HHOF inductee Mike Modano an American idol
Mike Modano is one of six American players to go first overall in the NHL draft. He won a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999. (REUTERS)
If U.S. hockey had a flag, Mike Modano’s image would be upper-left corner where the field of stars is placed on Old Glory.
The most prolific scorer the U.S. has produced first made his name in the game in two hockey hotbeds, his native Michigan and Minnesota. He then put the NHL on the map in the Lone Star State through his 16 years with Dallas. That influence has spread to many parts of the nation. Just listen to how many junior-aged players from California to the Carolinas who cite Modano on NHL draft day.
“The way he played the game, the way he carried himself, made him a natural role model for a number of kids,” said long-time pal Brett Hull. “I think it went from two arenas (in Dallas) when Mike came to more than 35. And from a handful of kids playing hockey to well over 5,000. That’s strictly because of Mike.”
After scoring 75 points in his rookie year with the Minnesota North Stars, Modano was able to match or better that 10 times in the next 13 seasons and reach 20 or more playoff points in three springs. The latter included Dallas’ run to the Cup in 1999, a few years after the franchise changed zip codes.
On St. Patrick’s Day 2007, Modano scored twice in a game in Nashville to break Joe Mullen’s record of 502 goals by an American. Later that calendar year, a goal against San Jose moved him past Phil Housley for most Yankee points with 1,233, en route to 1,374 when he ceased playing. The Housley record-breaker initiated a congratulatory call from a prominent Texan, President George W. Bush, who phoned Modano from Air Force One.
Yet Modano was always cognizant of the Canadian influence in his hockey life. Born in Livonia, Mich., near Detroit, he grew up on stories of Gordie Howe and the Red Wings, part of the reason he wore No. 9. Put into hockey at age seven on the advice of a family friend because he was overly energetic, Modano’s team went to the famous Quebec peewee tournament.
At age 15, after lighting up the net for the Detroit Little Caesars select team, he wanted to experience life in the Western Canadian junior ranks as an avenue to the NHL. He didn’t care it was Prince Albert, Sask., a small town of 23,000 with brutal winters.
“I thought Canada was the best place to go as far as competition and the type of travel and commitment the WHL had at the time,” Modano said. “I was almost ready to go to the Hull Olympiques and play for Pat Burns, but being involved with (coach) Rick Wilson in Prince Albert was a blessing in disguise.
“Just the passion and the excitement that Canadians have for the game of hockey ... I had never been exposed to it in Detroit as much as I was in Prince Albert. It allowed me to have a growth, a love for the game while I was up there playing and certainly one of the tougher leagues in Canada. It was a great league, great preparation for the next step to the NHL.”
In 193 games for the Raiders, Modano compiled 317 points. Minnesota, with 19 wins the previous year, was waiting with his monogrammed sweater when the 1988 draft commenced. Modano is among six American players to go first overall, with Brian Lawton, Bryan Berard, Rick DiPietro, Erik Johnson and Patrick Kane.
Waiting a year before starting his NHL career, his first season output was not enough to beat Sergei Makarov of the Calgary Flames for the Calder Trophy, though the latter’s advanced age (31) led the NHL to rewrite the rookie-of-the-year eligibility rules.
Within two years of Modano’s arrival, Minnesota was in the Cup final. The Stars were steamrolled by Mario Lemieux and the Penguins, with coach Bob Gainey urging Modano to become more of a two-way player. In ’92-93 and ’93-94, Modano had his two best seasons, back-to-back 93-point showings.
The team had moved to Dallas for October 1993 to Reunion Arena, where the fans were newbies, but very enthusiastic. They liked the game and the team even more when Ken Hitchcock arrived as coach and began building a champion. In Hitchcock’s first year, Modano was 30 points better than the next best Star, but by the time they won the Cup, Hull almost matched him in goals and the team featured a deep roster of Joe Nieuwendyk, Jere Lehtinen, Sergei Zubov, Guy Carbonneau and the volcanic Ed Belfour in net.
Yet the Stars still needed Modano as a go-to player.
“We asked him to do a lot, to check the best player on the other team, and to be our leading scorer, too,” Hitchcock told the Dallas Morning News. “He had to have complete buy-in, and he did. When that happened, I think that’s when we became the team that we became.”
Modano did not slow down as the Stars came a couple of wins shy of repeating in 2000. They missed the playoffs only a few times before he let his contract run out and appear in a 42-game cameo with Detroit. In his last game with Dallas, played in St. Paul, Minn., against the expansion Wild, Modano delighted the crowd by wearing on old North Stars jersey when he came out for first-star bows.
“Once you retire, you wonder if you had a big enough impact in the game on and off the ice that you might get this call,” a humble Modano said when told of his Hall induction. “This is the ultimate recognition I think a player obviously could ever have or ever get amongst his peers.”
MIKE MODANO FILE
Hall pass: 1999 Stanley Cup ... 1996 World Cup ... Olympic silver medal ... Most NHL goals (561) and points (1,374) by an American ... Ranks 23rd in career NHL points ... Became 14th player to get 500 goals with the same team (Dallas/Minnesota) ... Made the 1989-90 all rookie team.
Did you know? Was the last NHLer to have played in the 1980s ... Is married to pro golfer Allison Micheletti, daughter of former NHLer and broadcaster Joe Micheletti.