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From Motown to Lone Star: Jim Lites' front office journey

Lites has been running NHL teams since the early 1980s, learning the ropes with the Wings before seeing to the Stars.

Jim lites, the CEO of the Dallas Stars, spoke with The Hockey News publisher Graeme Roustan as part of our ongoing Q&A series with prominent members of the hockey business world. Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation:

Graeme Roustan: Let’s begin with some background on how you started in the hockey world.

Jim Lites: Well, I had really good fortune. My father-in-law, when I was in my 20s, was Mike Ilitch. I was married to his daughter, Denise, and I was doing legal work for Mike as a lawyer in Detroit. He bought the Red Wings basically out of bankruptcy in 1982, the team had floated for a long time, and Mike came along and revitalized the franchise. Within a year of him buying the team, I went from being in-house counsel for Little Caesars and the Ilitch family to in-house counsel for both the Red Wings, as executive vice-president, and Olympia Arenas Incorporated, which was a successor to the Olympia Stadium Corporation that ran Joe Louis Arena at the time. I stayed in those roles from 1982 to 1993. In 1993, I had an opportunity to start the Dallas Stars franchise with owner Norm Green when he moved the team from Minnesota. I had great opportunities and a lot of success in Detroit with the Ilitch family, but I wanted to do something on my own outside of the family. It was just a great opportunity to come to Dallas and start a franchise in a great American market. So I moved to Dallas in 1993. And I’ve been living in Dallas and working with the Stars since that time, for the most part, with a detour here and there.

GR: How has your law degree helped you in hockey business?

JL: I can tell you that probably what it does the best is train you. When your job is running a sports franchise, it has a lot to do with influencing other people to kind of see things your way. There’s a constant negotiation that goes on, whether it’s with the people who work for you or with others in the industry, from city governments to players to any of your constituencies, such as fans and advertisers and other stakeholders. I find the skills I was taught in law school have been vital in fashioning my career.

GR: Let’s go back to Norm Green and the move from Minnesota to Dallas in 1993. When you first went to Dallas, it was virgin territory when it came to hockey. What issues did you have to deal with immediately?

JL: What’s most different now is just the environment we’re in, with the internet and all the different digital aspects to our lives. Back then, we had to rely on radio, TV and print to get our message across. The challenges were pretty dramatic, because we were going into a really vibrant sports market and a market that was affluent. (People in Dallas) really spent money and enjoyed professional sports. But it wasn’t easy to get our message out, and the biggest challenge we had at the very beginning was just finding hockey fans. You had to mine them, in a way that’s easier to do now, which is to mass communicate efficiently. That ability didn’t really exist back in the day. So I can tell you, there were a lot of anxious moments in the summer of 1993 as we started to get ready to play the first NHL games in Dallas. The other thing was it was done really quickly. I mean, Norm didn’t get final legal approval to move the franchise until February of ‘93. It wasn’t like we had two or three years to plan. It was a fire drill right from the beginning. We had really good (on-ice) success because we had a quality team already. And whatever you want to think, nothing markets your franchise like winning, being competitive right from the get-go. That’s what we did have in Dallas in 1993. We had great hockey management and a really solid franchise with good players. We won. We made the playoffs our first year in Dallas with 97 points and won a playoff round.

GR: And then six years later, you won the Stanley Cup.

JL: We did. And we won the Presidents’ Trophy in 1998. We had a competitive team right from the get-go, I think just one non-playoff season in (the first six years in Dallas). And the staff that came from Minnesota was chock-full of guys who had unbelievable careers in the NHL. Bob Gainey, Doug Armstrong, Les Jackson, Doug Jarvis, Rick Wilson. We were fortunate that Norm had done a great job of hiring people.

GR: How did winning the Stanley Cup help you in running the business of the franchise? How did it change things?

