Tomorrow night in downtown LA the Kings will take on a familiar opponent, their division rivals from Dallas. However, the guys making up this year's Stars team have quite a difference about them. Gone are most of the high priced free agents and players that helped the team win the Stanley Cup back in 1999. It's a more youthful group, led by former Kings coach Marc Crawford.
Yet, one key link to the past remains.
He isn't just any old link though. Mike Modano is arguably the greatest American born hockey player of all time. He certainly has the numbers to prove it - with more goals and points than anybody else. He's worn the Team USA jersey in 11 different international tournaments and will probably do so again come February for the Olympics in Vancouver.
This is it though. Mike Modano's career is winding to a close. His story is what all young hockey players dream of - to be drafted number one overall, captain your team, win a Stanley Cup and play for the same team your whole career.
There isn't much left to squeeze out of his 20 years in the game. He's pretty much done it all...and even though it probably doesn't rank high up on his personal list of accomplishments, he was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview...
Back at the draft in '88 you were only the second American player ever to be taken first overall. Being only 18 years old, did it mean anything to you at the time?
Yeah. I knew the guy before me, Brian Lawton. I knew him and the history of the draft - how rare it was for an American. Going into it I was hoping to be the second guy to accomplish that. In the small scale of things its something I wanted to have on the resume.
You scored your first goal off a former Kings goalie, Glenn Healy, when he was with the Islanders. As players get older they often comment they wish they would have saved more memorabilia from when they were younger. Did you save that puck?
I think I have that puck and the stick back at my parents house in Detroit. I don't really remember collecting and keeping the first few milestones. But, lately I've been saving things - like goal #500, 1000 points, breaking Housley's record, 700 assists. Things like that.
About 15 years ago the team made the move to Dallas. Looking back on it now do you maybe have different thoughts about it than you did at the time?
Well, were all kinda surprised and shocked to see or even to hear there were some rumors of us moving from Minnesota. We figured there's no better place in North America for hockey. It's looked upon very similar to the way it is in Canada; with the way the youth hockey is, the high school programs and college hockey. We figured if hockey couldn't make it there, who's to say its going to work in Texas of all places. Then, when it went through, our owner at the time Norm Green kept us in the loop on what was happening. When it was finally announced at the end of the year, he came out and said this was going to be our last year...then, the following season we were gone. We were pretty devastated that it happened.
Looking back now...well, we never in a million years thought it would turn out to be the way it has been. The way the fan base has been here in Dallas and the way Texas has taken to hockey. We have a lot of minor hockey, junior hockey, high school hockey programs throughout the state of Texas. So, the growth has been unbelievable; something we never thought would happen. We thought we'd be low on the totem pole compared to the Mavericks and the Cowboys. But, we had some good years and actually attracted some people away from those sports and they've became really good hockey fans.
The first season in Dallas you had a great year. You had 50 goals. Did you put any extra pressure on yourself to have a great season that first year in Texas?
I just kinda looked at it as a fresh start. Things were going OK, personally for me in Minnesota. Having a start in Dallas, we figured here's an opportunity to get a hold of this different demographic and try to create a fan base by really entertaining them. And things just happened from the start. It was just one of those years - from start to finish. We had a little luck along the way, but we had some great talented guys on that team. So, I was fortunate to have players around me that helped me get to that level.
In 2005 it was reported that you almost went to the Bruins. East Coast fans are known for being some of the toughest fans in sports. What type of reaction did you get when returning to the Northeast after flirting with the Bruins?
They're OK. My dad's side of the family is from Boston. So, every time we go up there we have a big collection of people there from his side. His side of the family is pretty well known in the Boston area with the businesses they have, some seafood companies and what not. They're all big hockey fans and he was a big Bruins fan. We spent a lot of time in Boston growing up. It would have been interesting being part of an original six team and being out east where hockey is so big. But there weren't any ill feelings about it.
