Dallas Stars center Mike Modano was slumped on a sofa in a hotel
lobby last week, playing what has become the team's favorite
parlor game: If You Were a Colorado Avalanche Player, Which One
Would You Be? It may be a stretch, but veteran Stars goalie Andy
Moog is Colorado's All-World Patrick Roy, Sergei Zubov is
rushing defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, and Modano and Joe
Nieuwendyk are prime-time centers Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg.
Modano happily played along, figuring out which Stars pair off
with the players on the Stanley Cup champions, not an outlandish
conceit if you check the standings. "Our units of five on the
ice," Modano says, "are a lot more solid than theirs."
"We beat Colorado pretty good twice so far this season," says
Dallas defenseman Craig Ludwig. "So maybe the question should
be, How do they match up with us? Boy, they're going to love
Gentlemen, start your bulletin-board quote war. The gauntlet has
been laid down, and Colorado--which was 46-21-9 through Sunday
and led the 45-23-6 Stars by five points in the race for home
ice advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs--is
welcome to accept the challenge when it visits Dallas on April
11 for the penultimate game of the regular season. The
perennially dreary Stars, a team that was eliminated from
playoff contention with eight games remaining last spring and
that began 1996-97 shooting for a .500 season, clearly are a
notch below the Avalanche in overall talent, but except for a
middling power play, which has languished at 15% efficiency,
Dallas exhibits all the attributes of a Stanley Cup contender.
The Stars have won regularly on the road; at week's end their
.635 winning percentage away from home was second-best in the
NHL. They have won with defense; they had allowed fewer goals
than any other team except the New Jersey Devils. They have won
with consistency; this is the first club in the 30-year history
of the franchise to have a winning record in every month of the
season. And they have won because a newly focused Modano can
make the critical play that will turn a game in the Stars' favor.
Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock--who took over the team in January
1996 after general manager Bob Gainey gave up the coaching
reins--invited Modano to a local coffee shop last May and gave
it to him black, no sugar: Hitchcock wanted Modano, the team's
leading scorer four out of the past five seasons, to center a
high-powered checking line. "I'd watched him play enough,"
Hitchcock says, "and it was obvious he was our best offensive
player. But he could be a great defensive forward too. Not only
could he check, he could also check with speed. I was thinking,
Who can I compare Mo with? Finally I came up with [the
Pittsburgh Penguins'] Ron Francis, a No. 2 center who is a
strong defensive player. I told Mo that I wanted to play him
with wings Jere Lehtinen and Greg Adams and that he was going to
be our go-to guy on defense."
In the past Modano had been known as a floater, spending much of
his ice time looking for scoring opportunities. He had been
called a perimeter player. He had also been a Cosmo Boy--Modano
did photo shoots for Cosmopolitan and Mademoiselle in December
1995 to help publicize the league--a glossy player on a team
with a neutral-zone trapping, Popular Mechanics-style.
When Gainey stomped into the locker room after the final game
last year and suggested that the Stars' players look in the
mirror, Modano saw an offensive-minded dandy who could check in
his own zone but who was a prisoner of others' expectations. He
was a 6'3" 200-pounder with soft hands and more jump than a
double espresso, and while the Stars never were able to flank
him with high-scoring wingers, many thought there was no reason
why he couldn't put up bigger numbers.
"The two numbers I heard for seven years in a row were 50 and
100, 50 and 100," says the 26-year-old Modano, who was the first
overall pick in the 1988 draft. "For this team to be successful,
I was going to have to get 50 goals and 100 points." The trouble
was no one believed it more fervently than Modano, who bagged
his 50 goals in 1993-94 but fell seven points short of the
century mark that season. He also finished with a -8 in the
plus-minus ratings, an embarrassment considering his high point
total. Now Hitchcock was asking him to play another role.
"I knew going into the game that when [the Detroit Red Wings']
Sergei Fedorov or [the St. Louis Blues'] Brett Hull or [the
Vancouver Canucks'] Pavel Bure or other players like that were
going out on the ice, my line was going out there too," Modano
says of this season's change in responsibilities. "It was a
little frightening at first because the weight of the game was
on my shoulders. If we shut those guys down, we have a great
opportunity to win because of our depth."
