Modano’s return to Big D is a subdued affair

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

DALLAS – The tribute was short and sweet. The night was long and bitter.

Less than seven minutes into the game on Thursday, the Dallas Stars showed Mike Modano(notes) on the scoreboard screens at American Airlines Center. In small type, their message said simply: “THANK YOU, MIKE.” Modano received a standing ovation, but it was more polite applause than loud roar. He waved. He held up his stick. And that was it.

Modano’s new team was already behind by one at that point. The Detroit Red Wings went on to lose, 4-1, and though Modano said it felt great to be back, he seemed relieved to be leaving.

“Now we can move on and get into the season,” Modano said. “I’m glad it was early and [we could] get it over with.”

Even self-described die-hard Stars fans felt torn. Paul Wilson wore a Stars hat, and he and his girlfriend, Kim Hartless, wore Modano jerseys. But they weren’t old No. 9 Stars jerseys. They were new No. 90 Wings jerseys – protests against the Stars’ decision to part with the face of the franchise.

“It broke my heart,” said Wilson, 48, of McKinney, Texas. “I was telling her, I would never ever in a million years think that I would wear a Red Wings jersey to a Stars game. Ever. Just in public, even. Just never would.”

Well, things change.

Never in a million years did anyone think Modano would wear another jersey. He spent 20 seasons with one franchise – four with the Minnesota North Stars, then 16 after they moved south and dropped the North from their name. He played 1,633 games for the Stars – regular season and playoffs combined – more than 500 on top of anyone else. He holds commanding leads in goals, assists and points in franchise history. Yet his impact cannot be quantified by the record book.

“Modano did for Dallas what Gretzky did for Los Angeles,” said Rick Gosselin, a Detroit native, a Stars season-ticket holder and a respected observer of pro sports as the NFL columnist at the Dallas Morning News. “He gave hockey a place in the sun.”

When the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to the Kings in 1988, hockey became cool in places were there was no native ice. The sport spread to new markets. The Stars arrived in Dallas in 1993, and Modano, already a big deal, became an even bigger deal in Big D.

His first season in Dallas was the best of his career statistically: 50 goals, 93 points. He helped the Stars win the Stanley Cup in 1999. Perhaps just as important, his appeal was transcendent. Like L.A., Dallas loves glitz and personality. Modano was a star among Stars.

“He doesn’t look like a hockey player; he looks like a model,” said Stars captain Brenden Morrow(notes). “Good-looking guy coming down to Texas selling hockey, I think it was a good thing for one of the demographics here.”

Morrow talked about Modano “skating down the wing with the jersey flapping” and the Stars winning.

“Those were big things and sold hockey to a lot of kids,” Morrow said. “You can see it in the amount of rinks that are popping up around the Metroplex, and he had a big part of that.”

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. Now? The Stars alone operate seven arenas with 15 sheets of ice, and more than 8,000 children and adults are playing hockey.

“I think it was a spectator sport at the start,” Modano said. “We were just trying to get people in the building. I think we all felt if we got them to the game and they saw the excitement, the speed, the aggressiveness of the game – obviously the skill and talent side of it as well – that people would be hooked.”

To many, being hooked on hockey meant being hooked on Modano.

Brandon Hurley, 24, grew up in Keller, Texas. He played roller hockey, then ice hockey when a rink was built nearby. His team once skated with the Stars as a reward for winning a league championship. He sat in the last row of the upper bowl Thursday, wearing a No. 9 North Stars jersey.

“Modano started the Dallas Stars,” Hurley said. “I’ve always loved Modano.”

Wilson became a fan during the Stars’ second season in Dallas, when he came to a game against the Red Wings, of all teams, and fell in love. He started going to Stars practices. He took his two sons to meet Modano.

“When they were little, he signed autographs,” Wilson said. “When they were a little bit bigger, still signed autographs. When they were a little bit bigger, still. … He was just Dallas. If you put a big green star, there should be a ‘9’ in it, you know?”

Joe Nieuwendyk knows. He played with Modano in Dallas. In the Stars’ dressing room, a picture of Modano hoisting the Cup is right next to one of Nieuwendyk. But when Nieuwendyk became the Stars’ general manager, it became his job to make tough decisions. And with cash-strapped owner Tom Hicks unable to sell the team, costs being cut and Modano turning 40, he had to let Modano go.

After considering retirement, Modano decided he wasn’t ready to quit and signed with the Wings, his hometown team. But he said he probably would return to his adopted hometown whenever he is done, and he would strongly consider a role in the Stars organization if one is offered. He said he hoped the fans would be patient during the Stars’ transition period because Dallas is “a great market.”

“Mike Modano will always been known as a Dallas Star, even if he plays for Detroit for a year or two, so that’s never going to change,” Nieuwendyk said. “People identified the Dallas Stars with Mike Modano and all that he was, and now it’s going to be important for Brendan Morrow and Steve Ott(notes) and these guys to take this team to where it needs to go.”

No one fits Modano’s description anymore. “I don’t see a good-looking guy like Mike in this locker room,” Morrow said with a smile. No one man is going to be the face of the franchise in the foreseeable future. The Stars hope to fill the void by committee.

They did it Thursday. Morrow, Brad Richards(notes), Loui Eriksson(notes) and James Neal(notes) scored, while Modano went without a point. Modano said he had to shift up “a gear or two” just to center the third line in Detroit, and Wings coach Mike Babcock said “it might take him a couple of months, but we expect him to get better.”

That doesn’t make some fans feel better, though. Three Stars fans wore Modano T-shirts to the game – Modano Red Wings T-shirts. Another protest.

“We have to stay strong for Modano,” said Kelly Colwell, 26, of Fort Worth, wearing red highlights in her hair, along with red pipe-cleaners bent into No. 90. “He should be in green.”

“It’s just not right,” said Matt Davis, 33, of Fort Worth. “He’s not Brett Favre.”

They plan to visit Detroit later this season to watch Modano play at Joe Louis Arena. Yes, they’re going north to watch their Star.

“We were going to buy season tickets,” said Robert Davis, 34, of Forth Worth. “We’re going to spend our money up at Joe Louis instead.”