Another Boston guy, Roenick...he openly talked about when he was pushing for his 500th goal trying to time it so he could do it at home in San Jose, in part because of the reaction he was getting at certain road games. When you scored #503 in Nashville (to pass Joe Mullen and become the all time leading American goal scorer), they didn't acknowledge it. Did that offend you?
Well, it didn't bother me. We had some issues prior to the end of the game with a couple guys that kinda put a little bit of a black cloud over the whole night. Robidas was knocked out by Tootoo and dampened the whole event. Plus, we lost 3-2. It wasn't the best of nights to celebrate. We had a little bit of a rivalry going into Nashville. We've had some heated games against them. But, you think that they could have done something there for a second...like what San Jose did when the points record was broken. (He broke Phil Housley's points record there in Nov. 2007)
Off the ice, you've been involved in a lot of different things; from charitable ventures, like Jonathan's Place - you also have the Modano ice rink. Then there's the restaurant you have in Dallas with Brett Hull. When you're done playing, what's next for you?
It's hard to say. I think the coaching is definitely out. It's a lot of hours, a lot of demands on your time - probably more so than as a player. So, I think when hockey is over there is going to be a moment where I need some time away from the sport. But, I've always thought I'd like the broadcasting side of it. I like the analyzing of the game and the sport. But, who's to say. I've often thought about what I'm going to do and in what capacity, 'Is it still going to be with the Stars, is our owner still going to be owning the team when I'm done?' A lot goes into it. If that's the case and they want me to remain with the team when I'm done, it would be nice. It's something I know and I'm comfortable with. I'm certainly trying to find something that would keep me in Dallas.
Speaking of your connection to the city - you've been such a fixture there for so long. Unfortunately, when the team hosted the All Star game in '07 you didn't get a chance to play. Looking back on it, what are your thoughts?
It was tough. Of all the years you play, you just kinda wait for the chance to be the host team and the host city. So, it was tough. I was able to be a small part of it, in some sense, with the ceremonies and stuff. But, it still wasn't the same as playing. It would have been nice to be in the game in front of the hometown fans. I was bummed out it didn't work out in the end.
Now, you've recently changed sticks. Tell us about what you're doing.
I've been using them so far this season. They got here in the middle of summer, so I've been working on trying to get used to them. Its a little bit of a thicker blade. The curve is pretty much the same. I just added a lit bit on the toe to deal with some of the ice surfaces and the bouncing puck. It's very similar to the old pattern, it just has a little more taper to it.
Where did you get the idea for the change, from another player or...
I've always wanted to change. My blade has gotten smaller and smaller as I've played. I feel things more the smaller they are. But on the flip side I've dealt with a lot of pucks that bounce over my stick. I'm trying to meet in the middle somewhere with this design.
Athletes love to tease their teammates. However, there was a not-so-funny situation back in '93. Mark Messier hit you pretty good, but to make matters worse the EMTs dropped you while loading the stretcher into the ambulance. Did it ever reach a point where your teammates were able to tease you about that or because it was injury related was it off limits?
It took awhile, but eventually they started teasing me about it and teasing our trainer. He was the one that actually hit the release on the gurney that made me tip over. So, our trainer got a lot of slack for it for years. We still get a little razzing about it.
Along those lines, one of the hot topics this season has been the hits around the league and the legality of them. And of course, the punishment handed down or not handed down in some cases. Any thoughts about the hits this year?
Well, its such a sensitive issue. It has gotten a little bit out of control. There seems to have been some blind side hits. A little after the fact, after they've moved the puck, guys have been hit. Whether there's a two or three count before they get some body contact, you know. So, yeah - if you're trying to keep the game safe and ensure players careers aren't being jeopardized, its a smart move. It seems like every year players in all sports are getting bigger, strong and faster. Every year the concussions seem to be increasing. The union and the league have tried to work together to reduce it, but its tough. When the game is moving so fast and bodies are moving around its really tough to sometimes get out the way, or its accidental and some people lose their balance and they get hurt. There's a real fine line there that can keep somebody from getting hurt or just some routine body check that looks like it happens every night and could hamper someones career.
