The Retired Defenseman Is One Of Just Two Players To Have Won Stanley Cups With Both Dallas And Tampa Bay. So, Who’s He Rooting For This Year?
It goes without saying that it’s been an unusual year — and with two of the NHL’s southernmost teams playing for the Stanley Cup in the league’s northernmost city, this year’s wild NHL playoffs have certainly offered unique experiences for all participants.
To gain a little insight into what might be going through the players minds, we spoke to a former NHLer uniquely qualified to share his thoughts on this Stanley Cup Finals series between the Dallas Stars and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Along with his fellow defenseman Darryl Sydor, Brad Lukowich is one of just two players to have won a Stanley Cup with both the Stars and the Lightning. Now employed as part of the Stars’ minor league player development team, Lukowich is not only familiar with both of the franchises in this Stanley Cup Final and what it takes to win the Cup, but he’s also keenly aware of where the future of the game is headed.
In advance of a Game 4 watching party he’s hosting at Will Call Bar in Deep Ellum on Friday night, we caught up with Lukowich to discuss a number of topics with us — including his own postseason runs of yore, just how intertwined the 1999 Dallas Stars team was with the iconic Arlington metal band Pantera and his thoughts on stud young defenseman Miro Heiskanen’s potential for greatness.
In exchange for his kind willingness to speak with us, we also forced him to take a stand and admit which of his past teams he would prefer win the Stanley Cup this year.
Over the course of your career, you played with the Islanders, Devils, Sharks and Canucks — and you won the Stanley Cup while playing with the Stars and the Lightning. How does it feel now to watch your two former — and non-traditional market — teams of Tampa and Dallas face off in the finals now?
Well, you always have a special place in your hearts for the organization and the players. I want to use the word “family,” which is what you develop when you played on those winning teams. When I was in Tampa, after we won, just a couple years later, our team was for sale and not making the playoffs. So I was involved with that side of the game, too. I got to see the good and the bad. But then, to be part of their alumni group and see how the new ownership has put the players first and put that family culture back into the organization, you really reap the benefits. It’s just incredible. Living here in Dallas, it’s the exact same thing. I was part of the organization and working in Austin when Mr. Gaglardi bought the team. Then there was a rebuild. Eight years later, to see where it is now, it’s pretty incredible. You’ve got to tip your hat to both organizations. They bring in good people, not only on the ice but off the ice, to grow the game. Tampa is the same situation as Dallas, building new arenas in Florida. To see how it all works, now that you’re out of the game, is all very eye-opening. When you’re in the game, you live a very sheltered life, a very bubble lifestyle — pardon the pun, but you do live in a fishbowl. And when you come over here to the operations side, it is certainly a different thing to look at.
What impresses you about each of these teams’ Cup runs this season?
One of the things I learned playing Tampa was that there’s two parts of the game. Lightning coach John Tortorella would tell us, “I control everything inside the glass, on the bench and inside the dressing room — but outside of that, that’s controlled by the GM. So let’s just focus on that. If you have a problem with game issues or you need something and you need to get better within what I can control, you come to me. But if you have something outside, you’ll have to go the GM for that.” What I’ve seen is that these organizations have really found a way to let the hockey teams do what they need to do and focus on themselves in order to find the little pieces of the puzzle that needed to be corrected. We’re talking coaching all the way through to the player personnel, and both teams have done just an incredible job. Those rosters, if you add them up man to a man, it’s pretty neat to see who their comparable players on the opposite side are. And when you do that, you see a very similar makeup on the rosters. This is just like two rams like smacking heads right now. It’s cool. It’s really, really popping.
Watching this series, we keep getting the sense that it’s going to come down to which of these teams has the greater will to just to survive. As you’re watching these teams play, does it bring back any memories of your own Cup runs as a player?
My memories are more about the strategy and the preparation that went into each game. I don’t remember really playing the game. I can watch a video, and I’ll remember a play. But I don’t really remember playing that out. I remember getting ready to do it over and over and over again. The things that stand out to me are the inspirational moments and motivational moments — like speeches in New York by Darryl Sydor when I was playing in Tampa, or when Darryl jumped in front of a puck in Dallas with a broken ankle, or Brett Hull playing with what looked like a knee and a leg but absolutely nothing attaching the two together — and then going on to score the Cup-clinching goal. Those are the things that I remember, just the heart of it all.
I think the fans feel the same way. The game moves so fast that all those little details within the play go by the wayside. Those big moments are what we hold on to. But this year’s playoff situation is different from all past ones because the teams are playing in the Edmonton bubble. What are your thoughts on the bubble? How would you have handled it?
