DETROIT – It was a scripted moment, but as Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch said of this whole thing, "you couldn't have written a better script."
Mike Modano(notes) stood on a podium for his introductory press conference Friday at Joe Louis Arena. Drake Rymsha, 12, brought up Modano's brand-new No. 90 Wings sweater while wearing a replica of Modano’s old No. 9 Little Caesars sweater.
Rymsha plays for Ilitch's youth hockey program in Detroit, as Modano did at that age. His eyes light up at the idea of playing for his hometown Wings – or any NHL team, for that matter – as Modano's did when he was a kid.
"If Detroit calls, I'll take it," Rymsha said afterward. "If anybody calls, I'll take it."
That’s what it's all about. As much as Rymsha wants to be like Modano, Modano wants to be like Rymsha. He's coming home to rediscover that childlike enthusiasm, to feel the pure joy of playing hockey again, to have fun chasing the Stanley Cup one last time, maybe more.
"I don’t want to talk too much, but Cuppy, Cuppy, Cuppy," Ilitch said, sounding almost giddy himself. "I do feel it."
Modano said his last few years in Dallas had felt "draining." He wasn't scoring. The Stars weren't winning. He didn't say it, but he sounded as if he felt, well, old.
"I thought I was emotionally and mentally finished with the game after last year," said Modano, 40. "I think the last little while in Dallas has taken a toll on me."
Modano needed time to recover. Even after the Wings started wooing him in early July, he wasn’t ready. But he had several talks with buddies Brett Hull, Chris Chelios(notes) and Todd Bertuzzi(notes) about how they had found a "second wind" with the Wings. Eventually, he decided Detroit could be his fountain of youth, too.
"If Detroit didn’t come calling, I think I was done," Modano said. "I think I was going to retire. I just didn’t feel like there was any sense going anywhere else playing just to play."
Minnesota and San Jose came calling, too. But while the Wild had the homecoming element – Modano spent his first four seasons with the North Stars – it wasn't a Cup contender. And while the Sharks were Cup contenders, they didn't have the homecoming element.
The Wings had it all.
Modano grew up in the Detroit suburbs watching Wings like Reed Larson – later his roommate in Minnesota – and Dale McCourt. He first wore the Winged Wheel when he was 9, when Little Caesars represented the Wings at the high-profile pee-wee tournament in Quebec City.
"Having the Red Wings uniform on at that time as a 9-year-old was the greatest thing in the world," Modano said.
Except for one season with Detroit Compuware, the rival organization run by Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos, Modano played for Little Caesars until he was 15. He practiced at Joe Louis Arena once or twice a week and played games there. He put on his gear in the visitors’ dressing room. He grabbed sticks the NHLers didn’t want anymore.
"Until he was about 14ish, about 14 and a half, he was not real tall," former Little Caesars coach Chris Coury said. "He was kind of short. He had these little chubby cheeks, a little kid's look. And then between 14 and 15, somewhere in there, he grew about seven inches, and it changed everything for him."
Modano became a dynamo. It was clear the NHL was his destiny.
"He was so talented and focused," Coury said. "He knew what he was heading for, what he wanted to be. I said, 'Mike, here's what I want you to do in your own end. If you can do that for us, the rest of the rink is yours. You do what you want.' And that’s basically the way we did it. We basically wound him up and let him go, and he flourished."
Modano became the No. 1 overall pick in the 1988 NHL draft. He became the highest-scoring American-born player in league history. To honor that accomplishment, the Wings presented Modano with a framed Little Caesars sweater before the Stars played at the Joe in February 2008.
It was an awkward moment for Modano, an opposing team celebrating him on its own ice. It doesn't have to be awkward anymore.
Now Modano is back in Motown, and though he said he will be probably as nervous as he has been in years, playing in front of friends and family, he doesn’t have to carry the team. He can center the third line and contribute on the power play. The Wings have so much skill, he shouldn’t be drained.
"The way they skate and move the puck, it just makes the game easier," Modano said. "The last little while, it's felt like it's been a lot of work, and we just haven't gotten anything accomplished. The game looks easy when you watch these guys. You play against them, it just looks real simple and effortless and you don't waste a lot of energy, and at 40, I don't really want to waste a lot of energy."
How much does Modano have left? He signed a one-year contract for $1.25 million plus incentives, and he said he would play this year as if it were his last. But you never know how many more years he might play. Kids think they'll play forever. The Wings will wind him up and let him go.
"It just depends on how I feel and how the year goes," Modano said. "I think it's just a year-to-year thing with me. But if I get rejuvenated and have a lot of fun – and my body holds up, I think, more than anything – I don't know what that number could be."