By David Mullen
In 2003, moviegoers were trying to find “Nemo” or reloading the “Matrix.” Johnny Depp was appearing on the big screen in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” not on the small screen on Court TV.
Beyonce and Jay-Z were “Crazy in Love,” 50 Cent was “In da Club,” and both songs could be accessed legally and without copyright infringement through the newly introduced music downloading service Apple iTunes. The price of gasoline was less than $1 in Texas. Cargo pants were the fashion rage.
The 2003 Dallas Stars were winning the Pacific Division, were captained by defenseman Darian Hatcher but were not trending. They were aging and ousted by the younger Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the Western Conference semi-finals. Dallas needed to find a fountain of youth.
On May 14, 2003, in Toronto, Margot Fulcher and Chuck Johnston welcomed son Wyatt into the world, and a star was born. On May 15, 2023, one day after Johnson’s 20th birthday, a Star was born.
Wyatt Johnston’s backhander past Seattle Kraken goaltender Philipp Grubauer was the game-winning goal in the Stars 2-1 Game 7 victory over fast and talented Seattle, an expansion team that rose to playoff prominence despite entering the NHL anew in 2021.
“I mean, it’s definitely one of the better birthday gifts,” the modest Johnston told nhl.com. “It was awesome being able to just kind of pitch in like that.”
The Stars face the Pacific Division Champion Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Western Conference Finals, beginning on Friday, May 19 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The games are televised on ESPN.
Before Johnston was born, the 2002-03 Stars had one scorer among their Top 10 — Brandon Morrow — under 27 years old. Unlike the team of 20 years ago, Dallas is a mix of proven veteran players and budding young talent.
Team leader Joe Pavelski and defenseman Ryan Suter are 38. Captain Jamie Benn and center Tyler Seguin, linked together in Dallas for 10 years, are 33 and 31 respectively. Suter will be playing in his first conference finals series.
But this Dallas team is brimming with young talent. In addition to Johnston, who is not old enough to legally buy a six-pack of Labatt Blue or Molson Canadian, goaltender Jake Oettinger is 24 years old, and defenseman Miro Heiskanen and LW Jason Robertson are 23. Max Domi, Mason Marchment, Radek Faksa and Roope Hintz are in their mid- to late-20s. Hintz, Robertson and Domi are the Stars Top 3 scorers in the playoffs thus far, and many feel Robertson is in a goal-scoring slump.
Age makes a difference in the grueling playoff race. Bodies take a pounding, and there are few rest periods for the weary. The Stars have played 13 of the maximum 14 games in the first two rounds — defeating the Minnesota Wild and the Kraken — and they are just halfway home. Once the Dallas vs. Vegas best of seven series begins, the two teams will play every other day until Wednesday, May 31, if necessary.
The Carolina Hurricanes play the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Finals beginning May 18 on TNT. The Stanley Cup Finals begin on Saturday, June 3.
Johnston’s rise to the big club was rapid. He was selected in the first round of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft by the Stars with the 23rd overall pick in the draft and made the 2022-23 roster. He played in all 82 Stars regular season games, scoring 24 goals with 17 assists. As expected of a teenager, Johnston got better with age and experience.
In the regular season, the Stars were 3-0 against Vegas, but two of the wins were in shootouts. There are no shootouts in the Stanley Cup playoffs, only sudden death. Overtime periods are 20 minutes, and games are played until a goal is scored.
First year Stars head coach Peter DeBoer knows a thing or two about the Golden Knights. He was their head coach from 2019 to 2022, before being fired in May 2022.
“Obviously there’s no hiding from the fact that it means a little more,” DeBoer told nhl.com. “That would be for anybody in this situation. This happens all the time in the world, right? You move on from a job and you go to the next job, except now we’re playing with each other in the conference final immediately after.
“The important thing for me here, though, is the hockey and the focus on the players. It’s not about Pete DeBoer and his history with Vegas. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the players in that room.
“It’s going to be a great test for us, but I’m a Dallas Star now,” DeBoer said. “I love our group and I think we’re getting better as the playoffs are going on here and should be a hell of a series.”
DeBoer may have been the Stars’ biggest off-season acquisition. He has won 560 NHL games and has a winning playoff record despite not winning the Stanley Cup as a coach. He led the New Jersey Devils, San Jose Sharks, Vegas and now Dallas to the conference finals. Only Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman has led more teams to the conference finals in NHL history.
The coach’s calm approach seems to have permeated throughout the current Stars roster. They have a quiet confidence. By beating Seattle at the AAC on May 15, DeBoer record in Game 7s is 7-0. “If your coach is back there freaking out, hitting the panic button every time you lose, I think that trickles down into the group,” Oettinger told nhl.com. “He’s the exact opposite of that. He believes in this group of guys and if we do what he’s teaching us and what we do as a group well, I think if we do that, he believes we can win the Cup.”
DeBoer has had an undeniable impact on the Stars. He is focused on the players — especially young players like Johnston — and the results have come of age.