JL: It launched us. The timing couldn’t have been better. We had a really a great team from, I want to say, 1997 to 2007. We were a power. And what (the Stanley Cup) did was launch the franchise into the American Airlines Center, which is and remains 19 years after the fact one of the greatest buildings in North America. You know, we’re so proud of the AAC. It’s hard to describe what it’s done to revitalize our business and the (NBA’s) Dallas Mavericks and the city of Dallas. It’s just an incredible facility. If you walk into it today, it looks like it just opened. The ownership groups have all done an unbelievable job of making sure the building is top-notch, and downtown Dallas has grown around it. Now it’s the center of the universe in Dallas for sports and entertainment. And that really was done on the backs of the Stanley Cup-champion Dallas Stars in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The building got built because we were really good.

GR: You bring up your arena, and obviously it’s a gorgeous building. How important is it to have a building that works?

JL: Oh, it’s key. It’s the most important thing in our industry other than the quality of your hockey-development staff. You know, I did both hockey and baseball in 1999. When we were winning the Stanley Cup, (former owner Tom) Hicks asked me to join the Texas Rangers baseball team as its CEO as well, which I did, and I had three years where I did both baseball and hockey, which was a tough but also unique and fun experience…Mr. Hicks was a quality guy and believed in us, the business staff of the Dallas Stars, and it led him to buy the Texas Rangers. He put us all in charge and I tried to do both for a bit of time. But I left and went to Phoenix for one year, it was a personal financial decision. I had equity in my contract I needed to get out. And so I left the Stars for one year, 2002-03, and went over to the Coyotes when the building was coming out of the ground. And it became obvious to me very quickly that the decision that had been made in Phoenix to build an arena in the West Valley was not a good one in the long term. Suburban buildings have difficulty making it because they’re removed from a certain part of the fan base. I’m a big believer in urban buildings. It’s why cities are vibrant, you need those cultural attractions that bring everything. So I think anybody who builds an arena in the suburbs is making a mistake. The NFL can get away with it, because they only have 10 (home) games. But any of the other sports that do it are making a mistake.

GR: You’re a bit of a movie star now, having appeared in The Russian Five documentary. You get a lot of credit for bringing over ‘The Russian Five.’ What was it like to bring Russian players to the NHL and change hockey as we knew it?

JL: You know, I had a great benefit. I owe my career to Mike Ilitch. We were family, but he was this very special man. He deserves every accolade he’s ever received. He was a dynamic, forceful type, and he gave us great confidence. And he was a driver. He wanted to be the best, whatever it would take. He was early to free agency. He loved the Red Wings. He’d do anything to make them better, and he infused all of us who worked for him with that attitude. There was no playbook for getting players out from behind the Iron Curtain. But we knew there were great players there. I mean, I didn’t scout them. I didn’t know them. I knew the names, but I didn’t know their ability. Anyway, that became an unbelievable opportunity to go find great players. And all Mike did was give me lots of cash to work with, and a clean slate to work with (GM) Jim Devellano and (scout) Neil Smith and Kenny Holland, who was the chief scout at the time. They said, “Go get this guy,” and armed with Mr. Ilitch’s drive and desire and cash, we were able to make it happen. It was a lot of common sense and an awful lot of work. And we took risks others weren’t willing to take. It was a really exciting time for us in Detroit. We had done a dry run in 1985 with Petr Klima, the Czech player who we got to defect. Based on what we learned about the Klima defection in ’85, it helped us be much more efficient at getting (Sergei) Fedorov, (Vladimir) Konstantinov and (Slava) Kozlov.

GR: Things in the NHL have changed a lot since then.

JL: The business has evolved dramatically. It’s a natural progression from the lawlessness of the good old days to what we are now, which is a very structured corporate way. But that’s what professional sports has become. And the greatness of our league now is in the unbelievable parity that the salary-cap system has created. You have to be better, and you just have to do things within the confines. It comes with patience, intelligence and foresight. I’ve been lucky that I’ve worked with some unbelievable GMs, but none brighter or more receptive than Jim Nill, who I’m working with now and was my old friend from Detroit. He understands the cap, he understands what he has in Dallas and that we’re a very attractive place for free agents to come. I love where our franchise is now because we’ve got a team of really good young players, a really good core, great assets coming and a solid leadership group.

Listen to the full Q&A with Jim Lites at TheHockeyNews.com/PEP

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