Mike Modano remains face of Stars franchise
Dallas Stars president Jim Lites tells the story as if it happened yesterday. That's how well he remembers it. That's how much the conversation Lites had with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones nearly 20 years ago resonates with him.
"I remember Jerry Jones saying to me about two years into our stay here, 'Jim, I can't believe how much success you guys have had, I never would have thought hockey would be successful in Dallas,'" Lites told NHL.com. "And then he said, 'That Mike Modano is as important to this community as Troy Aikman. I can't believe how dynamic he is.'
"I mean, the Cowboys are the Cowboys and Troy Aikman is Troy Aikman, but Mo was that good, that big," Lites continued. "He's the guy every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with."
Modano, with his chiseled face, blond locks, flapping jersey, incredible skill and all-American soul, was, and still is, the perfect guy to sell hockey in Texas. Twenty years after the Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars, Modano remains the one and only face of the NHL's franchise in the Lone Star State.
"He is the Dallas Stars," former teammate Steve Ott said.
Modano was honored Saturday night in a ceremony to retire his No. 9 to the rafters at American Airlines Center. But before he could get there, to the podium with the spotlight on him and his climbing jersey, Modano went through a number of chapters in his hockey career. Each defined who he is as a person and a celebrity, and what he was as a player.
He still sells hockey in Dallas, but Modano's rise to stardom started in the Detroit suburb of Westland, Mich.
Chapter 1: Go West, young man!
Modano was 16 years old and at a crossroads. He was too young to be recruited by colleges and too good to play another year of Midget hockey in Detroit. He wasn't sure if he wanted to pursue a career in hockey but knew he had to try. He just needed some direction.
Enter Rick Wilson, coach of the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League.
Wilson caught a glimpse of Modano at 15 during a tournament in Calgary. A few months later, shortly after Modano's 16th birthday, Wilson called with an invitation to come Prince Albert, Saskatchewan to check out the junior program there and to see if he wanted to try the WHL.
One of three Major Junior leagues in Canada, the WHL, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League formed the primary pipeline of players into the NHL at the time.
"So I packed up and figured I'm probably going to like it no matter what," Modano said. "I took everything and that July I headed up there. That was that. It was a tough decision, but I knew it was one I needed to make to figure out if hockey was something I wanted to do."
It was a bold choice. The road to the NHL for an American player did not go through places like Saskatchewan.
A couple of highly rated American-born players had gone to Canada to pursue their hockey careers in the past. Pat Lafontaine and Jimmy Carson went to the QMJHL; Al Iafrate, Kevin Hatcher and Craig Wolanin played in the OHL. But for a player of Modano's stature to go west, to the rough and tumble WHL, to a province as remote as Saskatchewan, it was sort of mystifying.
Prince Albert was more than 1,600 miles from Modano's childhood home in Michigan.
"It was not the thing to do for an American to go play in the Western League," said Jack Ferreira, a former Minnesota North Stars general manager. "He was a target. He was a target; they couldn't catch him."
Modano's decision was met with skepticism among his peers in the United States.
"It was real different," said Jeremy Roenick, who grew up playing against Modano in minor-hockey tournaments. "To us, as USA Hockey players, that was like going to play for the Charlestown Chiefs. It was physical, mean hockey. You're playing against a bunch of angry and mean Canadians. Mike put himself out there because that's what he wanted to do. We knew he was going to jump ahead of all us, and he went No. 1."
Before he did go No. 1, to the North Stars in the 1988 NHL Draft, Modano had to overcome animosity in Prince Albert. A skilled, highly scouted American was not always welcome in those parts.
"There were some guys that liked it, some that didn't, but over time I created some friends," Modano said. "I stuck up for myself at times, but they understood that to make a decision like that, to move away from home and go play hockey in Canada, Prince Albert of all cities, that says a lot about your love of the game."
Modano had 62 points in 70 games his first season. He scored 32 goals, but nothing came easy.
"It was tough," Modano said. "We had a couple of gifted guys around that I was able to play with, but you were playing against 20-year-olds, guys who were bigger and stronger and could push you out of the way at times. But still things were going pretty good productively, and the next year-and-a-half things just kind of took off up there."
