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The Best We've Ever Had
December 11, 2006
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
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December 11, 2006

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

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

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

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

The center, who once thought that playing 400 games and getting fully vested in the NHLPA pension plan would represent a lifetime achievement, had played 1,205 games through Sunday and scored 494 goals, eight behind Joe Mullen's 502, the most by a U.S.-born player. As Modano looks back over the arc of his career, the significance of 502 still causes him to scratch his head. He isn't sure how he will 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 room after the Stars won the Cup? While most of him views the milestone "as real meaningful and special," something in Modano, whose innocence has melted away to reveal an edge of realism, still mumbles, "I dunno."

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

The thought is provocative, as worthy of debate as the notion that Modano is the best U.S.-born forward in history. As a cornerstone of American hockey's greatest generation--you can genuflect to the 1980 Olympic gold medal team, but the highest quality hockey the country ever produced came during its '96 World Cup victory--the 36-year-old Modano at least belongs on a short list of two with Pat LaFontaine, who averaged .541 goals a game, ninth-best among the NHL's top 50 goal scorers, but who was forced to retire in '98 at age 33 as a result of concussions. "If I had to pick one," says Stars coach Dave Tippett, a former NHL forward who was often assigned to check the slippery 5'10", 180-pound LaFontaine, "I'd go with Mike. Longevity." Adds an Eastern Conference G.M., "It's between Modano and Lafontaine, but Modano is bigger and more powerful [he's 6'3", 210 pounds] and he has won a Stanley Cup."

"Mo's got the most skill of [any U.S. forward]," says former linemate Brett Hull, a 741-goal scorer who played for Team USA but was born and mostly raised in Canada. "It's to his credit that he's been able to do what he's done, given that 90 percent of his career has been in a s--- system--all defensive-minded coaches. Can you imagine if he had been drafted by Detroit or Pittsburgh? You can't guess at the ridiculous numbers he would've put up."

Modano, of course, only burnished his career by metamorphosing into a two-way center, molded by the mentoring of former Stars coach and general manager Bob Gainey and by the hectoring of Gainey's bench successor, Ken Hitchcock. The roundly praised career of retired Red Wings great Steve Yzerman bifurcates neatly into Scoring Steve and Two-Way Steve, but Modano's transformation from pretty-boy scorer to offensive and defensive standout was neither as dramatic nor as widely celebrated. Even after scoring 23 points in 23 games in the 1999 postseason while playing the last four matches with a broken left wrist--"He could barely shoot or stickhandle but played through it," former teammate Mike Keane says--and another 23 in 23 in 2000 when Dallas returned to the finals, he still was seen as not having the requisite playoff grit. "He was on an IV in a couple of those games [in 1999]," says Dave Reid, another former teammate. "Maybe people around the league thought Mike was soft, but he wasn't. He was the first guy behind our net to get the puck out, 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 he was going through the neutral zone at Mach 1."

There must be a rapidly aging portrait in the attic of his downtown Dallas home because Modano looks the same as he did a decade ago. He still swoops over the ice at warp speed and backs off defensemen with his skating as effectively as anyone since Buffalo's Gilbert Perreault in the 1970s. He still has the quick hands that allowed him to set up the king of the one-timer, Hull, the only elite scorer to ride shotgun for Modano. He still has the open-mouth half-smile and the magnetic good looks--and last week he got engaged to pop singer and Dancing with 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 the year from Mike.") He even has most of the money, all but $5 million that he lost through bad investment advice.

"If someone doesn't know me," Modano said last month, "they might think I'm bitter at the world. Arrogant or self-centered or whatever. They mistake that with just being a quiet guy generally."

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

Twelve hours after sprinting 120 feet down the left flank and feathering a goalmouth pass through two Colorado defensemen to Eric Lindros for the tying goal in a 5--4 Dallas win--the Nov. 20 assist left Modano 34 points behind defenseman Phil Housley's U.S. standard of 1,232--he is at a back booth at a favorite pancake house in a Dallas shopping complex. Modano has prepractice breakfast here with Stars captain Brenden Morrow two or three times a week. They remain fast friends, despite the fact that the captaincy was stripped from Modano and given to Morrow in September. "We talked about it a little [when it happened]," Morrow says, "but it's something I'm not really comfortable bringing up."

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