By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
He thinks it's premature to talk about his MVP candidacy, and besides that these hockey types don't go in for that sort of self-promotion. There's an understanding in the room that you're supposed to be self-effacing when confronted with your success. It's patterned behavior, a bit silly, but it's part of their collective charm. Somewhere, I'm convinced, they have a handbook hidden away for just these types of situations.
Rule 1A (What to do when you're suspected of being "the man"): Keep your head down, don't look directly at anyone and speak in monotone. This conveys humility. Very un-"the man."
Modano knows the routine well, probably memorized it years ago. His arms are folded, and his eyes are hidden behind the brim of a black ball cap that's pulled down low.
"I don't concern myself with that stuff," Modano says, probably wondering if he might have to employ Rule 1B (Smash the reporter with his tape recorder and run like Carl Lewis). "If the MVP happens, it happens. There's a lot of great players out there who are worthy of that award."
True enough, and he's one of them. Maybe even first in line. Because no amount of faux modesty can hide that he's the premiere player on arguably the best team in the NHL.
Modano has had a serious impact this season, no doubt. He ranks eighth in the league in points and third in plus-minus. No small contribution to a Dallas Stars club that has improved its goal scoring considerably from a year ago, from 15th to third. All that, and a willingness to play defense, too. Those are not insignificant contributions.
What might help his case most, however, is doing something he's never before accomplished: scoring 100 points in a single season (he's reached 93 points twice). If nothing else, it would make the man with the matinee-idol looks stand out that much more.
"In our view, for what he's done for our team, you have to put him at the top of the list," says head coach Dave Tippet with about as much excitement as he tends to show (that is, he blinked). "I just look at all he's done for our team; I mean, we have one of the top teams in the league, and he's the top player on that. I'm a big believer in...if he's that good, and the team is as successful as it is, that means he's dragging a lot of people with him. To me, that's what should dictate who gets the MVP.
"The 100 points thing, you know, he's got a shot. But he plays such an all-around game...see, that goes back to the MVP. He can cheat, cheat on the offensive side of the puck and probably get his 100 easier, but maybe we wouldn't be as good a team then. That's what makes him the MVP--he doesn't cheat. He plays both ways to help our team win."
Strange, isn't it? Not that Tippet and nearly everyone in the Stars locker room thinks that Modano ought to be the MVP, but that, for a while there, it looked like these kinds of debates had passed him by. For years, from the mid-to-late '90s, he was golden. He used those educated feet to move him smartly down the ice, hair flapping behind him in the breeze, until he'd stop and fire a hard slapshot or keep going and punk his opponent with deft stickwork. He did so well that, today, in addition to having played in 1,000 career games for the Stars--the most by any player in franchise history--he can also say that he ranks among the top six U.S.-born players in both points scored and goals. That's in the history of the NHL. After winning a Stanley Cup, and going to another, his career was made.
But that's the thing. As recently as last year, it was almost as if national hockey fans had taken to thinking of him in the past tense. No one ever said he was finished, but then no one really argued that he was the same player he was four or five years ago, the guy who was routinely placed on the short-short list of the league's best. Remember, last season Modano had his lowest point total, in a season in which he played 75 or more games, in 10 years.
"Well, I dunno, I think I had a pretty good year last year," Modano says, abandoning the previously employed reticence in order to defend himself. "Thirty-something goals and however many points I had, that's not too bad."
No, it's not, but then he's already trumped those numbers this season, and the playoffs are still more than a month and change away. That's a significant increase in production. So you have to wonder: What's different now? Was the pressure too great last season? Was there too much bullshit to wade through on his way to the rink?
A lot's been made of the spats that Modano had with former head coach Ken Hitchcock. At first, the two were fast friends and, of course, the winning helped. But in the end, by last season, their relationship had chilled. Where once everyone thought of Hitch's unvarnished criticisms as constructive, they came to be seen as something else entirely, something closer to destructive. Particularly for Modano.
"A lot of the tension...or the pressure, maybe, that's gone now," Modano admitted earlier in the season. "Hitch liked to air things out right away sometimes. But the big difference, I guess, what I've been saying is, the big difference is that Hitch was a big X and O guy. He did a lot of work on the board, but hockey isn't like that. It almost never works out the way you planned. Tip understands the game and lets it come to us. Obviously, on defense, we have more structure with set plays, but, offensively, we have more freedom."
Whatever's changed, there's no denying that the Stars are the better for it. So, too, is Modano. He's back where he should be, hearing his name whispered among the elite and listed among the top point scorers.
Still, he swears that's nothing but a peripheral issue, or at best an added benefit to this season. What he wants, he maintains, is what he's always wanted: another shot at a championship.
"We've had a lot of lucky things happen to us, fortunate breaks during the course of games, and, like I said, timely things have happened throughout the year to give us points or wins," he says. "We feel like we have some momentum building; no one can really put a finger on it.
"This team, I think, is pretty similar [to the Cup winner]. We're deep, four lines, great defense, a couple of great goalies, special teams, it's all very comparable. Goals against, goals for, we're right there. It just depends. We had a lot of urgency that year, the Cup year; it was Cup or bust. We had that attitude all year, and we kinda have it this year, too.
"To me, that's what matters. You know, if I play well enough to win the MVP, and that helps us get to where we want to go, then I'm all for it. But I'm not going to focus on it."