In 1987-88, Modano dominated the WHL with 47 goals and 127 points in 65 games. He was fast, skilled, an electric player. And he was 17 years old.
Four days after he turned 18, the North Stars selected Modano with the No. 1 pick, but not before they had some internal debate about taking Trevor Linden instead.
On his last day as the North Stars' president and general manager, Lou Nanne made the decision to take Modano because of his talent and charisma. It was a decision that changed the franchise.
"We weren't selling out our games and Modano was a very charismatic player with tremendous speed and puck handling," said Nanne, who resigned earlier in the year but promised owner Gordon Gund that he'd work through the draft. "He was a guy that not only brought people to the building, but he would bring them out of their seats. We needed that type of franchise player."
He wasn't alone in that thinking.
Ferreira, who was announced as Nanne's replacement three days after the draft, said Gund called him the morning of the draft to check to see if he was on board with selecting Modano over Linden. Ferreira said if he had told Gund to take Linden the North Stars probably would have taken Linden, but there was no debate in his mind. Modano was the right pick, the right guy for the franchise.
"I had never seen someone dominant the juniors the way [Modano] had," Ferreira said. "He had so much upside. He had it all. He was an American kid that went to Canada, played in a tough Western Hockey League, and I just thought he was one of the best players I had ever seen. If you're going to build a franchise, he was the one guy to start the franchise with."
Nanne agreed, so much so that after seeing Modano play in Prince Albert he decided not to make any trades that could have helped the North Stars make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 1988. It wasn't that Nanne wanted the North Stars to tank in order to get the No. 1 pick, but he didn't necessarily do anything to help them either because of how much he valued Modano.
"In February, after I announced I was quitting, I said I would stay to the draft so my scouts told me I needed to fly up to Prince Albert to see him," Nanne said. "I flew up to Prince Albert, came back, and we were two or four points out of a playoff position. I told Gordon we had a lot of injuries, we're a couple points out, I could make a deal and we might make the playoffs, but I have seen a kid that might change this franchise. I told him I don't want to make a deal, I want to let it play out, and I could take the heat.
"I asked, 'What do you want to do?' he said, 'Do what you think is best for me.' So we never made a deal, we missed the playoffs, we ended first and we picked Modano."
Modano would play one more season in Prince Albert before arriving in Minnesota as a 19-year-old savior.
Chapter 2: Becoming a pro
Former North Stars forward Neal Broten remembers Modano as an impressive but reticent guy when he walked into Minnesota's dressing room for the first time in 1989. Here was the No. 1 pick in the draft, someone who scored 232 points in 106 games the previous two seasons in the WHL. But Modano wasn't puffing out his chest or acting like a star even though he pretty much always had been treated like one.
"He had a little shyness to him, which is great in a first-year or second-year guy," Broten said. "You don't want to come in there and beating out your chest. You want to be quiet, reserved. Mike was. He wasn't bragging about himself. His head wasn't big."
But the expectations on him were huge.
Modano lived up to them as a rookie, scoring 75 points in 80 games, losing the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year to 31-year-old Sergei Makarov of the Calgary Flames.
"I was really lucky in that sense because I didn't have to try to focus on being quiet and just doing my job, that was just kind of how I was," Modano said. "I was raised that way. I was just quiet, very shy. That was my personality. Once I got there it was pretty intimidating, you're scared a little bit, but when I got on the ice that was my escape."
The North Stars reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1991, where they lost in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but questions about whether Ferreira made the right pick choosing Modano instead of Linden were cropping up as Modano clashed with his coach, Hall of Fame forward Bob Gainey.
"Bob really tried to install some of the things he felt were important to get into my system at an early age, but for me coming out of juniors and being out there the way I was, everybody was expecting statistics, scoring, so I was more concerned about that," Modano said. "He always stressed that he never wanted to take that aspect of my game away; he just wanted a little more stop-and-start to my game, a little bit more facing the puck, being around it a little bit more. He explained if you do these things you're going to have more success offensively because you're going to have the puck a lot more.
"That sounded all good and great, but until I had results and I saw things happen for me, I didn't believe it. So there were moments when we really butted heads, to the point where he told me flat out that he wasn't going to play me unless I started changing."