Well, we lived in hotels at home — like, when we lived in Tampa, we lived at Harbour Island. But, honestly, I think this is the hardest Cup to win in modern history. The mental game being played right now, these guys are human and have families. Being away from your kids for an eight-day road trip or a 10-day extended Olympic break is one thing. But to be three months away from your family, and no physical contact with the outside world, is absolutely something that I don’t think anyone can understand. I have so much respect for these guys. I don’t know if I’d be able to keep my wits about me as well as most of these guys are, and it plays to the level of entertainment that we’re getting right now, and the competitiveness.
It’s a widely known fact that, after a team wins the Stanley Cup, every player on that team gets to spend a day with it. What can you tell us about your day with the Cup after the Stars’ 1999 win?
It kicked off early — probably six or seven o’clock in the morning. It flew into the airport, and I immediately took it into town to the RCMP, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I let them have it and let their families take pictures, and we took it into a couple jail cells. Later, we took it to City Hall and let the mayor take some pictures. Then I saw my dad, who had a milk truck and a route in town, and we actually went and did his milk runs with the Cup and I saw all of all my dad’s friends, the people that supported me growing up. Then I headed out to Boston’s Pizza restaurant, which a good friend of mine named Ray owned, and he gave us the space for hours and I signed autographs. I even let my dad take it to his house for couple hours, and he invited his old-timers team over there — a bunch of ex-pro hockey players from the Cranbrook Royals that played in in the men’s league back then. Meanwhile, I went and played road hockey with my buddies at the Fire Hall, which was a place where I grew up, learning how to skate. We basically had a block party until five o’clock in the morning. It was amazing. It was a great time.
When you won it again with the Lightning shortly after in 2004, did you have a similar hometown celebration?
2004 was little bit different. I had dabbled in the music industry a little bit, and I had a restaurant that I was asked to back. The first place we took it was to City Hall, but the mayor was out of town, so I let the City Council hang out with it. Then we went out to my property out on the lake and spent the day out there. There’s a picture floating around of me sitting on a dock with the Cup. We just had a family and friends day out there for a couple of hours. People drank out of the Cup if they wanted or lifted it, took family pictures and kind of whatever they wanted — a little free-for-all. From there, we went in town, and I put on a little concert with some of my local bands that I was helping try to promote. Then I went signing a autographs down there with the Western Hockey League team that was in town at the time; they had a full-on game and brought it out on the ice. After that, I just actually I just took it to my local pub — and we had at the pub until about two o’clock in the morning! And we were really tired, and I remember probably 10 or 20 of us that were kind of up in this back little secluded room. They had three stories at this place, and we were in this one little VIP lounge in the attic that they’d set aside for us. At what I thought was the end of the night, I go, “Man, like what if we just grab the Cup right now now and slip out the back door and go back to the hotel and then we’ll let the bar close itself?” So I go downstairs to tell my family, and as I’m walking downstairs, I look out and see the band Three Days Grace walk through the front door.
So much for sneaking out!
Yeah! So, needless to say we didn’t take the Cup away. At the time, they were massive. They were one of the biggest bands in the world — had, like, five or six No. 1 hit singles. And they were very, very recognizable from their guitar player with his three-foot mohawk. So, these guys come in walking and it was like a parting of the seas. And it was just fun. We wound up at the hotel and we tried to be quiet, but it didn’t work out so well. The keeper of the Cup guy came in with the white gloves and scooped it out of there fast. He jumped in my dad’s truck and that was it. They were gone. We partied with it to the very last second.
Sounds like you got your money’s worth out of the Cup.
For sure. It’s unexpected. It’s why you win, man. That’s it. That’s the reason why you win — so you can be the guy that brings a Cup back home and shares it with family and with your friends. That’s why you do it. For everybody, for those people that have supported you through all the years, for the people you would have never made it without.
You even used to own a bar yourself back in the day, right? Luke’s Sports Grille in Las Colinas?
Yeah, and that’s where [Will Call owner] J.R. [Munoz] got his first bartending gig ever, actually. I got him into bartending, poor guy.
Now you’re teaming up with J.R. to host a watch party for Game 5 at Will Call on Friday. What do you have planned for that?
You know, what with everything going on, all I’m going to do is I can get as many people to come in support the bar. The rules are the rules, so we can’t be doing pictures and autographs and stuff like that. But I have some old stuff that I’m going to bring that I’ve gotten in some boxes from the ’99 year and the years I was playing, so I’ll sign those type of things and we can do some kind of raffle to win them. I’m basically trying to do whatever I can do to help a local business get back on their feet. That’s really what we’re doing trying to do, trying to help out Will Call and J.R., and support not only the Stars, but local businesses, and have a good time while we’re doing.
You work for the Stars and live in Dallas, but it really does seem like you’ve developed some deep ties to the area over the years. We’ve even heard that you lived with Arlington’s very own Vinnie Paul Abbott from Pantera for a while? Is that true?
