U.S. camp report: Modano lone mainstay from Team USA's glory days
WOODRIDGE, Ill. -- One by one, the cherub faces came out to meet the media Monday as the U.S. Olympic orientation camp opened in suburban Chicago.
It was astounding to witness firsthand just how young these guys really look. USA Hockey will save on razors this week.
But then, a grizzled face emerged, battle-scarred and all. It wouldn't be a U.S. hockey team without Mike Modano.
"When I first started in Minnesota, they were all getting born," the 39-year-old jokingly said of some of his newest campmates. "There's a little bit of a generation gap there. What was fun and exciting for me as an 18-year-old is different than what's fun and exciting for these guys.
"Still, it's the love for hockey and to compete at the highest level."
Patrick Kane wasn't even born when Modano was the Minnesota North Stars' first overall pick in June 1988.
"Especially for me, growing up in Minnesota, watching him play for the North Stars, he's somebody I really idolized and looked up to," 25-year-old Zach Parise said.
The majority of these players here this week were pups in September 1996, when Modano, Mike Richter, Keith Tkachuk, Chris Chelios, Tony Amonte et al. delivered the most important hockey victory in this country since the 1980 "Miracle on Ice." The Americans beat Canada in a best-of-three series to win the tournament.
"Great memories that will always be there," Modano said wistfully.
But Modano is the only one left standing here this week from that great U.S. hockey era. Veteran hockey columnist Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated suggested to him Monday that he was now the Lone Ranger.
"Beginning to look like that," Modano said. "But it was great to get the call from Brian and come here."
For Team USA GM Brian Burke, there was no hesitation. Yes, there was an onus on the changing of the guard and all that, but Modano still had a place in the mix.
"If you ask people to identify the greatest American player ever, if he's not the first name, he's going to be the second name," Burke said Monday. "He's one of the greatest players we've ever had in the NHL. His role has changed. His ice time has diminished. His power-play time has diminished. He's accepted that gracefully, and he still performs at a very high level. He's here legitimately."
Modano, a three-time Olympian, had 46 points (15-31) in 80 games last season, the bulk of which he didn't play in an offensive role with the Dallas Stars. The days of the being a No. 1 center, or even a No. 2 center, are over.
"Some days, you feel like you're 28 or 29, but other days, you do feel like you're 38 or 39," Modano said. "It does vary. The hardest part to let go is your responsibility and your role and how it fits on the team. There's always younger and quicker kids that come along. Eventually that transition happens."
Still, Modano's pride surfaced for a second when asked about taking on a checking role for the Olympic team.
"You hope it has a little two-way involved in there," Modano said with a hint of steely resolve.
Translation: He doesn't think he's just a mucker despite his age.
"Mike is the face of USA Hockey, in my opinion," winger Jamie Langenbrunner said. "He's the all-time leading goal scorer and he'll be breaking other records. The fact that he's still here, he was drafted before a lot of these guys were even born. It's quite amazing. It would be great for him to get another opportunity."
Modano nearly ruined any chance at playing in a fourth Olympics when he famously put USA Hockey through the meat grinder after the last game at the 2006 Torino Olympics, where the U.S. posted a disappointing seventh-place finish.
"You get caught up in the heat of the moment. I was frustrated," Modano said. "First people you see right after the game is the media and you don't get a chance to calm down and take a breath. Obviously, my first reaction was to lash out and say some things that I wish I wouldn't have said a couple of days later when the smoke settled.
"You still feel lucky and fortunate to be here."