Cup runs, a championship, and all the training camps, preseason games, regular season games and playoff contests in between, 100 Degree Hockey has been there. Thank you again, as always, for reading the site and interacting with us on social media, here in the comments or in-person when you find our writers at the rink. Your support is incredible and means so much.

The Stars held media day on Wednesday, rolling out a selection of returning players to chat about the season that was and the season to come in somewhat equal measure, actually. 100 Degree Hockey chatted with Lian Bichsel one-on-one for a story that went up yesterday. Give that a read if you haven't yet.

Three themes that flowed through all of the interviews were as follows.

The Banner

Despite the playoff disappointment at the hands of Milwaukee, the Texas Stars did win the division last year and will hang a banner to prove it tonight. Feelings are mixed on the season among the vets we talked to. They were obviously happy to win as much as they did but the loss still stung.

"I do look back see that we had a good year and everything," said defenseman Alex Petrovic, who is starting his third year with the Texas Stars. "The type of team we had ... we could have went all the way. We were right there. It was game five and it was a close game, so it's definitely irritating. But you know, we're back with a fresh new start ready to go."

Captain Curtis McKenzie added, "We had a lot of fun, won a lot of hockey games. You know, it went down to the final night there."

Head coach Neil Graham capped it off, looking forward. "We won the Central Division and we earned home ice as a part of that. It was a big goal for us to do that. To be quite honest, we did what we needed to do in the regular season. We felt one game short of moving on in the playoffs.

"It is great for our guys to see [that banner], and now it's a new year. It was the third division championship in the first 14 years. It's now year 15, and we want another one."

Rookies Lian Bichsel, Francesco Arcuri, Chase Wheatcroft and Keaton Mastrodonato at a fan event.
(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

The Kids

Joining the crew will be a smattering of new faces. In addition to the aforementioned Bichsel, Christian Kyrou, Gavin White and Artem Grushnikov all kick off their first year on the blue line in AHL. Up front, there's Logan Stankoven catching most of the headlines, but the forward ranks will also see Matthew Seminoff, Chase Wheatcroft, Franceso Arcuri, Kyle McDonald and other AHL contracted players make their full-season debuts.

"There's going to be some nerves and jitters," said Graham. "But you know, there should be for the older guys too. Nerves just mean you care and you're excited."

Due to the final assignments from Dallas, the AHL side had only just completed their second full practice with the group they expect for this weekend.

"We had an excellent practice. Structure was sharp, passing was crisp. That's all great, and it can go out the window in the first five minutes when you get into your first real pro game," said Graham with a knowing smile at the end.

"It's gonna be important to stay calm, recenter the group at times. We have to keep things into perspective, and we're gonna have to do teaching on the fly and make sure as we go through things guys are constantly learning and we know our end goal is to win each night."

Curtis McKenzie, who was in the same spot ten years ago himself, noted the eagerness of the rookie class to come in and show their stuff, "I'm very impressed with where the guys are at and I don't think it should be an issue with guys being hesitant to come in and play at this level. Sure, there'll be some ups and downs with the consistency of finding the pro game but I'm really excited to see how these guys do."

Antonio Stranges (Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

He continued, "That's part of the reason why I keep coming back is just try and pass on stuff that happened throughout my career and help these kids get to the next level because it's really is a dream to to get to play at that level. And I just hope all of them get that opportunity and we'll do whatever we can to try and pass along what we can."

Antonio Stranges came up during the conversation with McKenzie as they were on a line together in the preseason game in Cedar Park and continue to practice together. Stranges, along with Matej Blumel, Mavrik Bourque and others, feel like vets in some ways but are only starting their second year pro.

McKenzie has taken 'Tony' under his wing a bit and Stranges is expected to play the full year in the AHL after bouncing between the AHL, the ECHL and a healthy scratch in Cedar Park last year.

"You hope that he's put himself in a spot where he can take the next step and dominate and be a contributor every night at this level and grow his game again. Everyone's development paths are different and I'm sure he wanted to be in every game last year and didn't have that opportunity. So it'll be a great year for him to build and show what he can do."

Christian Kyrou chats with fans at a Meet the Team event on Tuesday.
(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

The Culture

There were a lot of leaders on last year's team and two of those with letters on their chest return for another year: McKenzie and Petrovic. Texas will name a second alternate before the game tonight. At the time of media day, the coaches had a name in mind but hadn't told the team yet. Nick Caamano and Scott Reedy both come to mind for me if I'm placing bets.

The team last season was incredibly tight. They formed bonds over the two years that the core group played together and executed a game plan on the ice that was methodical and surgical at times.

Asked about how you keep a culture like that with so much turnover, Coach Graham had a good statement that I'm going to print in full because I think it speaks to how the team builds its culture day by day.

"The culture is formed. It's a process. I always joke [that] you can hang all the slogans you want, but that's not your culture. It might be a tone setter for the day. But culture takes time. We have good people in our room. We have good staff members. We have people that really add to our culture, and that stuff takes time.

"I have no doubt that we'll have a close team and to be quite honest, I think there's a natural bond with athletes and hockey players that they have a common interest. Our teams usually find their way to becoming close teams, and we take a lot of pride the stuff we do away from the rink and on the road and building some of that chemistry. That's all going to be a part of the process and journey for these kids as well this year."