It didn't take Mike Modano long to figure out it wasn't going to be easy to plop a sheet of ice down in football country and expect fans to understand the basics -- much less any of the intricacies -- of hockey.
Even before he stepped off the plane from Minnesota in 1993, Modano was warned that the learning curve would be steep.
"I thought, 'What are we getting ourselves into?'" said Modano, who announced Wednesday that he was retiring from the NHL after 21 seasons. "We were paranoid. Taking hockey out of Minnesota, it killed people there. It would have been like taking the Cowboys out of Texas. They couldn't believe it. None of us could, either. What are people in Texas going to know about hockey?"
The answer: Not much. Modano spoke to a group of Dallas Stars fans as part of the organization's efforts to get fans into Reunion Arena for the upcoming season and was stunned by some of the questions.
"One guy asked if fighting was real. Is it like wrestling? Are they faking it? I was like, 'Uh oh.'"
Modano remembers hearing the public-address announcer in those early days at Reunion Arena telling fans when it was icing or offside.
"It was like Hockey 101," Modano said. "I had to explain icing to someone, and it took like 15 minutes. But we knew it would get better. We always believed that if people came to the game, they'd be entertained and they'd love it."
Modano became a tenured professor in Dallas. No athlete has done more in Dallas to put his sport on the map than Modano. Sure, all the records and goals and exceptional skating skill he displayed helped. But he had to do more than that. He had to teach. And he did.
Dallas fans grow up on football, especially the Dallas Cowboys. They yearned for a baseball team and got the Texas Rangers more than 20 years before Modano showed up. And they certainly appreciate good basketball. But hockey? That was extremely foreign.
"When we first got here, we knew we had to sell the speed and passion of the sport. We had to make it football on skates," former Stars president Jim Lites said. "We used Mike Modano. He had great looks, played with great speed and skill and tenacity. Mo was our Troy Aikman."
The Cowboys had won a Super Bowl months before the Stars arrived, and they won another one during that first season.
But slowly, the Stars gained traction in the sports market as the team began to build and improve.
Modano was the center of that.
"When he got here, he was just blossoming as a player," Lites said. "We unabashedly took advantage of Mo. He did appearances and was the face of our marketing in the early years. We were able to spread it out more once fans got to know the team."
Modano also embraced life in Dallas. He was single and would go out to restaurants and clubs and meet plenty of fans.
And on the ice, he was one of the sport's superstars. The boom of hockey in Dallas started with a trip to the Western Conference finals in 1998. There was a crescendo as the team won the Stanley Cup in 1999 and returned to the Cup finals in 2000. Reunion Arena was filled with No. 9 jerseys, and Modano wasn't having to explain icing anymore.
After all, as Lites said: "Hockey in Dallas is Mike Modano."
It still is. Modano will hold a news conference Friday to thank fans and wave goodbye officially to his playing career.
"I think I'll miss playoff hockey the most," Modano said. "There's just no other high than the playoff experience and being in the finals or being in those elimination games or knowing the Stanley Cup was in the building. I'll miss the guys, the locker room, the traveling. It's like a second family. You did a lot with them and accomplished a lot with them, and you certainly will remember those great memories with those guys."
But Modano takes pride in the knowledge that as he leaves the game, there's a fan base in Dallas that has learned hockey and embraced it. Minor league hockey teams are all over the state, numerous high school teams have popped up and players from Texas are being drafted by NHL teams.
"To see the results made it all worthwhile," Modano said. "You turned a non-hockey-following team or city into one of the best Southern Belt teams in the NHL. Everyone loves coming here as a visitor or playing here."
Modano is a big reason.
Richard Durrett covers the Stars for ESPNDallas.com.