Pucking great

Mike Modano has finally become the hockey player he always wanted to be

Somewhere along the way, the kid with the hot hand watched the ice melt beneath his skates. His young body started to give out. He missed games because of a pulled stomach muscle and ruptured tendons in his left ankle. He sat out the final 14 games of the 1994-'95 season--one cut short because of an owners' lockout. Modano ended up spending all of the off-season in the Stars' training facility, where he rehabbed his ankle and prepared for the next year.

He returned for the '95-'96 season--one that saw Hitchcock come in halfway through the year to replace coach Bob Gainey, who became the team's general manager--and quickly discovered he no longer found the game fun. He felt uncomfortable on the ice, woke up some mornings and couldn't stand the idea of going to the rink. If 1993, the year the Stars moved to Dallas, was "a breath of fresh air" to Modano, as he calls it, then the following two seasons knocked the wind out of him. He scored a meager 81 points at the end of the '95-'96 season, his lowest total for a complete season since '91-'92.

"To rehab all summer and to come back and have the same feeling, that was the most frustrating thing," Modano says now. "It was real disappointing--mentally, more than anything."

And that's when he considered retirement. He was a man in turmoil who thought of opening driving ranges and spending his life on the golf greens instead of the ice.

Hitchcock sensed Modano's frustration and, before the beginning of last season, called Modano into his office and offered suggestions about how he could change his game. Hitchcock offered up 32-year-old Detroit Red Wings center Steve Yzerman as the model--a player who once posted 100-plus-point seasons until 1992, when he slumped from 137 points to a mere 82. Yzerman--who, like Modano, entered the NHL when he was 18--found he could be as effective on defense as he had once been on offense, using his body to block shots and force opponents to change direction. Yzerman, a perennial all-star, could always score, but it took him a decade before he learned how to lead his team--all the way to the Stanley Cup.

"Yzerman scored 140, 150 points, but he had no wins," Hitchcock explains. "He had to accept the responsibility for winning hockey, and he did. His point totals dropped, and the wins came up. Mo has done the same thing. I think he has become a hockey player rather than just a hockey personality."

Hitchcock proposed a scenario in which Modano would play more minutes against opponents' top players, meaning he would match up against the Mark Messiers and Sergei Federovs. No longer would he be protected--as Gainey had done--by bringing in the young center only during scoring opportunities.

Modano says he relished the opportunity; Hitchcock insists it took his center some time to get used to the idea. Either way, it worked from the get-go: Last season, the Stars began the season with six straight wins--during which Modano didn't score a single point. Instead, he played defense, protecting leads instead of creating them.

Modano has long heard how he can't lead because he doesn't know how, that he has been on the verge of greatness for so long, he's more tease than talent. And he's the first to agree with the assessment. He will tell you that he didn't know how to lead because he had no one to show him, that during his first few years with the Stars, he was surrounded by players who didn't care about winning or losing, merely about getting an NHL paycheck. But now, in center Joe Nieuwendyk and right wing Jere Lehtinien, Modano has found a group of players he can trust--and direct.

"There were about six, seven years there where I had to fend for myself," Modano says. "I was just kind of out there in no-man's land trying to score--trying to do something--and going through changes in the system and trying to become a better defensive player who was more responsible. The perception was that the pressure was growing each year. People wondered: When is he going to do this? When is he going to do that? Patience was running out, and I think once we got down here, it was just a breath of fresh air...something that definitely helped me to stay in the league."

The question now is: Will Modano stay in Dallas? In September, just moments before the season got under way, he grudgingly signed a one-year contract worth $3.5 million. But had the Stars won the Stanley Cup or had he posted bigger numbers, Modano likely would have sat out the season, as has Detroit Red Wing Sergei Federov, who's demanding $6 million a year to return to the ice.

Modano took the money simply because he wanted to play--and, though he will not outright admit it, to prove to the Stars he was better than the chump change they were offering their sole marquee player. He had heard the awful things management said to him during negotiations, how they belittled his skills and said he wasn't worth the money. In the end, he signed because he needed to be on the ice--if only to prove it to those who doubted him almost since the beginning.

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