What Roger Staubach meant to the Dallas Cowboys and Nolan Ryan was to the Texas Rangers, Mike Modano will always be to ice hockey in Texas.
Since arriving in Dallas in 1993, Modano has been the face of a franchise that has helped usher in a new era of growth all across the southwest. With his boyish good looks and graceful skating style, the kid from Livonia, Mich., quickly became as recognizable a star as any Cowboy, Maverick or Longhorn and an idol for future generations of young hockey players.
As much as Modano helped change the landscape of Texas sports, the Lone Star State helped transform the once rambunctious kid into the all-time leading American scorer and a true ambassador for the game.
“I think what has meant the most [is] seeing what’s happened here over the last 20 years with the growth of hockey and the impact that we had as a team in selling the game to an area where we all felt honestly that it wouldn’t work,” said Modano, who played all but one of his 21 NHL seasons with the Stars organization.
So it was only fitting that Modano’s entrance into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame would pass through Dallas, the site of this year’s induction ceremony that also featured Ed Olczyk and Lou Lamoriello.
Before a packed house of family, friends and dedicated fans, Modano offered a heartfelt thank you to a community that embraced him almost 20 years ago and has never let him go.
“It’s just a great honor,” the 42-year-old said. “Getting the call was something that I was very surprised about and then to hear [the ceremony would be held] in Dallas was just something that I couldn’t believe. Of all the cities that they could’ve chosen, they chose Dallas. That meant a lot.”
More than his 1,374 career points, the most of any American player in NHL history, his Stanley Cup ring (1999) and Olympic silver medal (2002), Modano’s biggest hockey accomplishment may have been the role he played in the growth of hockey in the Lone Star State.
When the Stars arrived, there were scattered pockets of youth hockey organizations in a state known for its rabid passion for all things football. But slowly, as the Stars grew its fan base, more kids took to the ice, thanks in large part to expansion plans of the organization’s Dr Pepper StarCenters.
“I’m not so sure it’s the individual things that you see but rather how hockey took off in the city of Dallas and the state of Texas and other states throughout the south because of his presence and Dallas Stars presence,” said former teammate and friend Brett Hull.
“The way he played the game and the way he carried himself made him a natural role model for a lot of kids. I’m not sure of the exact numbers, but I think it went from two arenas when Mike Modano came here to more than 35 today, and a handful of kids playing to more than 5,000 kids playing hockey in the Dallas area. And it’s strictly because of Mike Modano and what he did in Dallas.”
It didn’t start out that way. After being selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the Minnesota North Stars in 1988, Modano quickly grew to love the Twin Cities and the state’s passion for the game. But saddled by weak finances and a shrinking attendance, Stars owner Norman Green felt he had no choice but to relocate the franchise to warmer climes. At the time Modano thought the move was a step in the wrong direction.
“It was tough to leave Minnesota. It’s like taking football out of Texas. It didn’t seem right at the time,” he said.
But as he has done throughout his Hall of Fame career, Modano seized the moment and turned the seemingly bad situation into a golden opportunity, both for himself and the Texas hockey community.
“For me it was a moment to help sell the game, a lot like Wayne [Gretzky] did in LA,” Modano said. “To see Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach and Nolan Ryan and the impact they had on their sports, I thought this was an opportunity to do the same for hockey.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Where once ice was only something to cool down a glass of tea, rinks began popping up all over the state, as more kids wanted to be just like Mike.
“I was in Los Angeles when Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Kings and I saw first hand the impact that he had in terms of the awareness of the sport, the explosion in the number of players and rinks,” said Reggie Hall, president of the Texas Amateur Hockey Association.
“When I came here in ’95, Mike was already having that same type of impact. He really demonstrated what was possible on the ice and off the ice because he was a great ambassador for the sport. There are an awful lot of kids who play here who wanted to mirror him and wear that number 9 and emulate what he did on the ice.”
Success was not only measured in the number of kids playing hockey in Texas, but also by those playing at a highest levels. According to the American Hockey Coaches Association, 51 homegrown Texas players (men and women) were playing in Div. I collegiate programs last year, with many more playing Junior hockey around the country.
In addition, Texas teams have long been formidable opponents at USA Hockey National Championships, including the Dallas Ice Jets, who won the Tier I 12 & Under title in 2006 and the Alliance Bulldogs girls’ program, which won the 19 & Under title last year.
And now that he’s retired, Modano is looking at the next phase of his life. He has already bought into the ownership of the Allen Americans of the Central Hockey League, and has not ruled out a front office position with the Stars. No matter what direction he takes, there is no doubt that the man they call Mo will continue to have an impact on the game.
In his acceptance speech on Tuesday night, Modano spoke of how hockey was the perfect vehicle for a troubled kid to find his place in the world. And as much as hockey may have changed the man, the man also changed the game.