Mike Modano is one-of-a-kind icon
Nobody in Dallas history meant more for his team and his sport than No. 9
It was the hair and the dimpled smile, the speed and the grace, the sense of humor and the wit, the almost hidden internal drive and the wicked slapshot. They combined to make Mike Modano something we'd never quite seen before in Dallas-Fort Worth and may never see again.
Roger Staubach was and is an icon, but -- sorry Rog -- he lacked Modano's spectacular playboy air. Where Modano could happily play the role of dashing, debonair, most eligible bachelor for most of his time in Dallas, Staubach was the equally happily married Dudley Do-Right. Same for Nolan Ryan, who spent just five seasons in a Rangers uniform.
Troy Aikman had the looks and the same immense talent but came across too much like an automaton, both on the field and off. The public rarely glimpsed his great sense of humor and wit. Besides, football fans always have an ongoing love/hate relationship with their quarterbacks.
In so many ways, Modano was simply one of a kind.
That's why, as we say goodbye to Modano one last time Friday as he retires as he should, wearing a Dallas Stars sweater, we should again recognize how special he was. Simply repeating the mantra that he saved hockey in Dallas somehow isn't enough. Modano's personality and talent were exactly what the Dallas Stars needed to persuade fans to drive to Reunion Arena in the middle of winter to watch a game they really didn't understand.
Two intense images will always stand out when I think of Modano. One, strangely enough, was during pregame warm-ups -- every one of them I ever watched. Sitting in the press box at Reunion or the AAC, I would pause in whatever I was doing when the music started blaring.
The Stars would come charging down the tunnel and onto the ice, limbering up for the game, and there was No. 9, helmet off, long hair and the tail of his jersey streaming behind him, whistling down the ice with the puck on his stick, ready to unleash that stunning shot at the net.
In the stands, women and men all stared, mesmerized by his fluidity, his sheer speed, his grace.
He did the same thing hundreds of times during games, of course, when it actually meant something, but by then he had been forced to don his helmet and it wasn't quite the same. Not sure if the Stars ever put out a poster of Modano, sans helmet, in action like that, but I can guarantee just about every teenage girl -- and a whole lot of females a little older, too -- would have wanted one hanging on the wall of her room, to gaze at one last time before turning out the lights.
My other favorite memory of Modano is from that long, incredible night in Buffalo, N.Y., on June 19, 1999, when the Stars won the only Stanley Cup in franchise history. No Dallas Stars fan will ever forget how the game ended, with Brett Hull -- OK, he did have a skate in the crease, so what? -- batting the puck into the net 54 minutes and 51 seconds into overtime.
Modano had played courageously with a broken wrist, something he doesn't get enough credit for, even now. He played because without him, the Stars would never have won that Cup. He played because that's what hockey players do. When you're that close to the one thing you've always dreamed about, you play when it hurts, you play with broken bones, you play until they break your heart, or you break theirs.
Afterward, in the jubilant and chaotic Stars locker room, Modano stood in the front of his locker, stunned and sobbing. It was the Stars' 23rd Stanley Cup playoff game, their 105th game since the regular season began. Nothing in sports compares to the grueling grind of the NHL's postseason. It becomes not just a matter of winning, but a matter of pure survival.
Modano was both physically and emotionally exhausted. He couldn't believe the long, arduous march -- the one that had consumed him and his teammates year after year -- had finally culminated with him lifting high the coveted Cup. Now, the tears flowed, as unstoppable as his own legendary shot. In that moment, he was as vulnerable and heroic as any athlete I have ever covered in more than 40 years in this business. We loved him for that.
I think that's another thing that drew us to Modano. Most of us wanted to be him, but we also recognized that for all his greatness, he was one of us, too. He liked to have fun, he liked to laugh and he gave the impression that he knew exactly how blessed he was.
Mo always loved to vacation in Cabo, but he never once took a long weekend there during the playoffs.
Modano also understood what he meant not only to the Stars franchise, but to the DFW sports scene. He represented his sport in this town with a sense of pride and presence. There's a reason former Rangers/Stars owner Tom Hicks asked Modano to help him convince Alex Rodriguez to sign a free-agent contract with Texas back before the 2001 season. Yes, chances are that there were 252 million other reasons that A-Rod said "yes," but Modano just made it 252,000,001.
We've already missed Modano since the Stars decided not to re-sign him after the 2009 season and allowed him to sign instead with the hated Detroit Red Wings. Seeing him in that red jersey was almost sacrilege, but we all understood that he had taken the best option available to someone who wanted to keep playing the game he loved so much.
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Beset by ownership turmoil, lack of money and very little star power, the Stars have all but faded from the consciousness of most DFW sports fans. They need Modano more than ever, even if it's in some marketing/PR role in the front office.
Staubach ... Ryan ... Nowitzki ... Modano ... call it the Mt. Rushmore of Dallas-Fort Worth sports, each holding a special place in our hearts and in our memories. Only one of them, though, had to carve out a niche for an entire sport.
That's why Modano stands alone, and why, as he comes home Friday to say goodbye for the last time, we all owe him our heartfelt thanks.
Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.