The Best Time

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Hockey players. We’re creatures of habit. Especially on game day.

My game day really starts when I get into my car and start my drive to the arena. I’ve got my suit on. I throw on my sunglasses. Then I crank techno music. Something about the bass filling the car gets my blood pumping. I know it’s business time once that music hits.

On the drive in, I’ve got to have the music on a little bit louder as I roll the windows down on the highway. The warm Texas air starts breezing through the car all while the Dallas skyline gets closer and closer. The adrenaline starts to pick up and the music gets turned up even louder.

When I get off the highway and closer to the arena, seeing all of our fans walking around in their Stars jerseys really puts me in the zone. Seeing all that Stars gear, that’s when the switch flips inside of me. When I pull down the parking ramp, I’m ready to go and all I can think about is walking through the tunnel into a sea of Victory Green.

When it comes time to hit that tunnel, that’s when I truly feel at home with our team and ready to give the fans a show.

It’s the best feeling. It’s the best time. It’s game time.

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I’m a much different person now than I was the first time I made this drive seven years ago, when I arrived at the Stars’ prospects camp for the first time.

For starters, I didn’t drive, because I didn’t have a car.

I had bummed a ride from Luke Gazdic, and was trying to make sense of how it could possibly be so hot outside in September. I was wearing flip-flops and shorts, legs sticking to the car seat, and working up a sweat because of my nerves and the humidity. I didn’t feel like I could be much further away from where I grew up in B.C.

Before he left he said, “Alright, you guys have fun working your asses off, I’m gonna go play some golf.”

That first day, I was introduced to a guy who would eventually show me what it really meant to be a Dallas Star: Brenden Morrow. He came in and gave all the rookies a little speech welcoming us to the club. It’s funny looking back on it because now it’s my job to give that speech. Go figure. But Brenden always had a sense for the right things to say. He kept it short, threw a couple of jokes in there, and before he left he said, “Alright, you guys have fun working your asses off, I’m gonna go play some golf.”

Beauty.

Like every kid who loves hockey, I grew up worshipping Mike Modano. So when I stepped onto the ice with him for the first time, I was basically in awe. Here was the face of the Stars — the face of American hockey, really — and now he was a teammate. I had never imagined I’d be in the same room with him, much less sharing the puck with him during games.

But when I made the team out of training camp, he was quick to snap the “aw-shucks” attitude out of me. He chirped at me just about every day because I was a chubby teenager.

“Yo kid, might want to hop on that bike over there. Gotta keep up if you want to play with me.”

Mike mentored me, he developed my game, but he also busted my balls, which is what really made us close. That’s how you know you’re in. And I definitely listened to him, that’s for sure.

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Those early years with the Stars weren’t always easy. The franchise was in a transition phase. We weren’t the same team that had experienced so much success at the beginning of the decade. We didn’t have an owner for awhile, and it kind of felt like there was a cloud hanging over the team at times.

But slowly, things got better. It started with the new owner, Tom Gaglardi. Then Jim Nill made some big moves for us, bringing in players who changed the culture and expectations here. As I improved as a player, the roster around me got better as well. It started to feel like we were building toward something.

But the biggest move, no doubt, was getting Tyler Seguin.

When I heard about the trade that summer, I immediately started texting back and forth with Tyler. I told him about Dallas and why I love it here. In Tyler, I saw an opportunity. The Stars hadn’t made the playoffs since I came into the league, but I knew he could help us do that and more. He was a young guy, but he’d already been to the finals and won a Cup. He knew how to get where we wanted to be.

On the surface, Tyler and I are very different people. I’m more on the quiet side, while Tyler is all personality. He thinks he’s a pretty good looking dude and isn’t afraid to say so. I’m a little more reserved than that.

But we immediately clicked because we have a common denominator: Before everything else, we’re hockey players.

His first night here, he came over and had dinner with me and my brother Jordie. I cooked steaks, which is pretty much the only thing in my wheelhouse — one of the perks of living in Texas, I guess. What stood out about that night was that there was no “feeling out” phase between us. Nothing awkward. It was like he’d been playing here for years. It didn’t take long for us to start talking about the future.

We talked about the kind of hockey we wanted to play. How we could go back to our normal positions and be at our best. We had a new owner, a new GM, a new coach and new jerseys.

A new start.

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We knew that to really change things, we had to lead the charge. Tyler and I push each other to be better constantly, and that challenge gets sent down the entire roster. You can see it in how we’ve improved year by year.

I’ll admit that the final regular-season game of last season was a bittersweet moment for me. I remember being on the ice to address the fans, and I was filled with a lot of emotions. On one hand, we’d gotten the win and I’d just barely gotten enough points for the Art Ross Trophy. The arena was still electric because of that. But that wasn’t really what was on my mind. It wasn’t on any of my teammates minds either. We wanted so badly to bring our fans playoff hockey. That’s what we knew they deserved.

So this year, everyone came into the season locked in. You could sense it from Day One.

We wanted to prove that this wasn’t the same team. We brought in new talent during the off-season, players like Sharpy and Johnny, who have already accomplished what we’re setting out to do here. They jelled right away. We were all on the same page even during training camp. I think everyone in the room knew what we were capable of, but we made it our mission to show our fans and the rest of the league how good we were.

A lot of clothes tend to go missing after practice on this team. Klingberg couldn’t find his shoes for two or three weeks.

We play with pace, we score a lot of goals, but we’re also a much better defensive team than in past years. Honestly, we have fun out there because nothing in this world is more fun than good hockey.

This is a team that really enjoys playing together, and those vibes come with us into the locker room. We have some characters in there, for sure.

Roussel is the biggest chirper on the team, but that’s only if you can understand him because the guy doesn’t speak much English. But whatever he’s saying out there, he’s … certainly saying it. He’ll also just make up stupid comments about the clothes you’re wearing. If he finds out you have a pet at home, he’ll say something about that for some reason. Vern Fiddler probably comes in a close second in terms of chirps, but Roussel leads the way because of his sheer enthusiasm.

There are a few pranksters as well. A lot of clothes tend to go missing after practice on this team. Klingberg couldn’t find his shoes for two or three weeks. Lost his socks and underwear, too. Poor guy had to bum around in his shower sandals for a while. Tragic stuff. The suspect is still at large.

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Everyone on this team is excited to be here. And you can also sense a certain excitement from fans in this city. Mike started a hockey culture here, Brenden pushed it forward, and now our team is looking to cement Dallas as one of the best hockey markets in the country. If we don’t sell out every game, we’re awfully close.

Our final game of the regular season had a much different feel than last year. There was nothing bittersweet about it. Nobody was talking about next season. The truth is that we’re closer to where we want to be than ever, but now the work is just starting. Sure, we’re proud of winning a division title. That’s great. But that wasn’t the goal this team set out to accomplish. That wasn’t what Tyler, Jordie and I discussed over steaks a few years ago.

We want to win something bigger than that. Something shinier, with a little more heft to it.

When I make my drive to the arena for Game 1, the techno will be blasting, the Dallas skyline will be in my sights, and I know my adrenaline level is going to be through the roof.

This is the best time. This is playoff time.

And this is a hockey town.

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