True Local Sports Heroes

Nearly 25 years ago, the Minnesota North Stars departed the Twin Cities for the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex to become the Dallas Stars. In the more than two decades since the Stars brought the National Hockey League to the area, they have experienced considerable success, capturing the Stanley Cup once, in 1999, and playing for another Cup in 2000. 

The Stars’ arrival also spurred incredible growth in the sport, through the opening of Dr Pepper StarCenters, like the Valley Ranch facility, which served as the team’s original headquarters until they relocated to Frisco in 2003. As the Stars opened more of those facilities in suburbs like Farmers Branch, McKinney and Richardson, the sport’s popularity exploded throughout the metroplex. 

On April 3, 2017, the Frisco combined hockey team made history by winning the Division II Combined High School National Championship at the USA Hockey 2017 National Championships in Cleveland, Ohio. They are the first team from Texas to win a national title. Frisco completed a perfect run through the tournament with an impressive 5-0 win over Missoula, Mont., in the championship game. 

However, that game was much closer than the final score indicates. After a scoreless first period, Ryan McLean, Frisco’s coach, admitted Missoula had outplayed his team in the opening frame. “It is funny. People say we really gave it to them in that championship game. Well, we really did not,” Mr. McLean says. “After the first period, they were outshooting us in the ballpark of probably like 15-5. They outplayed us.”

The second period was a different story, as Julian Robidoux, who would assist on two more goals, scored at 5:41 into the middle frame to break the scoreless tie. Later in the period, Frisco scored three times within 5:17, including two shorthanded goals, to build a commanding 4-0 lead at the second intermission. 

Such a scoring burst in a championship game, at any level, is rare. Especially with the first two goals, scored by Robert Landholff and Jacob Plattner, coming with Frisco shorthanded. Seeing his team light the lamp four times in the second period gave Frisco’s coach some peace of mind after a teeth-gnashing first period. “You never know in hockey. Things can change very quickly, but when we are up three, we have the goaltending and defense to get the job done, and I was pretty confident from there,” Mr. McLean shares. “We just played it smart from there. We played more of a defensive system. We just had a good talk at intermission, the boys took a little break and we had a good chit chat.”

Chris Nies, who scored Frisco’s final goal of that second period burst, with 3:16 remaining, found the back of the net again with his second goal of the game, just 1:24 into the third period, to ice a championship-clinching victory. Frisco goaltender, James Gillilan, stopped all 27 shots he faced to earn his tournament-most fifth victory.

Mr. McLean has only coached Frisco for two seasons, but the native Canadian, who grew up with the game and played collegiate, junior and professional hockey before moving to the metroplex about a decade ago, realizes the magnitude of this achievement — the first he has ever won in the sport, for Frisco. “I think it is probably one of the most exciting things for a very fast-growing city,” Mr. McLean says. “Obviously, there are a lot of people moving here, but the saying we use is we ‘continue to put Frisco on the map.’ We have a good group of kids and a good program.”

Since winning the championship, the Frisco team has received various honors, including being recognized at a City Council meeting, where the team presented a jersey to then mayor, Maher Maso. On April 8, the Stars honored the squad during the second intermission of a game against the Colorado Avalanche at American Airlines Center. “It was very cool to be recognized for something because we did it for our city,” senior defenseman and captain Luke Lenhardt says. “The city council appreciated it all. We knew the mayor knew it meant a lot to us, so it was just cool to see everyone make a big deal out of it.”

Failure Before Success

Any time a team wins a championship, one question, which always gets asked, is when the seeds for such a run to championship glory were sown? For the Frisco team, those seeds were sown in two places. The first seed was planted when Frisco breezed through the round-robin portion of the national championships, only to fall to Manatee, Fla., 3-2 in the tournament quarterfinals on March 20, 2016.

That loss concluded Mr. McLean’s first season coaching the club, but it was also the final game for eight departing seniors. The players returning from that heartbreaking defeat wanted to ensure this season ended differently, so they made that their focus from their first practice. “With all the returning players, it was definitely a chip on our shoulder because we knew what it felt like to lose. It gave us really good experience,” Mr. Lenhardt shares. “Last year, it was good to see where we went wrong in the whole tournament. I think that is what the returning players brought to the team this year.”

However, another more recent disappointment also served as great motivation for this group, on March 23, 2017, when Frisco lost 4-3 in overtime to McKinney in the championship game of the varsity gold division of the AT&T Metroplex High School Hockey League. That defeat was Frisco’s first since late September and, again, the team learned much from defeat. “Yeah, I do think that was instrumental,” Mr. Lenhardt says. “We had been on something like a 21 or 22-game win streak. I think it was good to feel what it was like to lose again because we understand we do not want to feel that again. That is what pushed us to keep going.”

Clearly, that message was heard loud and clear as Frisco looked focused at nationals, going a perfect 6-0 and outscoring its opponents 31-16 to capture the national championship. So, what are their chances of a repeat performance next season? With 11 of 20 players eligible to return, the chances of the Frisco squad contending for a second national title in 2018 appear favorable. “I think we lose nine seniors,” Mr. McLean says. “There is a great crop (of players) coming up, so that is the good news. Win or lose, it is always nice to have good, young kids in the program.”

Mr. Lenhardt is among the seniors who have skated their final game for Frisco, but he has no doubt next year’s team will again be a contender to repeat as national champions. “Frisco has a great program. Mr. McLean is a great coach. I think with all that combined, we just need players who want to make it work because that is what it took this year,” he says. “I definitely think it can happen again in future years.”

All hail the national champions, who represent Frisco with immense pride, both on and off the ice. Long may they reign!