From goalie masks to jerseys, fashion and style have become a big part of hockey. Even though you've played your whole career for one team, there have been several reworks of the Stars jersey. Do you have any one favorite?
I've always loved the original North Stars jersey. That's something we've tossed around, doing like a retro third jersey. I don't know how that would go over down here, but I'd like it. A lot of teams seem to be going retro, even in other sports. I'm also a real fan of the original six jersey designs. They never change, they've been classic from the day the teams came into the league. I also like the old Vancouver jerseys, was a big fan of those.
You've had a special relationship with the fans through the years. Whether its pictures or autographs, you always seem to do it with a smile on your face. When so many other athletes these days are put off by it, where do you find the motivation to continue to be so approachable?
I think a lot of it is my mom. She still calls to make sure I take time, whether it's the kids in Detroit or if she's here in town and she sees kids. She still harps on me to go out of my way to make a kid's day. When you were a kid sometimes it was the highlight of your year to go to a game or meet some guys. She still has pictures of me when I met Dale Hawerchuk and Phil Housley for the first time...and Wayne Gretzky. You just put that in your brain, that you're possibly having an impact on a kid's life. So even though we're meeting people all the time, you still take a moment to say hi or give an autograph.
Throughout your career you've had a chance to play with some of the greatest players of all time - both with the Stars and as part of team USA. When you look back over the last 20 years is there one guy that you never were teammates with that you say to yourself, 'Man, I wish I could have played just one season with him'?
Probably Jaromir Jagr. I think he was one guy that could just dominate anytime he wanted to. He had the size and skill. Such an unbelievable talent. One year with him would have been great.
Back in the summer of '96, obviously winning the World Cup was the highlight, but do you have any other vivid memories of that tournament?
I think about how much fun we had that summer. The week that we had in Providence leading up to the start of the tournament. Guys got along so well, we did everything together. We had such a great time. We just felt like this could be an opportunity where - some of the greats Leetch and Chelios and Richter were still there, some of the younger guys were coming of age, we were all 25, 26 at the time. Then leading up to the tournament we thought we had a good chance of meeting Canada in the finals. To be honest, being a three game series, even though we lost the first game in Philly, we still felt pretty good going into Montreal and that we could make things interesting. It was probably one of the more exciting games I've played in - being at the Forum in Montreal, a deciding game three against Canada and the type of team they had at the time. Those are some great memories.
Earlier in the summer Roenick retired and you called into the press conference to surprise him. As a guy who's career is winding down at some point, do you watch something like that to soak it in and help you process or is it just one of those things where you're calling in to say hi to a buddy?
I watched most of it, almost all of it. I also watched the one for Joe Sakic too. Its kinda hard. Its difficult because you know it something that is close to happening for you. So you watch to see some of the emotions they go through and the reflecting on their career and the important people that were there along the way. Certainly in other sports you sometimes feel they need to let go and move on when you see their bodies cant do it anymore. Watching those guys was nice to see in a sense. You feel like they've moved on and definitely made the right decision. They feel good about it and are enjoying retired life so far. But you certainly do think about it because its very close.
Back in October the Stars marketing department built a campaign around Steve Ott, calling it Ott-toberfest. Is that something the guys in the room were aware of and did they give him a hard time about it?
Nobody really teased him until we saw the ads during one of our home games. They played some ads with him in a bar, like a German tap house. He had a couple of lines in some them. (laughing) Whatever. If it helps sell tickets great, we all need some help right now.
Players see and experience the arenas differently than the fans in the building. Being down on the ice, what is the loudest arena in the league?
Some seem to be louder at different times. I would say Edmonton in the playoffs is one of the loudest ones I've ever been inside of. Same with San Jose. In the playoffs its pretty noisy. St Louis too. And Chicago, of course. The new building in Chicago is like the old one. Fans are starting to stand up during the anthem and sing during the whole thing. Old Chicago Stadium will always stand out in my mind. Believe it or not, the old Reunion Arena here in Dallas could get pretty loud too with the fans on top of the ice. You felt like you heard everybody that was in that building.
