Mike Modano's(notes) career should not have ended like this, with a farewell season in Detroit derailed by an injury, with a quiet little tweet that linked to a brief Facebook post that announced his retirement Wednesday.
"What a great ride it's been!" Modano wrote.
What an understatement. Modano was the greatest U.S.-born NHLer of all-time, the man most responsible for establishing hockey deep in the heart of Texas. At least he'll receive a proper sendoff Friday at a news conference in Dallas, and he will stay in the limelight working as a TV analyst. At least at some point – if not now, when the sale of the Stars is complete – he should be offered some type of role in the organization.
"He's the best," said Brett Hull, Modano’s close friend and former teammate. "There's some that are right on his tail, but he is the best and his numbers prove it."
The numbers are undeniable. Modano holds multiple NHL records for U.S.-born players, including goals (561) and points (1,374). He ranks second in games played (1,499). He won one Stanley Cup and one Olympic silver medal. But those are just the numbers. His impact on the game goes far beyond statistics. How do you quantify his style and looks, the way he made hockey fashionable in football country?
If you ever watched Modano, you can recall the image as easily as you can call up a clip on YouTube. He didn't skate so much as he flew – whipping up ice with his jersey flapping behind like a superhero's cape.
"He floated," said Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, who was struck by Modano as soon as he first scouted him in junior. "He was just a beautiful, effortless skater. He just glided around the ice."
Men wanted to be like him. "You just wish you could do some of the things he could do," Hull said. "Every time he touched the puck at mach speed, the jersey flew, and he could do things people couldn't do at that speed."
Women wanted to be with him. "He doesn't look like a hockey player, he looks like a model," Stars captain Brenden Morrow(notes) once told me. "Good-looking guy coming down to Texas selling hockey, I think it was a good thing for one of the demographics here."
Modano was already a big deal before he arrived in Big D. The Minnesota North Stars drafted him No. 1 overall in 1988, and he led them to the Stanley Cup final in 1991. When they moved to Dallas and dropped the “North” from their name in 1993, he brought the Star power.
His first season in Dallas, he posted the best stats of his career – 50 goals, 93 points – and this new team playing this new sport made the second round of the playoffs. The Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999, becoming the first NHL team south of Colorado to claim a title, and made it back to the Cup final the next year.
While the Stars moved from old Reunion Arena into the state-of-the-art American Airlines Center, other rinks were built around the Metroplex. The Dallas-Fort Worth area had five sheets of ice when the Stars arrived – two of them in shopping malls – and only 250 children and 225 adults were playing hockey, according to the team. As of last year, the Stars alone operated seven arenas with 15 sheets of ice, and more than 8,000 children and adults were playing hockey.
Rick Gosselin, the respected NFL writer for the Dallas Morning News and a Stars season-ticket holder, once told me that Modano did for Dallas what Wayne Gretzky had done for Los Angeles after the Edmonton Oilers traded him to the Kings in 1988. Hull went even further.
"I think it's almost more because he took a team to Dallas," Hull said. "There was no team there before. And he wasn't Wayne Gretzky; he was Mike Modano. He took the franchise on his back and made it a very viable franchise."
Modano could have had a hero's exit. In his last home game in a Stars sweater, he scored the tying goal with 1:47 to go in regulation, then scored a shootout goal to beat the Anaheim Ducks. He played one more game for the Stars after that – in Minnesota. Full circle. Perfect.
He had played 1,633 games for the franchise – regular season and playoffs combined – more than 500 on top of anyone else. He held commanding leads in goals, assists and points in the team record book.
But though he said it felt like the end, he also said he might come down with a case of "Favre-itis." And he just couldn't quit hockey, even though the Stars wouldn't offer him another contract.
The Red Wings convinced him to come back at age 40, and it seemed Detroit would be the best place to squeeze the most out of the rest of his career. He was returning to his hometown, where he had played for Wings owner Mike Ilitch's Little Caesars youth program. He could play a reduced role on a skilled, veteran team.
It's easy to say now that he shouldn't have done it, that he should have gotten out of the game while he was ahead and remained a lifelong Star. But he didn't feel like he was done, and he wanted a chance at another Cup. Who knew an errant skate blade would slice his right wrist, sever a tendon and damage a nerve? He was just getting up to speed when he got hurt; he had a hard time getting back up to speed after surgery and rehab. He finished with only four goals and 15 points in 40 games, by far his worst season.
"When you're 40 years old and you miss three months and you're trying to learn kind of a different role, you're a long ways behind," Holland said. "To his credit, he never complained. He left it all on the ice."
Just because he became a spare part in the 2011 playoffs doesn't diminish his greatness. One season with the Wings doesn't diminish 20 seasons with the Stars. Those teary eyes and lumpy throats at the end of the 2009-10 season in Dallas and Minnesota? Their meaning remains, and at least now Modano knows he's done.
"I think Mike could still play, but he's played a lot of hockey for a lot of years," Hull said. "The game's changed. I think he's just come to grips with the fact that it's just not there."
Even when Modano played in Detroit, he talked about leaving his hometown to return to his adopted hometown. He talked about doing some type of job for the Stars. Though they don't need him on the ice anymore, they need him off it. The team has gone through tough times. Hockey needs to become fashionable in football country again.
Hull worked for the Stars after he retired. His contract wasn't renewed with the team going through financial issues, so he's waiting and willing to come back, at least as an ambassador. He sees Modano often because they belong to the same golf club in Dallas – they saw each other Wednesday morning – and they get regular updates on the situation from Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk, a former teammate.
"I think he wants to be a part of the organization, just like myself," Hull said. "Like I said, he was the Dallas Stars from Day 1. … Obviously the team has filed for bankruptcy, trying to figure out who the new owners are going to be. I think whoever gets the team, it's certainly going to have a spot for Mike Modano. I think with his brains and good looks and people skills, he can do whatever he wants."
Think of how much he has done already.
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