Modano Was Elite on the Ice, An Ambassador Off It
The legacy he leaves behind is as much about how he performed off the ice as what he did on it
Mike Modano entered the NHL with elite-level offensive skills. The legacy he leaves behind is as much about how he performed off the ice as what he did on it.
Modano, who retired in September 2011, will take his place in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Oct. 15, when he is inducted along with Stanley Cup champion and NBC hockey analyst Ed Olczyk and New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello.
In 21 NHL seasons -- 20 of which were spent with the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars franchise -- Modano set all-time records for U.S.-born players in goals (561) and points (1,374), and he's second only to Phil Housley in assists (813) and to Chris Chelios in games played (1,499). Modano's 146 points are more than any U.S.-born player has scored in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Modano also dominates all offensive categories in the North Stars/Stars record books, leading in games played (1,459), goals (557), assists (802), points (1,359), power-play goals (156), shorthanded goals (29), game-winning goals (92) and overtime goals (nine).
"His skill level and mobility was jaw-dropping," Ken Hitchcock, who coached Modano for six seasons in Dallas, told NHL.com. "He had that tool set that you love to watch in practice."
After dominating the minor hockey system in the Detroit area, Modano needed better competition, so he turned to the north. He talked to clubs from the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- a deal to play for the Hull Olympiques fell apart at the last minute -- but eventually jumped to the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League in 1986.
"College was still two years away," Modano told NHL.com. "I had to wait until I was 17 to be recruited. I was 15 at the time. I didn't want to sit around and wait. I wanted to go play, see where I stood, get some good competition, get away from home, see how that worked out. I didn't want to stick around Detroit for two more years and play. I felt it was a good decision."
The WHL was a rough place at that time, but Modano's skill at such a young age made him stand out.
"The way he skated and the way he handled the puck, you knew he was going to be a good player," Mark Recchi, who played for the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL while Modano was at Prince Albert, told NHL.com. "You could tell there was something special there. He just had that -- you know when a guy has that knack for being in the right spots, getting to the right spots."
After posting 62 points in 70 games in 1986-87, Modano broke out for 47 goals and 127 points -- ninth in the league -- in 65 games in '87-88.
He said it wasn't until his draft year that he realized that hockey could become his full-time profession.
"It wasn't until I got back from the World Juniors in Moscow in '87 and I heard a lot of the buzz going on about the draft and the upcoming spring," he said. "Central Scouting came out with ratings of the players in juniors that February and that's when it dawned on me -- I was [number] one."
Months later, the North Stars selected him with the first pick of the 1988 NHL Draft, making him just the second American at the time to be picked No. 1.
"We just know that we needed a talented centerman, someone capable of in the future of being an excellent player and a point producer," North Stars GM Lou Nanne said after selecting Modano. "We think he can do that for us."
He did just that, starting with his first season, 1989-90, when he was fourth on the team with 75 points in 80 games. The next season he had 64 points but turned it on the postseason, with eight goals and 12 assists in 23 games as the North Stars, who finished fourth in the Norris Division with 68 points, made a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final, along the way beating the Presidents' Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks, who finished with 38 more points, then the St. Louis Blues, who were 37 points better. After beating the Edmonton Oilers in the conference finals, he had two goals and two assists in six games in a losing effort against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Cup Final.
Rather than build off that success, however, the North Stars continued to struggle, losing in the division semifinals in 1992 and missing the playoffs in 1993.
"I thought going into that next year, we're coming off the best season of our careers and the North Stars at the time, the town was excited about hockey, and it just never transpired into anything in the regular season," Modano said. "We still had a tough time getting fans to the game consistently. I think that was a sign of things to come that there might be a change down the road."
After that 1992-93 season, the team moved to Dallas. Renamed the Dallas Stars, the new franchise could have struggled to find a foothold in a crowded local sports scene where football was king, the Dallas Mavericks were popular and the nearby Texas Rangers also drew attention.
Enter Modano, who became the best ambassador possible for the team. On the ice, he had a career-best 50 goals and tied his personal best with 93 points. Off the ice, Modano did everything he could to promote the game.
"Mike never said 'No' to anybody as far as promoting the game of ice hockey," Hitchcock said. "When I was around him I never saw him say 'No' to anybody. I think that unselfish attitude really helped grow the game. He, as the face of the franchise, that unselfishness forced other players to do it. It really grew the game in a proper manner."
Modano said it was difficult to be that ambassador, but knew it was worth it for the long-term strength of the organization.
"It was a lot of work and there were a lot of things to do, and you were getting pulled in a lot of different directions all the time," he said. "But there was always a part of me that saw what [Troy] Aikman accomplished here in town and [Roger] Staubach and Nolan Ryan and things like that. Here's an opportunity for me to be that face for hockey as well. There wasn't anything I turned down if it helped promote the game and the Stars and helped the team in some sense in this city. It wasn't very hard to say 'Yes' to."
Success was slow to come, but during the 1995-96 season, as the team was en route to missing the playoffs, Gainey stepped down as coach and promoted Hitchcock, who had been coaching the team's International Hockey League affiliate in Kalamazoo, Mich.
