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Red Wings, Modano the right fit for each other

For Mike Modano(notes), there’s no place like home. And not just because it’s home. Because of the hockey. If Modano signs with the Detroit Red Wings this week, there will be no better place to get the most out of the rest of his career.

The Detroit Free Press reports Modano has agreed to terms with the Wings, and Modano sent the paper a text message: “Big announcement Thursday.” Modano is golfing with former Stars teammate Marty Turco(notes) and some other buddies in Scotland. He is expected to return Wednesday.

Wings general manager Ken Holland said Tuesday he hasn’t heard anything official. He hopes to hear good news later this week.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, but I can’t confirm anything,” Holland said. “I think there’s a lot of reasons why we’re a good fit for him and he’s a good fit for the Red Wings.”

All of the fairy tale elements are here. Modano grew up in the Detroit suburbs. He played for both Little Caesars, the youth program run by Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, and Detroit Compuware, the rival program run by Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos. The Wings wooed Modano this summer at Comerica Park, home of Ilitch’s other team, the Detroit Tigers.

The highest-scoring American-born player in NHL history will join the Cup-richest American-based franchise, with a legitimate shot to hoist Stanley for the first time since 1999. As strange as it will be to see Modano in red after 20 years in green – four seasons with the Minnesota North Stars, 16 with the Dallas Stars – this is a natural.

No, Modano isn’t what he used to be. But that’s the key. He doesn’t have to be. He can still skate, and as long as he hasn’t lost the desire, he can fit into the Wings’ puck-possession style, center the third line and contribute on the power play. With Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), Henrik Zetterberg(notes), Pavel Datsyuk(notes) and company, he doesn’t have to be the face of the franchise, as he was with the Stars so long. He can be just another familiar face, as former Stars such as Brett Hull and Pat Verbeek were before him.

The Wings have a long history of salvaging superstars and squeezing value out of them. Modano saw how a couple of his buddies, Hull and Chris Chelios(notes), went to Detroit and thrived, and Hull and Chelios have talked to him about it.

In the beginning, it was just about selling tickets. The Wings were known as the “Dead Things” when Ilitch bought them for only $8 million in 1982. Joe Louis Arena was virtually empty.

As the Wings worked on building a foundation through the draft, they worked on rebuilding their relationship with the fans by acquiring stars at the mid to late stages of their careers – Brad Park, Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming, Bernie Federko, Dino Ciccarelli, Mark Howe, Paul Coffey, Mike Vernon. Some of those players had little left, but the fans couldn’t accuse the Wings of not trying to win.

“I’m big on names,” Jimmy Devellano once said. Devellano began as Ilitch’s general manager in 1982. He’s now senior vice-president and headed to the Hall of Fame this fall. “I’m big on personalities. I’m big on the show business aspect of sports. I believe it’s entertainment… I don’t like dull. I don’t like drab. I like pizzazz.”

The Wings remained big on names, even after they had established themselves as winners and the Joe was sold out night after night. Brendan Shanahan(notes). Igor Larionov. Chelios. Verbeek. Dominik Hasek(notes). Luc Robitaille. Hull. Curtis Joseph(notes). The veterans’ skill and smarts fit the system. The vets accepted lesser roles and less money, in many cases, and blended with the younger players.

And the Wings won. The Wings drew fans now not because of the veterans’ past production, but thanks in large part to their present production.

This was easier to pull off before the salary cap, when the Wings were the New York Yankees of hockey. Ilitch, who had loved Bobby Hull, signed Brett Hull in August of 2001 even though it put the Wings over budget. Some players deferred salary to make it happen, and the Wings still had a $65-million payroll. They had to win the Cup just to make ends meet.

Now that the NHL has a salary cap that doesn’t reach even $60 million, the Wings have become the New England Patriots of hockey. Modano will fit right in. He’ll likely sign a one-year deal for a little more than $1 million. He has always seemed more comfortable in a somewhat supporting role – note he didn’t keep the ‘C’ with the Stars – and he can support in Detroit.

Coach Mike Babcock told the Free Press this summer that Zetterberg and Datsyuk will play together on the top line with Tomas Holmstrom(notes). Valterri Filppula will center Johan Franzen(notes) and Todd Bertuzzi(notes) on the second line. That would leave Modano – instead of Justin Abdelkader(notes) – to center Dan Cleary and Jiri Hudler(notes) on the third line. Modano also could play the point on the second power play unit.

That would give the Wings a lot of scoring punch and a chance for Modano to boost his stats, after dipping all the way to 14 goals and 30 points last season. Even if he repeated those numbers, they would be worth more in this context than they were in Dallas.

This will also strengthen the Wings’ checking line, because Abdelkader now will battle Darren Helm(notes) to center that group, with Patrick Eaves(notes), Drew Miller(notes), Kris Draper(notes) and Mattias Ritola(notes) competing for spots, too.

There’s only one problem with Modano’s homecoming. Modano no longer will be able to wear his famous No. 9. That’s in the rafters. Guy named Gordie. But while we don’t know what will be on the back, we know the crest on the front will look good.