DALLAS - If Mike Modano plays a 21st season in the NHL, it won't be with the Dallas Stars.
The face of the franchise that proved hockey could thrive in Texas will not be offered a contract by the Stars when free agency opens Thursday. That difficult decision had to be made by Modano's teammate-turned-boss, Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk.
Now the NHL's highest-scoring U.S.-born player must decide whether to put on something other than a Stars sweater for the first time.
"I'm leaning toward playing," Modano told The Associated Press after the Stars made their announcement Tuesday. "It certainly depends where and what teams are interested."
Nieuwendyk and Modano won a Stanley Cup together 11 years ago—the only title in franchise history—but the Stars have missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since moving from Minnesota in 1993. Nieuwendyk said the team needs to make room for younger players in trying to rebuild, and has too many players who need ice time at centre.
"We have to try to find the next Mike Modano," Nieuwendyk said Tuesday. "We're never going to find the same Mike Modano, but we have some good young players that are going to push it to the next level."
The 40-year-old Michigan native, the first pick in the 1988 draft when the franchise was still in Minnesota, said the Stars indicated as far back as last season that they didn't plan on bringing him back.
"I'm disappointed and upset about it," Modano said. "I always wanted to believe there was a chance of something happening here."
Modano said winning was a priority and that he was most interested in Western Conference teams because he was familiar with them. He said he should know early in free agency whether his career will continue.
"If I don't hear anything for a little while, then it's probably not going to happen anywhere," he said.
Modano was in his prime when the Stars were among the NHL's elite a decade ago, including a stretch of 34 home playoff games at rowdy Reunion Arena over three seasons from 1998-2000. He says he wants another taste of that before he moves on.
"Those tend to be the best parts of your career. Those are the best times and the funnest," Modano said. "That would really be ideal if that were to happen where you could say it ended on a good positive rather than missing the playoffs for three years in a row."
Nieuwendyk said Modano has been "terrific" as the team tried to decide whether to bring him back. He said their friendship is the same, punctuated by a 30-minute phone conversation Monday night even after Modano knew he wouldn't be back as a player.
"He said to me, 'Joe, I'm not mad at you. Our relationship's not going to change,'" Nieuwendyk said. "I think at the end of the day they realize that it's difficult for me, too."
Nieuwendyk said he made the decision before free agency opened to give Modano the chance to talk to teams. The Stars have made it clear they want Modano in their front office, but that scenario is complicated by the team being up for sale.
"I'll be the first guy to knock on the new owner's door and pump the tires for Mike Modano, how important he is to our franchise," Nieuwendyk said. "If he decides to go play for another team, I'll support him on that, too. I think everybody agrees that when he is done, he's always going to be a Dallas Star and the door's always going to be open for him."
Modano has 557 goals and 1,359 points in 1,459 games over 20 full seasons. He helped the Minnesota North Stars on a surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1991 before winning the title in 1999 in Dallas and returning to the finals a year later.
When the Stars were at their best, Modano was the most popular player on a team full of fan favourites. The success fuelled a 238-game sellout streak and a youth hockey boom that led to the Stars building ice rinks all over the heart of football country.
"The moment he stepped foot here in Dallas in 1993, for him to come into a non-hockey environment and steal the thunder of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith and become the icon thathe has become is quite special," Nieuwendyk said. "And I lived seven years of that. You don't replace that."
Now the question is whether Modano will join Smith as a franchise lifer who finished his career somewhere else (Smith was an Arizona Cardinal for two years).
Last spring's dramatic sendoffs in Dallas and Minnesota seemed to be the perfect ending for Modano, but Nieuwendyk knows better than most how difficult it is to stop playing. He faced the same decision four years ago, although without the emotional strings of an entire career with one franchise attached.
"It's just his life and it's hard to think beyond it," said Nieuwendyk, who retired during the season because of back problems a few months after turning 40. "At some point he will. And we all will have to look at Mike Modano not being on the ice."