In 1996-97, Hitchcock's first full season, the Stars finished second in the Western Conference. The coach also was transforming his best player from a go-go offensive dynamo to a two-way threat. It wasn't easy or an overnight occurrence -- but once it happened, the Stars became an elite team.
"Best way I would describe it is when we first got there, the best players went on the ice for the opposition, we would pull Mike off," Hitchcock said. "And then it changed, where we would make sure Mike was on. We just knew when he made that commitment, with his skill set, that his line could outplay anybody's top line."
Once Modano bought in, Hitchcock said there was no excuse for every other player on the roster not to follow along.
"We were trying to get them to commit to the two-way game," Hitchcock said. "We did that with every player. But it became a really easy sell for the rest of the team if your best players did it, and when Mike dug in and did it, it became a very easy sell down the line for us."
Once Modano understood the reasoning for the changes, he said it was easy for him to adapt.
"We talked about it a lot, we talked about it with Bob and Hitch, and we came to the conclusion that if we wanted to be a better team and have success continuously and for a long period of time, we needed to have this type of input and transition to my game," Modano said. "He felt that if I was able and willing to do that without any guarantees of being successful, at the tail end everyone else would be like, 'Mike is making sacrifices and he's doing what's best to win games for all of us to be successful.' I think it was more of a trickle-down effect for everyone else."
Modano eventually was able to find the fun in scoring less but winning more.
"There was a little bit of a learning curve but I was excited about the challenge," he said. "Every year we tried to find something that would motivate me to play and get me excited about it. This was one of them. He and Gainey thought it was perfect for me. It was a lot of fun, playing against the best players on the other team, playing against [Steve] Yzerman and [Joe] Sakic and [Sergei] Fedorov. There was a little bit of a responsibility to come ready to play every night. It was really fun going head to head against those guys."
Things peaked in the 1998-99 season, with Brett Hull and Joe Nieuwendyk added up front, Sergei Zubov, Darryl Sydor and Derian Hatcher anchoring the back end and Ed Belfour in net, the Stars won the Presidents' Trophy with 114 points. Modano posted team-high totals of 34 goals, 81 points and a plus-29 rating, and continued that run into the playoffs, scoring 23 points in 23 games. He capped his run with a pair of assists in the Stars' Cup-clinching Game 6 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, including the secondary assist on Brett Hull's triple-overtime Cup-winning goal.
"I kid Brett a lot about it, but he turned into my stick because I was just about ready to shoot the puck on that rebound," Modano said. "He turned and hit my stick away. Then he kicked it up to his stick and scored. We always kid that if I had put it in it probably would have been no goal because Brett was in the crease at the time."
The amazing part was Modano even being on the ice at all.
"I think one of the things that impressed me the most and impressed a lot of our teammates was he had the crack in his wrist in the Stanley Cup Final," Nieuwendyk, currently the Stars' GM, told NHL.com. "I think Mike Modano five years earlier may have decided not to play, but he got back out there and played pretty damn well for a guy with a cracked wrist. That said a lot to the locker room. That impressed me more than some of his on-ice stuff."
Modano's legacy as a player now set, next came a run up the history books. On March 13, 2007, he became the second American-born player to reach 500 goals. Four days later, he scored goals No. 502 and 503, pushing him past Joe Mullen for the most by a U.S.-born NHL player.
On Nov. 7, 2007, he scored a shorthanded goal for his 1,233rd point, passing Housley to become the all-time leading American scorer.
"I think about it, that it's pretty neat, that I was able to accomplish that," Modano said. "Play a little longer, add a few numbers to it to make it a little tougher for the next guy. To sit back and think that you have those records is pretty special."
Modano extended those numbers with one final season with the Detroit Red Wings in 2010-11. He got off to a decent start, with eight points in 20 games, but then he severed a tendon in his wrist in a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets and missed three months. He never found his groove when he returned and was a healthy scratch for nine of the Red Wings' 11 playoff games.
The Livonia, Mich., native finished his only season with the Red Wings with four goals and 11 assists in 40 regular-season games and one assist in two playoff games. Despite that, Modano said it was a great homecoming.
"I still thank [Red Wings GM] Kenny Holland and [owner Mike] Ilitch and those guys giving me that chance to go home and play in front of the family one more time and the fans and being part of the Wings history and tradition and playing in Joe Louis [Arena]," he said. "It was a great thrill -- much better than I thought it would be."
Modano signed a one-day contract with the Stars in September 2011 to officially retire as a member of the organization.
His legacy now can been seen as much off the ice as on it, as the state of Texas is the home of not only an NHL team, but three American Hockey League teams and two teams from the Central Hockey League.
"I think there's more pride in that than anything in coming down here to help transition a team and a city and a state that didn't know much about hockey and now has the most professional hockey teams of any state in the country," he said. "There's a lot to it that you feel you were a part of and helped start that back in '93. There's a little bit of pride in that, that you helped jump-start a state into liking or being a part of hockey."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor