Throughout his career, Mike Modano was a star in more ways than one. He was drafted into the National Hockey League (NHL) by the Minnesota North Stars back in 1988, the first overall pick in that draft. When the North Stars relocated, Modano became a star player of the Dallas Stars, a team that saw the forward played over 1000 NHL games in their uniform. When the USA hockey had any success, you can bet that Modano was one of the stars mentioned in the process. On Saturday night, Dallas ensured that Mike Modano would remain a star, even in retirement, as they retired his jersey number before a game against the Minnesota Wild.
Modano came into the league with huge expectations and a humble personality. Despite going No. 1 in the 1988 NHL draft, after scoring 236 points in 106 minor league games, Modano was not acting like your typical star. Though the hype surrounding him attempted to put him in the spotlight, he did his best to shy away. Former North Stars forward, Neal Broten, remembers Modano’s first appearance in the North Stars lockerroom.
“Mike was quiet, reserved.” said Broten “He wasn’t bragging about himself, his head wasn’t huge. He had a little shyness to him.”
Despite being quiet in the lockerroom, Modano was not quiet on the scoresheet. He produced 75 points in the 80 games played his rookie season, an impressive number for any player, let alone a rookie. Modano was the talk of the league, but could not impress his own coach. Former North Stars coach, Bob Gainey, had seen it all before. Gainey was part of five different Stanley Cup-winning teams, to go along with the multiple individual awards won when he was a player. Modano’s skill with the puck and skating ability were far less important to the coach than improving the forward’s defensive tendencies.
“He had a lot going for him,” Gainey said “but he still had a lot to learn.”
His coach kept him humble by always pointing out where Modano could improve on the ice. Off the ice, there was a change coming that Gainey could not control, one that would again throw Modano into the spotlight and eventually lead to him becoming the face of the franchise. The North Stars were moving to Dallas, and Modano would be the marketing tool used to sell hockey to Texas. Mike Modano would be a star in Dallas and he would remain one even past his retirement.
In 1993, Texas was all about their professional sports teams. The Dallas Cowboys were coming off their first Superbowl win, led there by star players Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. The Texas Rangers had Nolan Ryan winding up his Hall of Fame career. To compete with the media attention surrounding those teams, the Dallas Stars needed a face to promote. The young, photogenic face of Mike Modano seemed like the perfect selling point. Former captain of the Dallas Stars, Brenden Morrow, summed it up perfectly.
“Getting the state of Texas on board with hockey, you needed the good-looking face and the character, the playboy bachelor, to keep people interested,” said Morrow. “[Mike Modano] was perfect for that market.”
Modano not only sold hockey to Texas, but it was his campaign in the state that helped spread the game to the entirety of the Southern United States. His efforts, along with the efforts of other star players like Shane Doan, Marty St. Louis and Ron Francis, were key factors in growing youth hockey programs in nontraditional markets like Texas, Phoenix, Tampa Bay and North Carolina.
In 1991, before Modano and the Dallas Stars came to the state, there were 868 registered hockey players for USA hockey hailing from the state of Texas. In 2011, twenty years later, that number reached almost 11,000 registered hockey players, ranging from adults to kids as young as four. What is equally as exciting for the sport is that the talent coming from these youth programs is starting to rival those coming from Canadian ones. In this past NHL draft, Seth Jones was considered the best defenseman in the draft and one of the best defensive prospects in years. Jones was born in Arlington, Texas and developed through the Dallas Stars’ AAA program. He has already made an immediate impact on the team that drafted him, another Southern success story, the Nashville Predators.
Though Modano did not end his career with the Dallas Stars, signing a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings before his retirement, he will always be known as the face of the Dallas Stars. He spent 20 years with the franchise, breaking records on the ice and growing the game off of it. On Saturday night, the Dallas Stars honored Mike Modano by retiring his number, ensuring that even in retirement, Modano would remain a Star.
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Commentary by Jonathan Gardner
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