By Ken Rodriguez
Dale Tallon’s dream for San Antonio has a proud, polished shine. The Calder Cup. The plaque on the hardwood base gleams with the names of champions. The distinguished bowl, made of fine sterling silver, sparkles. The Cup stands 24 inches high, weighs 30 pounds and carries some history. Twenty seven members of the Hockey Hall of Fame have hoisted the Cup, which goes to the American Hockey League champion.
Twenty seven cities have won the Calder Cup. Hershey, Pa. has won the most --11. Cleveland has won nine. Tallon thinks it’s time San Antonio joined the list. He also believes it’s time for the Florida Panthers -- the Rampage’s parent club -- to capture pro hockey’s biggest prize.
“The Florida Panthers are going to win the Stanley Cup,” says Tallon, the team’s general manager, “and San Antonio is going to win the Calder Cup.”
That might, on the surface, sound like blind optimism. The Panthers, after all, have not advanced to the playoffs since 2000 -- the longest streak in National Hockey League history. But Tallon is no ordinary GM, and recent history shows he knows how to build a champion.
Through shrewd drafting and free agent signings, Tallon transformed the Chicago Blackhawks in five seasons. Rewind the videotape: In 2005-06, Tallon’s first season as GM, Chicago finished 26-43-13, 14th in the 15-team Western Conference. In 2010, the Blackhawks lifted their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.
The transformation earned Tallon a second name. The Architect.Consider some moves. He drafted center Jonathan Toews -- Most Valuable Player in the 2010 playoffs -- and right wing Patrick Kane, who scored the Cup-winning goal to beat Philadelphia in overtime. The Architect signed Antti Niemi, goalie hero of the 2010 Cup, and traded for forward Patrick Sharp, NHL All-Star game MVP, and left wing Ben Eager, who scored the winning goal in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.
Impressed? The Architect also hired Joel Quenneville as a scout before promoting him to head coach. Quenneville won the Stanley Cup in his second season.
“We’re going to use the same blueprint in South Florida,” Tallon says. “It’s the only way we know how to do it.”
Under Tallon, the Panthers are stockpiling young talent. They’ve drafted 23 players the past two seasons, including 13 in the first three rounds of the past two drafts. The Panthers also signed several free agents in July, three of them members of the Blackhawks’ 2010 championship team.
So the Panthers get immediate help and an impressive haul of prospects, many of whom will eventually play for the Rampage. “The road to South Florida,” says assistant Panthers GM Mike Santos, “runs through San Antonio.”
Santos represents another building block The Architect has set in place. Santos will direct hockey operations for the Rampage and assist Tallon with the Panthers. “There’s no one better on the business side,” Tallon says of Santos. “Mike is a world class person.”
Tallon uses the word “class” a lot. Another favorite is “character.” He weaves them into conversation to describe colleagues and culture. “This,” he says of Spurs Sports and Entertainment, “is a first class organization.” And: “Character is the No. 1 priority for me in putting together an organization.”
Here’s one measure of Tallon’s character. He gave 33 years to the Blackhawks as a player, broadcaster, scout and general manager. Here’s one picture of the love he endeared: In November 2008, Tallon left for his father’s funeral in rural Ontario while the Blackhawks slogged through a six-day road trip around the Thanksgiving holiday. During Chicago’s only three-day break, the players skipped a flight home to be with their families and boarded two charter buses for Ontario.
The look on Tallon’s face as the players walked in … priceless. As winger Adam Burish said in a video posted on the Blackhawks’ Web site: “Every guy in this locker room would say he's a guy you would do anything for."
The Blackhawks did not announce their gesture at a news conference. No photographers snapped pictures at the wake. No one issued a media release. But word of the kind deed appeared in an anonymous e-mail to reporters weeks later and the story spread. One headline: “Blackhawks players show what character is all about.”
The Spurs know something about character. So this affiliation with Tallon and the Panthers seems like a nice fit. Spurs Sports and Entertainment President Rick Pych put it this way: “We’re thrilled to have Dale here, especially because of what he did in Chicago.”
The Architect left Chicago for South Florida before the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. But the team did not forget him. On his 60th birthday, Tallon received a championship ring. And after that he received a text message: Your name is engraved on the Stanley Cup.
That’s one lasting mark of Tallon’s legacy. The Rampage hope he leaves another.
Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.
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