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A determined Modano wants back on the ice

DETROIT – The big black cast begins above Mike Modano's(notes) right elbow, bending the joint at a 90-degree angle. It continues down his arm, covering the wrist that an errant skate blade sliced open. It curves to a stop just past the tips of his fingers.

Those fingers are free to curl into a ball, but on each tip is a Band-Aid, and on each of those Band-Aids is a small metal hook, and on each of those hooks is an elastic string that connects back to the big black cast.

Modano suffered a severed tendon. The doctors want to make sure he keeps it moving so scar tissue doesn't build up – so he has a chance to return to the Red Wings at some point this season – and in so doing they have made him look like the central character in another film set in Detroit: RoboCop.

"You just feel your door is closing on your career, and you have an opportunity here," Modano said Monday in the Wings' dressing room, wearing a black hat and black T-shirt to match the cast. "Just a major setback. Just a long road ahead of me as far as therapy and rehab and again getting back in shape for sometime in spring."

The NHL lost a top American player Monday when 40-year-old Bill Guerin(notes) announced his retirement, unable to find an opportunity to take another shot at the Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, Modano – a former teammate of Guerin's, 40 years old himself, the top-scoring American in NHL history – is trying to hold on to his last chance at a championship.

And he knows there are no guarantees. Asked if he had any doubt about returning this season – or ever again – Modano said he was still in "early stages of the healing process where you feel like it's a tough thing to come back."

This isn't just another injury, another rehab, another routine comeback. Consider the circumstances, and consider the injury itself.

Modano thought he was done last season. He didn't commit as hard to conditioning and didn't eat as well. He put on a few pounds. He figured he would retire after 20-plus years with the Stars organization.

Then the Wings called. They offered a storybook scenario. He could return to Detroit, where he grew up and played for Wings owner Mike Ilitch's Little Caesars youth program. He could play on the third line, play the point in the second power play unit, rediscover the joy of hockey and maybe, just maybe, win another Cup. Modano signed in August, showed up to training camp in September and realized he needed to get back into shape. As he got off to a slow start on the ice, he worked hard in the gym to catch up.

Then, just as he finally felt he was where he needed to be physically, just as he was starting to play well, he went into a corner Nov. 26 with the Columbus Blue Jackets' R.J. Umberger(notes).

Umberger lost his balance.

Even though Modano always has been careful to protect his wrists – wearing one of the tightest pairs of gloves in the league, with longer-than-usual cuffs – somehow the heel of one of Umberger's skates found a gap. The blade sliced down the inside of Modano's right forearm.

It didn't look bad at first. But Modano became increasingly aware that this was an unusual injury. "Once I got to the bench, it got bloodier and more sore," Modano said. "The pain got really intense. I was moving things around that I didn't have any connection to anymore."

Asked if he had the feeling – however fleeting – that he was finished, Modano said: "As I was lying there and they were kind of looking at it." He said he knew it was bad when one of the doctors said: "I'm not touching it anymore." Modano returned to Detroit and had surgery the next day.

There have been some positives. Modano also suffered a damaged nerve, and that responded to testing after surgery. The incident happened in November, so the best-case scenario is a return in March. The injured area will take less pounding because Modano shoots left.

When Umberger sent him a message, Modano told him not to worry because it was "just a freak thing." Modano has shown a sense of humor, too, joking with his mother about her having to treat him like a kid again. "When was the last time you had to cut my food?" he told her.

"He's a Hall of Famer, he knows how to play hockey and he'll be back," teammate Todd Bertuzzi(notes) said. "I foresee him coming back even stronger. I think he understands the system now, and if anything, he gets to watch exactly how we play and all that. Whether he comes back with a month left or two weeks left or just for playoffs, I think he'll have a better picture of what to do here."

But make no mistake: Modano spoke first about his hand becoming fully functional again. Second is hockey.

"It's a hard injury, just for everyday life," teammate Dan Cleary said. "It takes a major adjustment for him. We miss him here, and he misses being around. He's like a big kid. It's a big loss. He's not in good spirits, for sure. I wouldn't be."

Modano hasn't seemed quite comfortable yet in Detroit, anyway. He often has been referring to the Wings as "these guys," as if he isn't really one of them. Putting on a new uniform, even in your hometown, is a hard enough adjustment after you've been the face of another franchise for so long. Now he's detached from his new team.

The Wings spent last week on the road. Bertuzzi sent him a text message. Cleary talked to him. But it wasn't the same. A reporter didn't finish her question Monday when she asked Modano if it was nice to be back in the room, see the guys and "remind them you're …" "Still here?" Modano said.

Modano had to work so hard to get back into shape. Now he will have to do it all over. "That's what's tough," he said. "I think I feel it's capable and I can get to that level. It's just a matter of getting back there again. It's just a lot of work."

The Wings have been clipping along despite Modano's absence. They won the game in which he was injured and have gone 3-0-1 since. At 17-4-3, they have the best record in the league in terms of points percentage. Coach Mike Babcock and general manager Ken Holland have told him to take his time.

"You see the type of team we have and the way they're playing, it's just … watching them on TV, they're still a fun team to watch," Modano said. "They're one of the few teams I used to enjoy watching on TV. They're playing well. Everything seems to be going real good, so there's no rush, no kind of real urgency thing to kind of rush and get back. That's Kenny and Mike's idea as well. It's going to be tougher as it goes on, sitting around and watching."

As Modano watches, he must remember: The Wings signed him for a reason. He signed with them for a reason. And that reason remains.

"I think the opportunity is still there," Modano said. "It'll still be there in March when I come back. Obviously that time of the year is always exciting and fun, and the opportunity to take one more last run at it and obviously the skill level and the team they have here is certainly going to be in the same situation, I think. Hopefully I can come back obviously well rested and in good shape and feeling good and positive about that time of the year."