Does she have a media credential? Oh yes, there it is, nestled in
her cleavage, which can fairly be described as spectacular. She's
working with a TV crew, though she's neither holding a camera nor
conducting interviews. She stands about 6'2" in her platform
shoes, and she's causing a minor stir in the dressing room of the
Dallas Stars, who have just won a 5-4 shootout in Game 4 of their
Western Conference semifinal series against the San Jose Sharks.
Mike Modano emerges from the shower with a towel around his waist
and asks, "Who's the brunette on stilts?"
The inquiry, posed with more of a bemused smile than a leer, is a
reminder that the 29-year-old Modano has recently reverted to
unfettered bachelorhood. There are Stars--Modano isn't among
them--who suspect that his independent status has resulted in a
surge in his play. Starting in late January, around the time
Modano, a center, split with his fiancee, Kerri Nelson, he went
on the best streak of his 11-year NHL career, scoring 46 points
(22 goals, 24 assists) in his final 35 regular-season games.
The bad news for teams intent on dethroning the defending Stanley
Cup champions is that Modano has been even more dominant in the
playoffs. He scored a goal in each of the first four games
against the Sharks and provided the most memorable moment of the
series without even putting the puck in the net. On a rush in
Game 2 he sailed down the left side, passed the puck through the
legs of defenseman Bryan Marchment to himself and then fired a
shot into the pads of goalie Steve Shields. "What he's able to do
with the puck at a high speed might be the most amazing part of
Mike's game," says Stars captain Derian Hatcher. "I've played
with him for nine years, and this is the best he's been."
Ever the gentleman, Modano won't talk these days about his
breakup with Nelson and says he regrets having discussed it with
reporters last month. He stridently refutes the notion that
breaking off his engagement has had anything to do with breaking
out of his slump. His resurgence, Modano insists, was born of a
confluence of events, none involving his love life. When Hatcher
went down on Dec. 17 with a lacerated right calf muscle that
would sideline him for two months, Modano assumed the captaincy,
which compelled him to ratchet up his play. After a year in which
he had taken his business dealings and shaken them like a
martini--firing and replacing his agent, his marketing people, his
money manager--he was, at last, happy with that sphere of his
life. "I was finally able to concentrate on hockey and let
everything else take care of itself," he says. "Everything
started coming together."
When had it commenced coming apart? On June 19, 1999, the night
Dallas won its first Cup. Do you think Modano celebrated too much
over the ensuing months? As Stars winger Brett Hull puts it,
"F------ kid had the f------ time of his f------ life."
Before you know it, says Modano, "it's August, and we're loading
the bus to go to Vail for training camp." A letdown was
inevitable, but the disturbing events of Oct. 2 did more than
prolong Modano's Cup hangover--they left him questioning his
desire to play. While chasing the puck behind the net against the
Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Modano was shoved face-first into the
boards by defenseman Ruslan Salei. "I let up for a second," says
Modano, "and that's when he hit me. I hit the boards and went
down like a wet noodle."
No one who witnessed the sickening collision would have been
surprised if it had ended Modano's career. Paramedics stabilized
his neck and took him on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance.
Doctors said Modano was centimeters from suffering a spinal cord
injury. Instead he escaped with sprained neck ligaments, a mild
concussion and a broken nose. (Salei was suspended for 10 games.)
Modano said that the close call had left him contemplating
retirement. He sat out just three games, but he was missing
something upon his return. "He was pissed off at the game," says
Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock. "He was on a real negative trip for a
It was during this bleak time that Modano rethought his decision
to marry Nelson, whom he'd been dating since junior hockey. In
the end, Modano told The Dallas Morning News, marriage was
"something I really wasn't ready for. It just wasn't my time....
It's been very hard for her and very disappointing."
Having scrapped the wedding plans, Modano sold the dream house he
and Nelson were building and planned to live in. To give Nelson
space, he moved out of the house they shared and into a hotel.
Lest readers squander sympathy on Modano, it wasn't as if he was
flopping in a room with a fire escape and neon signs outside his
window. He stayed at the five-star Mansion at Turtle Creek.
There's no denying that Modano and the Stars have hit their
strides at the right time. After a shaky start, Dallas finished
with the second-best record in the West. Leading the charge was
Modano, who retained his offensive potency while embracing
Hitchcock's defense-first system. "He's one of the best two-way
players in the world," says Hitchcock. "He's a threat from
anywhere on the ice."
This season Modano frequently centered Brenden Morrow, a rookie
who scored 14 goals, many of them gifts from number 9. "Mike
makes plays where he'll pull the goaltender and both defensemen
toward him," says Morrow. "All I have to do is stand in front of
a wide-open net with my stick on the ice."
The Modano assist Morrow best remembers happened late in a
regular-season game in which the Stars led. The Los Angeles
Kings had pulled their goaltender and were pressing the attack
in the Dallas zone. "Mike ended up with the puck, and Brett
[Hull] broke out behind the blue line," recalls Morrow. Rather
than chip the puck off the boards or try to pass to Hull through
two defensemen, Modano lofted a backhander over the heads of the
blueliners. Hull gloved the puck, put it on the ice and skated
in for the empty-netter. "It was so creative," says Morrow.
"Sometimes it's like Mike's playing a different game."
Hull came to the Stars in July 1998 after 10-plus seasons with
the St. Louis Blues. As one who has carried the weight of a
city's expectations, Hull feels a kinship with Modano. He has a
theory on Modano's midseason U-turn, "and it's got nothing to do
with his engagement, because you know what? That's none of my
"We won the Cup and had a good time. It was hard to get into the
season. We struggled, and we struggled, and all of a sudden Mike
just realized, Hey, we better get her going here so we can have
fun again in the playoffs."
Modano was in high spirits after last Friday's win. Before
leaving for Game 5 on Sunday, which the Stars won 4-1 to close
out the series, he checked out of the Mansion. On Monday he was
to move into his new house in the Highland Park area of Dallas.
The move may bode ill for the Colorado Avalanche, whom the Stars
will face in the conference finals, starting this week. As we
have seen this season, Modano responds well to a change of