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The Best We've Ever Had

Dec. 11, 2006
Dec. 11, 2006

Table of Contents
Dec. 11, 2006

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From the Editor
SI Players: Life On And Off The Field
Sportsman of the Year
  • Is there an athlete with more positive energy than the 24-year-old guard? He pulled the Heat out of a deep playoff hole, helped put the shine back on a tarnished league and lifted his mom out of her own personal hell

Pro Football
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The Best We've Ever Had

No U.S.-born forward can match the career of Dallas center Mike Modano, who is doggedly leading the Stars even after being stripped of his captaincy

Mike Modanoremembers sitting in a conference room at a resort in his native Michigan inthe spring of 1988. Minnesota North Stars executives were firing questions athim: Why should we draft you number 1 overall? What can you do for ourorganization? When he thinks about it now--and he thinks about everything a lotmore now than he did when he was 18 and had nothing on his mind but hockey andfun--it seems as though he was auditioning for the Supreme Court and not theNHL.

"They're askin' and I'm like, "I dunno,'" Modano recalls.

The answers to those questions would reveal themselves in often delightful waysover the next 18 years. Why was the franchise that became the Dallas Stars wiseto use that first pick on Modano? Because he would score goals with his sickspeed and sweet hands and eventually dedicate himself to preventing others fromscoring. What would he do for the organization? Become a front man for theteam, help make Dallas the gold standard for Sun Belt hockey markets and be thefulcrum of the 1999 Stanley Cup champions.

This is an article from the Dec. 11, 2006 issue Original Layout

The center, whoonce thought that playing 400 games and getting fully vested in the NHLPApension plan would represent a lifetime achievement, had played 1,205 gamesthrough Sunday and scored 494 goals, eight behind Joe Mullen's 502, the most bya U.S.-born player. As Modano looks back over the arc of his career, thesignificance of 502 still causes him to scratch his head. He isn't sure how hewill react when he passes Mullen--after all, who knew Modano would have been,as he describes it, a "crying dog" for an hour in the dressing roomafter the Stars won the Cup? While most of him views the milestone "as realmeaningful and special," something in Modano, whose innocence has meltedaway to reveal an edge of realism, still mumbles, "I dunno."

"A small partof me says there are a ton of guys who scored a lot more goals and just becauseI'm American and get 500 or 502, that doesn't mean much in the big scheme ofthe hockey world," says Modano. (Thirty-six NHL players have scored atleast 500 goals; 16 have 600 or more.) "You're in a bit of a group, that'sall. I don't know if that tells you that USA Hockey is that bad or that[historically] the development of [American] players wasn't thatgreat."

The thought isprovocative, as worthy of debate as the notion that Modano is the bestU.S.-born forward in history. As a cornerstone of American hockey's greatestgeneration--you can genuflect to the 1980 Olympic gold medal team, but thehighest quality hockey the country ever produced came during its '96 World Cupvictory--the 36-year-old Modano at least belongs on a short list of two withPat LaFontaine, who averaged .541 goals a game, ninth-best among the NHL's top50 goal scorers, but who was forced to retire in '98 at age 33 as a result ofconcussions. "If I had to pick one," says Stars coach Dave Tippett, aformer NHL forward who was often assigned to check the slippery 5'10",180-pound LaFontaine, "I'd go with Mike. Longevity." Adds an EasternConference G.M., "It's between Modano and Lafontaine, but Modano is biggerand more powerful [he's 6'3", 210 pounds] and he has won a StanleyCup."

"Mo's got themost skill of [any U.S. forward]," says former linemate Brett Hull, a741-goal scorer who played for Team USA but was born and mostly raised inCanada. "It's to his credit that he's been able to do what he's done, giventhat 90 percent of his career has been in a s--- system--all defensive-mindedcoaches. Can you imagine if he had been drafted by Detroit or Pittsburgh? Youcan't guess at the ridiculous numbers he would've put up."

