Pucking great

Not long ago, Mike Modano would have been frustrated by nights like this. He would have been dissatisfied by his inability to shoot the puck to the back of the net, by the Edmonton Oilers' determination to keep him out of the game with hard checks, by the way despised Oilers goalie Curtis Joseph rejected Modano's every advance.

At the end of the night last Wednesday, the Reunion Arena scoreboard was illuminated with another Dallas Stars victory, 3-2, one made a little sweeter because it came over the team that had prematurely knocked the Stars out of the playoffs just a few months before. Modano had two assists to show for his night's work--two more to add to the 17 with which he entered the game.

Still, two years ago, The Man Called Mo wouldn't have been content with the two assists. He had convinced himself he was in the NHL to score. That's what stars do, what gets the kids to buy a player's jersey, what gets the big money come contract time.

When he couldn't score, Mike Modano thought he was done with the sport, washed up at 25, finished playing the game he had loved since he was a little kid in Michigan.

"I was looking at not even playing hockey anymore," he says the day before the game with the Oilers at Reunion Arena. He sits on a couch outside the training room in the Stars' Valley Ranch practice facility. His right ankle soaks in a bucket of ice, bruised by a slap shot suffered during the November 10 St. Louis Blues game. A bag of ice also rests on his left wrist.

"I was looking into something different, into doing something else," he continues, matter-of-factly, "some other business besides hockey."

Such a revelation seems almost shocking coming from Modano, who, throughout this young season and much of the last, has become one of the league's best players. Modano, no longer concerned with scoring, is now the complete player, the ultimate two-way threat--someone who can still score and assist on offense but who's no longer afraid to stick it to a guy on defense. He's as fast and as fluid as anyone on the ice right now--and, finally, as powerful.

He can still score. He just doesn't need to.
"You expect the puck to go in the net, and when it doesn't happen, I think that's the frustrating part, because you just expect yourself to do that," he explains. "When the goals don't happen, I may get a little vocal and a little P.O.'ed at myself. That's how I try to deal with it. But I try not to get mentally pulled out of the game, and that's the part I've been trying to focus on this year."

Through November 23, Modano was second in the league in total points--with 10 goals (tied for eighth in the league) and 20 assists (third in the NHL)--which placed him above St. Louis' Brett Hull, Colorado's Joe Sakic, Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr, and the Great One himself, New York Ranger Wayne Gretzky.

Modano also leads the league with three short-handed goals--meaning he can find the back of the net even when his team is down one player to penalty. He was named the NHL Player of the Month in October, the same month he was named to the 1998 U.S. Olympic Team that will play in Nagano, Japan.

If Modano was once the star of the Stars by default, the most famous name on a hockey team that wasn't even here four years ago, he's finally becoming a player whose name can be uttered alongside those of Eric Lindros, Mark Messier, Hull, Sakic, even Gretzky. The man who lost his game two years ago found a brand-new one late last season--a game as physical as it is graceful.

"To me, the focus we have him playing under now is the difference between glitz and glamour and substance," says Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock. "He has tremendous substance in his game. He has tremendous tenacity in his game that wasn't there before, and it was because everybody around the perimeter of our team--not within our team, but around it--saw the fancy goals, the quick feet, the great skater and skills, and thought you could do that every night. Mike's not a gifted goal scorer. What he is is a gifted hockey player."

Mike Modano's transformation is remarkable considering that in 1993, before the Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars, he was considered a failure, portrayed up north as a selfish glamour boy who liked to make the fancy shots but couldn't lead a team with a leash.

As the North Stars' first-round draft pick in 1988, Modano brought with him the reputation of someone who could score goals and dish off the assists. In 1987-'88, he posted 127 points (47 goals, 80 assists) for the Prince Albert Raiders in the minors. But he couldn't break 100 points for the North Stars and endured seasons during which he made no more than 28 and 29 goals. As players such as Mario Lemieux, Pat LaFontaine, and Adam Oates were posting more than 140 points, in Minnesota, Modano could never eke out more than 93.  

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.

"If things go well and the team does well, then I'm gonna hold to my guns, and I may be in the same situation as Federov--not playing. Maybe I won't be there at the start of next season if push comes to shove."

And remember, this is coming from a man who's finally learned all about shoving, who can now give as well as he takes.

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