I think everybody’s lived with Vinnie Paul at some point! Vinnie was great at teaching people how, even when you’re the best in the world, you’ve got to treat everybody with respect. That was Vinne Paul, he was one of those guys. I miss him to death. He would just be having the time of his life right now with this Stanley Cup run. But, yeah, Vinnie gave me an opportunity to live with him when I first came here. I was living in the Harvey Hotel at the time by the DFW Airport, and he’d let me stay at his place from time to time. He was very generous, but that was just Vinnie.
Like many Stars fans, you probably had Pantera’s “Puck Off” on repeat in your headphones at the time.
Actually, “Five Minutes Alone” was my big song. Everybody has their pregame routine, and my pregame routine had Pantera’s “Five Minutes Alone” playing right after the coach had his team meeting. The coach would go through the power play, the penalty kill and then go on to the team meeting — like, this is what you’re going to do, this is the team you’re playing against tonight, you have your matchups, all that. Then you’ve got 30 minutes to get ready b yourself before you go out on the ice. The first thing I always did was listen to “Five Minutes Alone” as I would go over that mantra of, “Alright, what am I doing tonight?” And that’s where I was where my mental preparation started.
Speaking of Pantera and celebrations, we’ve gotta ask: Was it you who dented the Cup during the legendary championship celebration bash y’all threw at their house?
No! I’m never gonna put names on it, but I believe the story that I’ve read in the paper is that they said it was Guy Carbonneau. But I could be wrong!
I’m sure if you asked 20 different people who were there, you’d get 20 different answers.
Yeah. I’ve seen some videos that tell me the Cup may have had more than one or two dents — not intentionally, of course. It’s just you’re having a good time, you turn the wrong way and, unfortunately, it happens!
You played in some of the top defensive groups of your era, including a Devils squad that was renowned for its defensive core. What do you see in this Dallas Stars defense that makes them so effective?
I’m a defensive defenseman guy. I think the Stars play a very high-risk, high-reward style, and it has been very effective for them. It’s worked out that they play more of a team defense with the hard back-checking. The thing that makes them hard to handle offensively is they’re always up the ice and in your face, so you don’t have a lot of room. And then, when you’re on your transition, a lot of times they’re not even skating backwards when they’re playing defense — they’re skating right beside you, almost like a forward back-checking. So it’s not an orthodox style, but it’s been really effective, and it’s worked. I think that’s just one of those things as far as how the game is progressing into different styles as it always does. Dallas plays a pretty unique style that fits their personnel well. They’ve got some really offensive-minded defenseman that can skate — they’re one of maybe three of the top skating defenses in the league. They’ve also got the big guys that can handle some heavy minutes, and the penalty killers are really good.
The Lightning’s Victor Hedman is obviously one of the best defenseman in the NHL. Do you see young Dallas Stars defender Miro Heiskanen being able to get his game to such a level that he’s mentioned in the same group as someone like Hedman — or even a Scott Niedermeyer, who he draws a lot of comparisons to already?
To get into those levels, you have to be able to do what those guys do for 14, 15 years. That’s why Scott Niedermeyer is one of the greatest — if not the greatest, and among the best one of our time with Brian Leetch and Nick Lidstrom. They all did it consecutively, every single year and they didn’t take one off, even when their teams didn’t play well. Miro has had two incredible years, and I think he’s gotten better this year than last year. So, if he can stay on it, heck yeah. I don’t understand why he wouldn’t be able to. Skill-wise, he has the potential to be that type of player. So to answer in short form: Yeah. But will he do it? That will be up to him, It really will. It comes down to consistency. Does he want to do it? Every player wants to do it, but if he has that drive and can stay healthy, then in my book he’s that type of player, for sure.
What’s your prediction for the rest of the series? How do you see this going?
I hope it goes the way it’s going. I hope it goes back and forth. I think that’s more exciting for the fans. I mean, I’m a fan, too — not only an ex-hockey player, but a fan of the game. I’d like to see it go seven games; I think it’s best for both organizations, and for the game. If I could predict a winner… well, I don’t think you can right now! Goaltending? With how amazing has Dobby been, he’s up there for the MVP already — and I can say that about the Tampa side as well. Defense-wise, they’ve got completely different components, they play different styles and they each move the puck different in their setups. Offensively, they are different, their forward defensive structures are different. But, tit for tat, their rosters are very similar.
Current franchise employment allegiance to the Stars aside, in your heart of hearts, which team are you rooting for?
Dallas. When I moved back to the United States, I moved back to Dallas for a reason. I loved playing in Dallas, and I always had a house here in Dallas. This is my hometown. My wife is from Dallas. Everyone calls me a “Texinadian.” I like my gun, I like trucks, I like the land and I like to hunt. I’m a Texas boy.
With it now out in the open that you are openly rooting for the Stars, how do you think that answer will play in Tampa?
I’ve been trying to stay neutral, but I’m officially saying it now: I’m a Stars fan!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Cover photo by Jason Cakebread of Fat Cake Media.