Modano, ofcourse, only burnished his career by metamorphosing into a two-way center,molded by the mentoring of former Stars coach and general manager Bob Gaineyand by the hectoring of Gainey's bench successor, Ken Hitchcock. The roundlypraised career of retired Red Wings great Steve Yzerman bifurcates neatly intoScoring Steve and Two-Way Steve, but Modano's transformation from pretty-boyscorer to offensive and defensive standout was neither as dramatic nor aswidely celebrated. Even after scoring 23 points in 23 games in the 1999postseason while playing the last four matches with a broken leftwrist--"He could barely shoot or stickhandle but played through it,"former teammate Mike Keane says--and another 23 in 23 in 2000 when Dallasreturned to the finals, he still was seen as not having the requisite playoffgrit. "He was on an IV in a couple of those games [in 1999]," says DaveReid, another former teammate. "Maybe people around the league thought Mikewas soft, but he wasn't. He was the first guy behind our net to get the puckout, and he was so fast he'd [get in position to] take the first pass up ice.He didn't initiate contact so some people said he didn't pay the price, but hewas going through the neutral zone at Mach 1."

There must be arapidly aging portrait in the attic of his downtown Dallas home because Modanolooks the same as he did a decade ago. He still swoops over the ice at warpspeed and backs off defensemen with his skating as effectively as anyone sinceBuffalo's Gilbert Perreault in the 1970s. He still has the quick hands thatallowed him to set up the king of the one-timer, Hull, the only elite scorer toride shotgun for Modano. He still has the open-mouth half-smile and themagnetic good looks--and last week he got engaged to pop singer and Dancingwith the Stars competitor Willa Ford. ("Every New Year's Eve party,"Reid says, "all the wives would be lined up to get the first kiss of theyear from Mike.") He even has most of the money, all but $5 million that helost through bad investment advice.

"If someonedoesn't know me," Modano said last month, "they might think I'm bitterat the world. Arrogant or self-centered or whatever. They mistake that withjust being a quiet guy generally."

All thingsconsidered, the best American-born forward--he's SI's pick--thinks life issplendid. Really. He pretty much has it all. Except a single letter. Which iswhy that trademark open-mouth smile is not a little broader.

Twelve hoursafter sprinting 120 feet down the left flank and feathering a goalmouth passthrough two Colorado defensemen to Eric Lindros for the tying goal in a 5--4Dallas win--the Nov. 20 assist left Modano 34 points behind defenseman PhilHousley's U.S. standard of 1,232--he is at a back booth at a favorite pancakehouse in a Dallas shopping complex. Modano has prepractice breakfast here withStars captain Brenden Morrow two or three times a week. They remain fastfriends, despite the fact that the captaincy was stripped from Modano and givento Morrow in September. "We talked about it a little [when ithappened]," Morrow says, "but it's something I'm not really comfortablebringing up."

This is anineluctable hockey truth: As in varsity sports, the letter matters.

Modano had beenthe captain for two seasons but during training camp he earned a battlefielddemotion, to alternate captain. You might as well have borrowed Hester Prynne'sA and stuck it on his jersey. "Unless a guy willingly gives up the C,"says Kirk Muller, a Montreal assistant coach and former teammate of Modano's,"these things never turn out well."

General managerDoug Armstrong, in conjunction with Tippett, decided that "Brenden has tohave a bigger voice moving forward and ... in a transient league, it'simportant to go to a younger player who's going to be here a long time."Morrow, a dependable but hardly voluble 27-year-old winger, signed a six-year,$24.6 million extension last September that kicks in next season. Modano alsohas a long-term deal. He is in the second season of a five-year, $17.25 millioncontract he signed after the lockout, taking a hometown discount (and ano-trade clause) over richer offers from Boston and Chicago, a commitment thattheoretically should have solidified his standing as a team leader. In Detroit,Yzerman maintained a vise grip in the dressing room after others had eclipsedhim on the ice. In Dallas, Modano remains the best player. Rather than groomingMorrow by aping the Sabres, who rotate the C between Daniel Brière and ChrisDrury, the Stars made a clean break, even though, as Hull notes, "Mo's asensitive guy. He takes things to heart."

Publicly Modanohas been circumspect about the arrangement--"We never think about it in the[dressing] room because Mike's made it so comfortable for us," says goalieMarty Turco--but if the poached eggs and buttermilk stack go down easy, the Cchange sticks in his craw. He thinks he has been "scapegoated" forDallas's first-round losses in their past two playoffs, collapses morelogically attributable to Turco's .859 save percentage than a leadership void."Who's to say what would have happened if we'd won a round," Modanosays. "Would I still be captain? ... I think this was Doug's doing. It wasabout making sure everyone knows who the authority figure is. Making thatchange kind of puts a thought in everybody's mind that no job issecure."

