In true storybook fashion, the reality of Mike Modano’s legacy was solidified by way of a short-handed breakaway goal that changed the record books of American hockey.
On November 7, Modano eclipsed Phil Housley as the all-time American-born point getter in the National Hockey League, a feat that cast a new light on hockey in the United States.
Modano was raised in the hockey-rich state of Michigan where he honed his skills until leaving for Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and the Western Hockey League at age 16. It was a move that was considered at the time to be pretty rare for an American-born player.
But in his three years in the rough and tumble Western Hockey League, Modano came to respect the game in a different way. He came to realize there was an immense jump in the level of play from the games he played at the highest select level around Detroit.
So when Modano was first confronted with his chase for scoring records among players born in the United States, the 37-year-old center flinched a little bit.
Sure, it was nice to be honored and everything, but Joe Sakic had 300 more points and 100 more goals, Steve Yzerman had almost 500 more points. Heck, Team USA contemporary Brett Hull (who was born in Ontario) had 100 more points and 200 more goals.
“If I was born 10 miles to the East,” Modano said of the looming city of Windsor just across the Detroit River, “nobody would be making a big deal out of this.”
And, for a long while, he had a hard time savoring the chase.
But when Modano broke Phil Housley’s record for most points scored by a player born in the USA — potting two goals in a 3-1 win over San Jose Nov. 7 to get to 1,233 points — he said it finally sank in that he had done something special.
“I think the whole process has helped me understand what it means — to me, to USA Hockey, to just hockey in the States and Minnesota and Texas,” Modano said. “You just realize how much has changed over the last 20 years and you’re thankful that maybe you have had the ability to help change some things. I would have never ever thought that this is the path I would have taken, but I’m glad it turned out this way.”
All it took for Modano to realize what he has meant to the hockey world was a brief look around the Stars locker room during training camp in September.
Over in one corner was 23-year-old Chris Conner. The scrappy forward grew up in the same area around Livonia, Mich., as Modano and heard stories of the speedy skating and offensive dominance that Modano put down as a teenager on the area rinks.
“Everyone knew who he was, everyone watched his career, he was a really big deal,” Conner said. “I definitely think, coming from that area, every youth league kid heard the stories about him and dreamed that maybe they could be just like him. He was definitely an inspiration.”
Over in another corner was Matt Niskanen, a 20-year-old defenseman from Virginia, Minn. Even though the North Stars moved when he was 7, he continued to follow them in Dallas because the first hockey player he ever wanted to become was Mike Modano.
“I mean, he was my favorite from the start,” Niskanen said. “He was so much fun to watch, and I think everyone in the neighborhood wanted to be him. The team moved away, but it was still our team.”
Yes, but it also became the team of Dallas, Texas — especially when Modano helped lead the Stars to the top of the NHL standings, including six division titles, two trips to the Stanley Cup Finals and one Stanley Cup championship.
As he worked out in a University of Texas T-shirt (“My mom went there,” he exclaimed), 2007 Stars draft pick Austin Smith said Modano played a part in his hockey ascension, as well. The Dallas native said his favorite player growing up was Jamie Langenbrunner, but that Modano to him is like hockey royalty.
“It was just so neat to look across the room (at practice) and there he was,” said Smith, 18, who is playing for Penticton of the BCHL this season and has committed to Colgate for next season. “I mean, c’mon, he’s Mike Modano.”
Modano has left his legacy scattered across the country at different age levels and for different reasons.
Stars center Jeff Halpern, 31, grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and was a huge fan of the Capitals, listing his childhood hero as Dale Hunter. But, he added, that when he became old enough to be a part of USA Hockey, the player he most connected with was Modano.
“There are so many great players in the program that you hate to single one out, but, to me, Modano is the one guy who really got you up out of your seat and excited about watching those teams,” Halpern said. “I think he made games fun, and he made players think, ‘I want to skate like that,’ or ‘I want to try that move.’
I definitely think he played a big hand in the development of a lot of young players in the United States.”
Chicago rookie Patrick Kane said even growing up in Buffalo that he was a Modano fan.
“I think the World Cup (beating Canada to win it in 1996) and the Olympics (silver medal in 2002), both of those were pretty memorable teams,” Kane said. “You look at those teams with Modano and [John] LeClair and Hull, yeah, they were great teams to watch.”
When told he might have the best chance to beat Modano’s points record (Keith Tkachuk still is on the radar for the goal-scoring mark), Kane, 18, was pretty surprised.
“Obviously, I’m just getting started, so that’s a long, long way down the road,” he said. “It’s hard to even think about, but if I was able to do that, it would be a great honor.”
Hull, who now serves as the special advisor to the Stars hockey operations department, has become one of Modano’s best friends. He served as co-best man (along with Darryl Sydor) in Modano’s summer wedding to singer/actress Willa Ford, and often acts as a sounding board for the Stars’ all-time leading scorer.
Hull said the importance of Modano’s career is reflected in the fact that he was able to eventually get the American-born scoring record, and that he probably should have had it three or four years earlier.
“As strange as it sounds, I don’t think you can really measure the kind of player he is in the points he had,” Hull said. “You can, because those are obviously great numbers, but he was so much more than just points. He committed himself to being a great two-way player in a defensive system that was very limiting offensively. If you put Mike Modano in any other system, he would have had a ton more points. But he sacrificed that because he wanted to win. I can’t say enough about the guy. I think he’s one of the greatest players ever.”
Modano has two years left on his contract and has said on several occasions that he plans to play it out. However, after a slow start this season, he has had moments of second-guessing. Modano scored just five points in his first 14 games of the season while trying to track down the Housley mark. The pressure of the chase started weighing on his mind, and he even was briefly demoted to the fourth line when his game started to unravel and he was a minus player.
“It’s just really frustrating, because I don’t feel I’ve lost anything physically,” Modano said during the slump. “This is all between the ears right now. This is definitely a mental problem.”
At age 37, Modano might have lost a step or seen his hands get just a little harder, but he will argue those points. He said he is playing it by ear on the rest of his career, but if his ability to fight through the early-season slump is any indication, there could be plenty of tread left on his tires.
“He still has all the skills. He skates well, he shoots well,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “But when you play this long, it’s a grind sometime. But he’s found a way to keep grinding away, and you can’t say enough about that guy that way. He’s where he’s at for a reason, because he’s earned that stature.”