Sturm Words: Tough Guy Mike Modano
This is a week where everything that could be said about Mike Modano will be said twice. It is deserved and so is anything else that is offered in tribute for the good times he gave us all who were lucky enough to see him play hundreds of games.
He was the best. No doubt about it.
I won't attempt to say things that others have said because they have done it quite well. He is amongst the greatest to play the game, whether you want to talk about American hockey players, Dallas Stars, or just human beings. He was that good.
There is no question the principle memory I retain from watching Mike Modano was absolutely being struck by the speed of the man. In a sport where these warriors are routinely blurs across the ice, he was even faster. I have no idea if he had is jersey tailored differently for it to resemble a cape following him in his path - and if he did, that would be extremely vain - but between the hair, the jersey, the puck skills, and yes, the amazing speed, I can absolutely imagine what watching Bobby Hull must have been like. Because, surely, we got to see a version of that greatness night after night in Dallas.
The speed has been discussed at great length, and so have the scoring mitts, the depth of his determination to climb to a title, and his disgust for losing. Anyone who thought he was ok with losing never watched him take a shift. He didn't hide his anger on the ice and his level of frustration could bubble over right before your eyes.
But, if I may contribute to things you read about as we honor #9 by making sure nobody ever wears that number again for this franchise, I would like to dig a bit deeper and bring up something that the surface-level sports fan may never recall. If you watched him night after night, you knew that those that were sure he was some "pretty boy" had it all wrong.
Mike Modano was a tough guy. One of the toughest. No, not a fighter. Just tough as nails and not a guy who would back down to your efforts to punish him physically and scare him away. He would not be intimidated and he would not back down.
Mike Modano was absolutely one of the toughest son-of-a-guns that I have ever seen. And I am not talking about one particular piece of anecdotal information. No, sir. I am talking about over the course of his career, Modano was constantly hit so hard that on several occasions, we all wondered as he laid on the ice whether that was the "big one" that would take him out of action for a long, long time.
You likely already know what I am talking about. If not, a rather quick review of youtube can help you relive events that you might not wish to experience the first time. Mark Messier perhaps had the most famous blindside, cheap shot of Modano - albeit in a time in the National Hockey League where we actually had the audacity to blame the player who was hit for not "having his head on a swivel" even though Modano was finding the puck when Messier tried to decapitate him. It was a scary moment to say the least that was, of course, compounded by the fact that the medics on the scene dumped the stretcher he was on as they were trying to load it into the ambulance.
It was back when targeting the head was not forbidden and we weren't willing to accept that the human head could not take absurd levels of punishment. Messier was not even penalized, let alone suspended, but the damage was done. Mike was able to bounce back in that way that he would, but anyone that thinks the league has gone too far to take the physicality out of the game needs to review the play. Absolutely one of the most frightening moments ever.
And yet, Mike did not change his game. He played with speed and passion, battling for the puck at top velocity, and hunting for pucks at the same rate as ever before. If you want reality, the reality is that professional athletes change the way they play when they are physically punished. It is human. It could even be argued that it is smart. But, to change would be to surrender. And that wasn't Mike Modano.
So, fast forward a few years to 1999. The year the Cup was one was a year in which Modano found an even higher gear of two-way play that led the roster to its biggest achievement ever. That leadership should never be over-looked as Ken Hitchcock knew that if Modano would buy in to the complete team-game, so would the entire roster. He did, and they did.
Along the way, the physical toll would not be missed again. Jeremy Roenick of Phoenix decked Modano on another blindside, cheap play by the glass in the desert, which ended up starting the feud (or continuing it, at least) that would result in Derian Hatcher's moment of revenge and subsequent 7-game suspension that would start the 1999 playoffs in an odd fashion. Surely, if we were to add them up, Roenick got the worst end of that deal, but Modano was once again laying on the ice in a heap. And yet, upon his return, he kept playing at the same speed with the same abandon.
The Stars did, of course, win the Stanley Cup that summer, and only a few months later, it happened yet again. Now, I want to be clear, these are not normal hits or incidents. Nor, are they hits that you see on a regular basis. No, these three incidents I tell you about are all "once in a career" moments that had they gone just a little differently, his career would have not extended beyond these moments.
This one, on the 2nd night of the 1999-00 season was when he took a shot against Anaheim, and while his momentum took him off balance past the goal-line, defensemen Ruslan Salei pushed him towards the boards. The push sent him dangerously into the boards at an angle that put so much stress on his neck as it snapped back that it is still a wonder that he did not suffer a significant neck injury. In fact, players have been paralyzed at levels of hockey on plays that looked less intense, and as Mike's neck torqued in a way it shouldn't, he once again was motionless in a heap on the ice.
Somehow, with chaos all around him, including Darryl Sydor defending him on the spot, Mike was able to get off the ice and he returned to the ice ten days later. It was really incredible he wasn't lost for much, much longer.
I feel this doesn't get discussed often enough. There is no question that injuries are random in both their occurrence and severity, and some guys just have luck smile on them and that allows them to continue to do what they do for a living. Then, some get out of the sport while they can and others change the way they play in a very understandable "business decision" to play slower and thus preserve their health and well-being.
It is certainly odd, then, for those of us who have never taken a shift or sustained a hit to evaluate the relative courage of these warriors, but guys like Mike (or Stephane Robidas) who take the hits they take and do not change a thing are guys I really admire. They only know how to play one way, and they don't want to cheat the game by not giving everything they have. If they do give it all, punishment will be waiting, but they put it all on the line.
I know this is a rough topic, because these stories can go wrong for a guy who wants to gamble with their health one time too many. It happens and then we don't know what to say about these sports we love and the men who play them and risk their health and well-being.
Mike played at one speed. It was amazing to watch. It also put him in harm's way on several brutal occasions. And yet, he didn't change. Is it courage? Is it crazy? Is it intelligent?
Honestly, it is tough to fully define. But, every time you paid to watch Mike Modano play, he wanted you to leave knowing you got your money's worth. There was never a question of his commitment and his knowledge that this might be the only time you ever get to watch him play live and he wanted you to remember it.
His body allowed him amazing talents and amazing durability. He then had to work hard to make that all develop into one of the greats of all-time. But, it also required huge amounts of courage and resolve to make it happen. We don't always appreciate what these guys risk to make us smile. But, with Mike, his scariest moments are on youtube anytime you want to see for yourself.
Those three incidents above were the biggest three I can recall. But there were many more, and he likely feels the aches to this day and for the rest of his life. Only these guys know if it was all worth it, for the money, the wins, and the legacy.
But, as a fan, I really appreciated him digging as deep as he did. He was one of a kind.
Thanks for being as tough as nails, Mike.