Modano embracedthe responsibilities of leadership, and spoke his mind, last February at theTurin Olympics. After being benched in the third period of a 4--3 loss toFinland that eliminated the disappointing (1-4-1) Americans, the three-timeOlympian went off in the media mixed zone, assailing coach Peter Laviolette fora timeout he had taken midway through the first period and ripping USA Hockeyfor the shoddy arrangements--at least compared with Hockey Canada's--it hadmade for players' families. The irony: Modano didn't even have family at thetournament. "Every day on the [team] bus I was hearing the same crap, howfamilies had to wait out by a Shell station [near the arena] after games, sofinally I say something and everybody's all over me for bitching andmoaning," Modano says. "I guess I kind of turned myself into ascapegoat by my timing, which wasn't the best."

Says Avalanchedefenseman and fellow Olympian John-Michael Liles, "He wasn't afraid tostand up for the team. That's why he's a good leader."

Modano startedfast this season, scoring eight goals in the first 12 games before getting justone in his next 14. Even during that minislump, however, he contributedregularly. In a 5--4 loss at Carolina on Nov. 18, Modano won 15 of his 18face-offs, including 10 of 11 against Rod Brind'Amour, the NHL's best face-offman. "When I had Mike," says Hitchcock, now the Columbus coach, "hedidn't even have to have a point to be the best player on the ice mostnights."

Modano hopes toslip into his hockey dotage as gracefully as he skates, without any more publicfusses. He concedes that since his financial setback he has been more"jaded about the trust thing ... my guard is constantly up now with peoplein general," but his allegiance to the only organization he has ever playedfor, and to a city that he says he will probably live in all his life, isunwavering. "Whatever I can do to help us win another Cup," Modanosays, "I will." There is no C, but the A is for more than effort.

PLUGGING IN

Read regular NHLcolumns by John Ondrasik, frontman for platinum-selling band Five for Fightingat SI.com/nhl.

American Beauties

In addition to Mike Modano at forward, here are SI'sselections for an alltime first-team of U.S.-born stars

G FRANK BRIMSEK, 1938--50. Boston, Chicago. Brimsek,dubbed Mr. Zero for his 10 shutouts in his Calder Trophy--winning rookie seasonof '38--39, won two Stanley Cups and two Vezina Trophies; a first- orsecond-team All-Star eight times.

D CHRIS CHELIOS, 1984--present. Montreal, Chicago,Detroit. Three Norris Trophies, two Cups, 11 All-Star Games. In his prime heexcelled in every situation and no one was better in the last minute of a game.At 44, he's still effective in Detroit.

D BRIAN LEETCH, 1988--2006. Rangers, Toronto, Boston.His superb instincts, wondrous passing and smooth skating helped him score1,028 points. Leetch won two Norris Trophies and won the Conn Smythe in '94 forthe Cup-champion Rangers.

F PAT LAFONTAINE, 1983--98. Islanders, Buffalo,Rangers. Quick and slick, he was among an elite group in the NHL's Golden Ageof centers. In the seven seasons in which he played at least 70 games, thegentlemanly LaFontaine averaged 45 goals.

F JOE MULLEN, 1981--97. St. Louis, Calgary,Pittsburgh, Boston. Mullen had six 40-goal seasons and his coaches praise himfor his all-around play. On the 1989 Cup-winning Flames, this New York Citynative was a cog in a lethal power play.

Coach BOB JOHNSON, 1982--91. Calgary, Pittsburgh. Thelate Badger Bob (trademark phrase: "It's a great day for hockey")turned the Flames into worthy and bitter rivals of the fabulous Oilers in the1980s. He won a Cup with Pittsburgh in '91.

PHOTOPhotograph by Darren CarrollCLOSINGIN
Modano is just nine goals and 31 points away from setting alltime career marksfor an American.
PHOTOAPPHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOPHOTOV.J. LOVERO PHOTOANTHONY NESTEPHOTOAL TIELEMANSPHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIRPHOTOROB RICH/GETTY IMAGESDANCINGWITH A STAR Modano has dated Ford--his new fiancée--for severalyears.