At week's end Modano had 32 goals and 45 assists, slightly
better than a point-per-game pace, which is a little higher than
his career average. But after bumping heads with the NHL's best
centers every night, Modano, who was -34 in his career before
this season, had a +40 rating, second-best in the league. Some
credit belongs to Lehtinen, a smart, second-year right wing
whose feel for his new center's style has let Modano be the
front man in Dallas's aggressive 1-2-2 forechecking system. But
it is Modano who has reinvented himself. Through Sunday he was
tied for the NHL lead with five shorthanded goals and nine
game-winning goals; he also had assisted on 12 others, giving
him a hand in 21 of the team's 45 game-winners. Modano's
scoring, a by-product of his game instead of its focus, still
had him ranked in the league's top 20, but Moog was touting him
for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward.
However, during the Stars' recent nine-game unbeaten
streak--Modano had 16 points in those games--he also had put
himself in contention for the MVP award.
"What I like about Mo is that this year he's actually gotten
ticked off," Ludwig says. "He's gone back at guys [opponents],
given them a little rap. Not out of frustration--he's never been
a selfish player--but because he wants to win. You need a little
bit of anger to play this game."
Dallas players have indeed been angry, often at Hitchcock. "We
were in first place [in the Central Division]," Modano says of
the team's standing last month, "but we were probably the most
miserable players in the league."
Gainey, an even-tempered man who is among the most respected in
hockey and who had been the coach for 5 1/2 years, stepped down
because he realized he wasn't getting through to his players. He
was like a father figure, Ludwig says, and Hitchcock "is like
your stepfather. Sometimes you want to say, 'To hell with you,
you're not my real dad,' but you know that he has the upper
hand." While Gainey was sparing with words, Hitchcock fills a
rink with them. He is the coach-as-teacher, an approach honed as
a junior coach in western Canada from 1984 to '90. Hitchcock
repeats himself constantly. His buzzword is hard. Skate hard. Go
The teaching, or perhaps the hectoring, came to a head on March
10 in Toronto when the Stars, who this season hadn't dropped a
game when they were ahead after two periods, lost a 3-2
third-period lead to the lowly Maple Leafs in the final minute
of the game and settled for a tie. Afterward Hitchcock singled
out a few players for a lack of effort, but some of the other
Stars spoke up in their teammates' defense. "The players felt
the only thing they were hearing was what they were doing
wrong," Hitchcock says. "They wanted me to tone it down. That if
I was mad at one or two individuals, it shouldn't affect the
whole group. The players also wanted to leave the locker room
knowing why the coaches get on them. The best part is that some
people who never said anything in the room before spoke up. Mo
was one of them."
Did the meeting work?
"Have we lost since?" asks Hitchcock.
They haven't lost a game or their playfulness, which is vital on
a team with 14 veterans age 30 or older. The Stars give as
impressively as they get. When the players spied Hitchcock
leaving Gainey's office just before the scheduled start of a
recent practice, they insured that the coach would be late by
snipping the laces in his skates and gloves. The players then
fined him $100 for his tardiness. At another practice the Stars
came out en masse with chin straps dangling, open defiance of a
rule Hitchcock has had for his teams since midget hockey.
"Usually I'm the only one," Modano says. "I go out there like
that just to get him to tell me to buckle it." Hitchcock then
ordered the players to remove their helmets, saying if they
didn't want to buckle up, they shouldn't be wearing head gear at
all. Eventually the helmets went back on and straps were
snapped--the Stars aren't all giggles.
Their goaltending situation going into the postseason, for
instance, is no laughing matter. While Arturs Irbe stepped in
impressively with a 2.00 goals-against average in the last eight
games through Sunday, the playoff-hardened Moog, who has more
career regular-season wins and a better winning percentage than
Colorado's Roy, will enter the postseason, which begins April
16, with a herniated disk. Moog says his left leg is numb,
although being hunched over in the goal crease is the most
comfortable position he can find. "The back could go at any
time," he says.
So, presumably, could local apathy toward the Stars, who wasted
much of the goodwill generated by their 1993 move from Minnesota
with a poor showing the past two seasons. The citizens of Dallas
have been circumspect about rekindling the love affair, filling
16,924-seat Reunion Arena just eight times this season. The
Stars were dogged early on by the surprising success of the
Texas Rangers, who reached the postseason for the first time in
franchise history, and by the continuing saga of The People vs.
the Dallas Cowboys. So far none of the Stars has been able to
get arrested, but a good playoff run could revive interest in
If their 4-1 season-opening home victory over Colorado and their
6-2 thumping of the Avalanche on Feb. 27 in Denver are
harbingers, this should be at least a three-round spring for the
Stars. "Is Colorado vulnerable?" Gainey asks, cracking a smile.
"Yes--to injuries, to tornadoes and to hurricanes."
You play games to amuse yourself, and you play games that define
your status. We'll soon see if the Stars can play both kinds