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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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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