Gainey had that kind of cachet, and Modano knew it. Gainey was a five-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens, a four-time Selke Trophy winner, a stern coach. He wasn't in awe of Modano's speed and shot and skill.
"He doesn't have to say much when he gets [angry]," Modano said. "He just gives you that look, kind of like your dad looking at you when you know you [messed] up."
Gainey didn't want to clash with Modano. All he wanted to do was show him the proper way to be a team player.
"It was pretty easy for me to see his physical ability, his athleticism, his size, but I was still in position where I had seen a lot of young players come in and I could try to pinpoint where he was at least on my gauge of maturity and understanding how to use all his skills, how to get them all into the game, and have an impact on the game," Gainey said. "He had a lot going for him, but he had a lot to learn."
Modano needed to learn how to play without the puck. He also needed to learn how to get the puck back when it was possessed by the opposition. Gainey wanted Modano to have a better understanding of the opponent, of the time and space available on the ice. He wanted Modano to improve to the point where he had enough trust to put him on the ice late in a tie game.
It took a while.
"There was a time around 1995 or 1996 when not only was he doing more of these things, like participating in killing penalties, play along the boards, in the areas that previously hadn't been on his to-do list, but he was doing it and gave to me a sign that he was enjoying it," Gainey said. "For me that's the final light bulb. If you have to be pushed into the tough situations and held there, then as soon as somebody leaves you're going to walk away. But if you find out that you enjoy it, then it changes that whole dynamic and you start looking for tough situations to test yourself in."
Modano didn't have to look for his next big test. It came to him when the North Stars moved to Dallas for the 1993-94 season. He went from being a budding star in a hockey hotbed to the face of a franchise in a brand new market.
The Stars were heading to Texas. Modano had to be front and center.
Chapter 3: New Star in a galaxy of them
Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys had won their first Super Bowl with Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin shining brighter than the stars on their helmets. Nolan Ryan was in the final year of his Hall of Fame baseball career. Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez were becoming stars for the Texas Rangers.
"This is a star town," Lites said. "It's not like you could just walk in here and say, 'We're a good team, look at us go.' You needed a face and a star."
Modano, the 23-year-old with the good looks and celebrity mentality, had to be that guy if hockey was going to work in Texas. So Lites and Jeff Cogen, the Stars' vice president of marketing, sold Modano's look.
"We rode him like a rented mule," Lites said. "If we needed a season-ticket holder flier, a face on the program, a face on the yearbook, a guy to parade out to the media, it was Mike Modano. We used Mike left and right and all over the place, but it was easy to do because what you see is what you get with Mo. It was true when he was 21 and it's true now. He was confident, unassuming and boyish, but now glib and confident and candid. His style in life is what you want your own children to emulate. He was our guy. He meant everything to us. He could do it all."
The only problem was Modano was not a natural publicity seeker. He didn't grow up as one, and his reticent style followed him to Dallas.
Modano went along with the program created for him by Lites and Cogen because he trusted them, knew how important he was to the Stars, and the kind of impact he could have if hockey eventually did sell in Texas.
Modano agreed with Jones: He felt his impact in the community should be as great as Aikman's. It needed to be.
"There are a lot of comparables to the impact Troy had with the Super Bowl years they had, his impact on the town," Modano said. "I felt in some sense I could have that same impact, so there was a little extra effort to try to make that happen."
The effort started on the ice, where Modano's unbelievable speed made his jersey flap in the back. Every kid wanted that look.
"It's called the Modano jersey flap," said Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler, who, like Modano, was born in Livonia. "His jersey used to flap in the wind when he used to wind it up."
Zach Parise, a Minnesota native, idolized Modano.
"It always made him look like he was going so much faster than everybody else," said Parise, a Minnesota Wild forward.
Modano was as dynamic as he was dominant. He scored 50 goals and 93 points in the first season in Dallas. He had 29 points in 30 games during the shortened 1994-95 season. Seasons of 81 points, 83 points, 59 points in 52 games, and 81 followed. Modano's line, with Brett Hull and Jere Lehtinen, was one of the best in the NHL, and the Stars became great.
