Mike Modano — An American Hockey Icon

At 1 p.m. CDT today, Mike Modano’s NHL career will officially come to a close as he announces his retirement in Dallas. He symbolically signed a one-day, $999,999 contract to retire as a member of the franchise he helped make relevant in a market it wasn’t supposed to be.

With 561 goals and 1,374 points, Modano is the most productive American-born player in the history of the NHL. He is one of just five Americans to have been drafted first overall into the National Hockey League. The Minnesota North Stars took him No. 1 in 1988 and he spent 20 of his 21 seasons in the NHL with that franchise, which moved to Dallas in 1993.

No. 9 will most definitely hang from the rafters at American Airlines Arena in Dallas. There hasn’t been a single player in that franchise’s history that meant as much as Modano. There’s really no one even close.

While his accomplishments on the ice are to be marveled, it is the impact he had on both hockey in the United States and particularly in Texas that will bolster his already sparkling legacy.

Lightning speed, slick hands and a filthy release helped turn Modano into an NHL superstar. He’s a few years removed from his prime, so it’s easy to forget just how brilliant he was. He was one of the most purely talented players to grace an NHL ice sheet. Ever. Yeah, I said it.

He may have stayed a few years too long, but he could still skate like the wind, even if he didn’t have the touch he once had. That he perhaps retired too late is completely irrelevant. The body of work is impeccable and, also, important.

There are very few players that have played in the league that meant as much to their organization as Mike Modano meant to the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars. All you need to do is look at the franchise records, and Modano holds a whole bunch of them. Twenty one to be exact, including most goals, assists, points, games played, game-winning-goals, short-handed tallies, even-strength markers, shots, playoff games, goals, assists, and points.

While his career started in Minnesota, moving to Dallas gave Modano an entirely new purpose as a hockey player.

No one thought hockey would work in Texas, but the Stars had advantages other Sunbelt teams didn’t. They had an easily identifiable face. They had a star. They had Modano.

Coming off of a 93-point season in the final year of the Minnesota North Stars, Modano matched that point total in his first year in the Lone Star State. He also reached the 50-goal mark for the first and only time in his career (hard to believe he only reached 50 once considering those 561 he scored). The Stars reached the conference semifinal, which helped set the wheels in motion for Dallas to buy in to the NHL.

He’s been a finalist for various trophies, but Modano never won any individual awards in his 21-year career, beyond All-Star selections. However, he did help the Stars capture the important one in 1999.

Modano led the team in scoring throughout the regular season, a feat he accomplished 11 times with the franchise, and posted an additional 23 points in 23 playoff games as the Stars hoisted Lord Stanley. It was the first time a Sunbelt team had won the Cup and the first hint that maybe the NHL was on to something by moving teams to non-traditional markets.

Before Modano and the North Stars moved to Texas, there were only 868 registered hockey players in the entire state. In 2010-11, there were 11,661. That’s a 1,243 percent increase over a 20-year period. So maybe that whole hockey in Texas thing worked out pretty well, eh?

You can’t place all of the credit on Modano, but he certainly deserves praise for his role in making hockey matter in Texas. It’s hard to picture what it might have been like without him. Luckily, we don’t have to.

Though Modano generated loads of excitement with his performance on the ice, he also took an active role in being a part of the community. He was in the local youth hockey rinks and out doing all kinds of events. He also set up The Mike Modano Foundation for the benefit of victims of child abuse.

It is not a stretch to say Modano’s impact will be felt for many years to come.

USA Hockey Impact

Modano represented the United States 11 times, participating in each of the major events including the Canada Cup, World Cup of Hockey, World Junior Championship, World Men’s Championship and Olympic Winter Games.

He appeared in the Olympics three times (1998, 2002 and 2006), totaling 10 points. He put up six assists to help the U.S. earn the silver medal in Salt Lake City in 2002, the country’s first men’s Olympic hockey medal since the Miracle on Ice.

While his Olympic performance was solid, he was a big part of one of the three most important U.S. hockey teams every assembled… the 1996 World Cup of Hockey Team.

Like the 1960 and 1980 Olympic gold medal squads, the 1996 World Cup of Hockey Team inspired a generation of hockey players and fans in the United States.

Modano, who tallied six points in seven games for Team USA at the World Cup, was the last regular from that team to have suited up in the NHL (Brian Rolston, now of the New York Islanders, was a reserve on that roster).

Kevin Allen, of USA Today, the premier scribe when it comes to USA Hockey, wrote about Modano being the last of this greatest generation of American players to ride off into the sunset.

It cannot be understated just how important the generation that included Modano, Chelios, Leetch, Tkachuk, Hull, Roenick, Suter, Weight, Amonte, Guerin, Richter, LeClair, Housley, LaFontaine, this list could really go on for a while… meant to hockey in the United States.

The end of Modano’s career somewhat severs that link to the past. For people of my generation, our hockey fandom was defined by the players listed above. They were living proof that American hockey players could be stars in the NHL, big stars. Few burned brighter than Modano.

However, what that group did led to what we’re seeing now. There’s another batch of elite young American players reaching for that same star power of their predecessors. This new group of American stars grew up on the Greatest Generation. Bobby Ryan, one of the best young Americans in the game tweeted this:

@b_ryan9 Congrats to Mike Modano on a great career! The reason I picked number 9! What an awesome player, thanks for showing young Americans the way!

Modano and his contemporaries set the table for this new generation that includes Bobby Ryan, Ryan Kesler, Patrick Kane, Ryan Suter, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, Joe Pavelski, Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, James van Riemsdyk, and so many more. Where would these players be without the Greatest Generation?

Another question, how will this new generation impact the next wave of American hockey players? Craig Custance took a look at who of these players might be the “next Modano” (subs. required).

No matter what happens in the NHL from now on, it was Modano and the Greatest Generation that provided the turning point. Their impact on the NHL, USA Hockey and the game itself was seismic.

Modano’s Place In History

There’s plenty of debate over who is the greatest American-born player of all time. Modano is firmly in it. If I had to rank them right now, this is how my Top 3 would look:

1. Chris Chelios 2. Mike Modano 3. Brian Leetch

It doesn’t really matter who ranks higher than who, the beauty is in that there is a debate at all. Go back to before 1988 and this debate would be a heck of a lot shorter… and far less distinguished.

Modano secured his place in the record books and in the hearts and minds of anyone who got to see him play at his very best. As Allen wrote, he was a spectacle. We may no longer see Modano’s jersey flapping in the wind as he tears down the ice, but we’ll never forget it.

Thanks for the memories, Mike.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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4 Responses to Mike Modano — An American Hockey Icon

  1. Paul says:

    great read, well done!

  2. Martin Breen says:

    Cheers to Mr. Modano. I agree he epitomizes what is a great American hockey player. Bobby Ryan said it best, he really did lead the way for all these new kids who are taking American hockey to new heights.

  3. Woody says:

    Stefan Noesen, Seth Jones and the rest of us say thanks Mike.

  4. Chris-
    I had no idea you were this cool. You rock man!
    -SMALLZ

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