DALLAS — They were his first love, the franchise that made him the fourth-overall pick in the 1989 draft and introduced him to a fan base that came to know him on a first-name basis.
Sure, history shows his time spent in Winnipeg was somewhat of a drop in the bucket in what turned into a terrific 17-year pro career. But Stu Barnes says the city will always hold a special place in his heart, even if his job description these days requires him to view the Jets as an enemy.
Barnes, currently an assistant coach with the Dallas Stars, spoke with the Free Press Wednesday night at an alumni event in advance of this weekend’s NHL draft.
“It was such a different draft back then, compared to these days. It was a smaller scale, for sure. But it was exciting, it was a blur. I grew up outside of Edmonton, so going to a place like Winnipeg for my first NHL team was a comfortable place. The people were wonderful. Great teammates along the way,” Barnes said.
Barnes only played three seasons in Winnipeg, totalling just over 100 games. He spent the final five seasons of his career with the Stars, retiring in 2008 with 261 goals and 336 assists in 1,136 regular-season games. He remained in the organization and spent two years as an assistant coach before stepping away in 2011 to focus on being a husband, father and “hockey dad” to his two young children.
Barnes returned to the bench last fall and marvelled at how much the game has changed in such a short time.
“These kids these days, they’re under so much pressure to perform and be so good. I am amazed, year after year after year, they just handle it so well,” Barnes said.
His Stars were on the outside looking in when the Stanley Cup playoffs began in April. Barnes admitted he and his family were closely watching the Jets, while admiring how the city responded as the team made it all the way to the Western Conference final.
“Just to see them be back in the playoffs and playing so well with such a good team, and seeing the city, how it reacted, it was unbelievable,” Barnes said.
“I was so excited when they were awarded the franchise (in 2011). It’s great to see the city responding and the team playing so well.”
Barnes said he never had doubts a hockey-crazed city like Winnipeg would succeed. But he also takes pride in how a so-called non-traditional hockey market like Dallas has embraced the NHL, while growing the game at the grassroots level.
Wednesday night’s grand opening of the Stars’ alumni centre along with the Texas Hockey History Center saw numerous retired players from the past attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony, including Jere Lehtinen, Craig Ludwig, Vern Fiddler, Marty Turco and Bob Bassen.
“This is home to us,” Barnes said. “It’s so cool to see that it’s come this far and grown this much. It’s amazing. We’re all just a tiny piece of that. We’re starting to get more guys staying (after they retire) and more kids playing.”
Up next is the draft, where all eyes in the hockey world will be on the city for the two-day event beginning Friday night. And this time of year brings back plenty of fond memories for Barnes, even if it’s becoming increasingly difficult to relate.
“They’re so well-prepared, physically, mentally, to go through these kinds of hurdles to get to the NHL. It seems like a lot of them just skip right along and move right through seamlessly. It seems like the players are just getting better every year,” he said.
Barnes has his eye on potentially being a head coach one day — just like his good buddy and former Jets teammate Phil Housley did this season with the Buffalo Sabres. The pair golfed together in Dallas earlier on Wednesday.
“I’m happy to be part of this Stars group and continuing to build and learn and try to get better. If that happens someday, well then there she goes,” Barnes said.
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