"I've just never seen a guy be able to go at such top speed and look so graceful, make things look so easy and do things at such a high level of speed with a high level of talent as Mike did," Roenick said. "If Mike had any knock against him it would be that he wasn't a physical force, that he wasn't a physical-type player, but he fought through it. He's the elite."
The Stars were one of the elite teams in the NHL in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They won the Stanley Cup in 1999 and came within two wins of repeating in 2000 before losing to the New Jersey Devils in the Final.
Hockey was the rage in Dallas; Modano was the biggest star. He would date and eventually marry actress/model Willa Ford. Fans loved him. Women fawned over him. Kids wanted to be him.
"In that market, getting the state of Texas on board with hockey, you needed the good-looking face and the character, the playboy bachelor, to keep people interested," said Brenden Morrow, a former captain of the Stars who plays for the St. Louis Blues. "He was the perfect guy with the skill he played with and the good looks he has. He was perfect for that market."
Modano was so good his aura extended far beyond Dallas. He was a global sensation as one of the most unique players to wear the USA Hockey sweater.
Chapter 4: Changing face for American hockey
Roenick was a gritty, physical, grinding goal-scorer. Hull's slap shot was as powerful as his personality. Keith Tkachuk was a behemoth power forward who would drop the gloves as quickly as he shot the puck. Bill Guerin got by because he was a battler willing to wear his scars on his face.
Those players were the core of a new generation of American hockey players, a band of young men who would revitalize the national program with a combination of skill and charisma.
Modano was in that group, but he wasn't like the others. He was different. He was clean-cut, with a mouth full of teeth and flowing blond locks.
"He was the pretty boy with the big smile and the Beach Boy look," Roenick said. "You never saw Mike cut up or bloodied or teeth out or anything like that. He found a way to make sure he stayed away from that stuff and let his talents out. I think that's a tribute to him. It came easy to Mike. It came so much easier for Mike than it did a lot of us. He stood out wherever he was. He's such a good dude, such a good guy's guy. Not many did it better."
In an age when American players had a reputation for being tough and physical and committed to playing a north-south game, Modano bucked the trend. He was skilled, fast, and incredibly dangerous with the puck on his stick, comfortable playing a more creative east-west style. He was exactly what the Americans needed to build on the miracle of 1980 and bring USA Hockey into the 21st century.
Modano, the All-American boy living in Texas by way of Michigan, helped the U.S. win the World Cup of Hockey in 1996, the most significant victory since the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, and the silver medal at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics.
"He brought that flair and stability that you needed," Tkachuk said. "He really changed things with skill as an American hockey player. This is no disrespect to guys who came in to the League before us, but ultimately he was the most athletic and skilled American player ever to play the game, and I think he still is. He was the first guy that the Americans put on the ice that could play the skill European/Canadian game. He was the first guy that changed that. He fit in perfectly on the American team. He was the guy that could beat a guy 1-on-1 to score that big goal for you.
"You look at guys like Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel, they are obviously, in my mind, similar to a guy like Mike Modano, and I'm sure they grew up watching him and wanted to play like him. Mike made a big impact on American hockey, there's no question about it."
Modano's superstar qualities also made him a bigger target for Tkachuk and Guerin, arguably the two biggest jokesters in the American dressing room. They would razz Modano about everything and wouldn't let up, especially if they knew it was starting to bother him.
"He's just a nice guy in that laid-back mentality. He was good, but Billy and I used to attack him," Tkachuk said, laughing. "I can't remember any specifics, but we did a good job, trust me. Nobody is safe with Billy Guerin. You just gotta be quiet around Billy."
Modano remembers the so-called attacks starting during the '96 World Cup. He laughs about how relentless Guerin and Tkachuk were.
"Those guys were really tough, but I think it was just their nature, their personality," he said. "They liked giving me grief about everything. But they never told [coach Ron] Wilson to get them on a different line, so I knew I was doing something right. Nobody got any star treatment with them though."
Chapter 5: Bitter end, new beginning
Modano always had the star treatment in Dallas, until he didn't. He eventually had to leave, and he still isn't over it.
It began with a change in the Stars leadership group in 2006. Morrow recalls the situation that could have diseased his relationship with Modano.