You seem to have a great relationship with your wife Willa. She's been around the last few years as you've had your ups and downs and it was right before you guys got engaged that you lost the captaincy. Do you remember the first thing she said to you after that whole thing went down?
Well, it was pretty similar to what a lot of people were saying to me at the time - don't read into it, you've always meant a lot to this team and to the city. A lot of it I've felt was the timing of it. I was kinda getting old. Brendan was at an age where if there was going to be a transition it was probably better that it happened earlier rather than later. If he gets older and doesn't grow into the role, you know. Hatcher and I were the same age and he got it. It allowed me to keep myself away from some of the responsibilities of it and the details of being a captain. Dealing with certain things that you don't normally deal with as an everyday player, where you can focus on what you can do to play every night. As you get older you thought you had a little better grasp of the game and what was expected, so I felt I could have handled it better. But the team wasn't playing well and things were getting to the turmoil time, so changes happened.
Who is the smartest player you ever played with and what did you learn from him?
Two of the smartest ones would be Zubov and Brett Hull. They thought the game through. They were never in a rush to do anything, yet they could do things quick when they needed to. They were in the right place at the right time. They never seemed to be out of position at the point where the could be effective. They were patient and had great poise. Both things that are hard to teach.
The Stars have a lot of young talent right now. What's the most recent bit of advice you've given one of the kids on the team?
Its hard because I sometimes see a little bit of me in them. They want to have a good time, they want to go out and party. They want to play hockey and travel, all the things that go with the game. Sometimes that's fine but you try to get the point across that things go fast. Careers come and go and if you want to be great, its important to be a consistent guy day in and day out. Those are tough things to get across because they're just trying to adapt to the game and make a name for themselves. But, you try to get the point across that's it an everyday sport and you always have to keep coming everyday to prove yourself.
As you look around the league, what are some of the highs and lows you've seen so far this year?
One of the highs has to be the start Colorado got off to. Nobody really expected it to happen so fast for them. LA too. The Kings have gotten off to a great start. They've opened peoples eyes to the young, talented team they have.
For the lows, I'd say the injuries. We touched on it earlier. You hate to see guys taken off on stretchers. Even though sometimes its just precautionary, you hate to see guys taken out of games like that. Then there's the TV situation - I've always been a guy against our TV contract. Ive felt it could be better. I don't know what they could do about. But, DirecTV dropped Versus. Then, here Time Warner dropped Fox Sports Southwest. So its been tough for us as to get our games on TV.
Word Association - in honor of your #9 we have nine guys you played with. Just rattle off the first thing that comes to mind..
Neal Broten - legend
Larry Murphy - consistency
Jon Casey - sporadic
Brett Hull - opinionated
Daryl Sydor - best friend
Mike Keane - funnest guy I ever played with
Jeremy Roenick - competitor
Tony Amonte - energetic
Chris Chellios - the Godfather
Finally, finish this sentence - My life in hockey was complete because...
Because I had a chance to play in the NHL.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Well, he certainly made the most of that chance. Mike Modano is the last player from the team's days in Minnesota to still suit up every night in a Stars jersey. While he no longer wears the 'C' on his chest, he will forever be the Captain of the Stars to me.
A great player, an even better person. He's an American hockey icon. And although his ice time won't be what it once was when his Stars take on the Kings Saturday night, take a moment to watch him.
Every game is a big one this season as the Kings try to make a return to the playoffs. However, it's not every game we get to see a legend.
Saturday night will be special.
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Interview w/ Ethan Moreau - Captain of the Edmonton Oilers
Interview w/ Marcel Dionne - Kings legend, Hall of Fame forward
Interview w/ Rob Blake - details surrounding his on again, off again relationship with the Kings
Interview w/ Bob Miller - voice of the Kings talks about favorite moments, players, etc.