Morrow was an alternate captain behind Modano until the start of the 2006-07 season. Then, overnight, Morrow was the captain. Management shook up the room, demoting Modano to alternate in the process, stripping him of the captaincy he inherited three years earlier when Derian Hatcher left the team.
Modano signed a five-year contract extension in 2005 and figured he'd be the captain until his career was over. He figured wrong.
"It was a little bit awkward knowing that he wasn't completely on board with it, but in saying that, he was the first person that congratulated me and told me if there was anything I needed or help and he would help me out," Morrow said. "He handled it with a lot of class with me and made me feel comfortable, but it was awkward for both of us. I knew he wasn't completely on board with it."
Modano said he still doesn't completely understand why Doug Armstrong, the Stars GM at the time, made the decision to give the "C" to Morrow.
For Armstrong, it was the right time for a leadership transition, so some of the Stars' younger players could take on bigger roles. He pegged Morrow, then 27, for the task. Modano said he felt the decision divided the room.
"Guys on the team really didn't understand what was happening," Modano said. "Armstrong had a feel for the team at the time and he felt this was an important thing that had to happen, but it was tough. That was always a little bit of a hard spot for us to be put in because you had to be politically correct, you had to say that it was a move to benefit the team, but it was a little bit of a split group with what was happening."
Modano felt for Morrow too. He knew it was a tough spot for his friend and teammate.
"It really wasn't celebrated as it should have been," Modano said of Morrow's ascendance. "No press conference, no nothing. I just feel it was transferred in the middle of the night and he woke up with it on. It was done real quietly, and I think he didn't have that opportunity to enjoy it, embrace it. I think sometimes he might have been embarrassed by the way it got handled."
Morrow and Modano continued their friendship. They continued to train together in the offseason, golfed together, ate meals together.
Modano would score his 500th goal on March 13, 2007. Four days later, he passed Joe Mullen for the most goals scored by an American-born player, a record he would eventually leave at 561. Early the following season (Nov. 7, 2007), he broke Phil Housley's record for most points scored by an American-born player; it stands at 1,374. The closest active player is Scott Gomez, who has 709 points.
"It was strange, but we were close enough that he made it not be a big deal between the two of us," Morrow said. "It may have carried more weight with him and management, but there wasn't a rift between the two of us."
Eventually, Modano's relationship with the Stars would break. It still bothers him even though he's back with the organization, working alongside Lites and owner Tom Gaglardi on the business side.
At the end of his NHL career, Modano wanted to play his final season with his only franchise. He felt he deserved the chance to have a swan song season in Dallas. Joe Nieuwendyk, the general manager at the time, did not agree. He decided it was in the best interest of the club to not re-sign Modano, a free agent, after the 2009-10 season.
"I felt I should have probably been able to make that choice myself, but Joe made it for me," Modano said.
Modano entertained the idea of retiring until Ken Holland, the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, called with a one-year contract offer. This was Modano's chance to complete the circle, to go back to Detroit, his hometown, where his hockey life began, where he made the decision to go to Saskatchewan.
He couldn't pass up the opportunity. He wouldn't dare.
But it didn't work out. Modano played 40 games for the Red Wings, scoring four goals and 16 points. He was besieged by bad luck and injuries, including a severed tendon in his right wrist that required surgery and kept him out of the lineup for three months. He was never the same. His career was over without ever giving the OK.
"I'm still frustrated at being injured and missing most of that season," Modano said. "I just feel to this day I left the game with a bitter taste in my mouth. It's just really hard to accept that you didn't have a chance to retire on your terms. I still feel if I didn't get injured I might still be playing."
That itch hasn't gone away.
"There is still that part of you that feels that you'd like to go back and finish it a different way," Modano said. "It ticks away at me, still haunts me."
Some closure came Saturday night when Modano watched his No. 9 rise to the rafters. The Stars gave him a night to remember. It's the least they could do for a superstar who continues to give them a face to sell hockey in Texas all these years and all these chapters later.
"Dallas is heartland, and Mo fits it," Lites said. "He's free-spirited, good looking, new, fresh and cool. He's perfect for Dallas."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer