Video: Mike Modano highest-scoring American of all time
"I don't know if Mike had his jersey specially cut," said former NHL forward Bill Guerin, Modano's teammate with the United States in international play. "But it always looked like he had a cape on."
All that Modano was missing for superhero status was a giant "S" on his chest. Legend has it that a Prince Albert scout saw Modano play two shifts in a Canadian tournament in 1986 and decided to leave immediately to make sure he was the first to register Modano's name on his team's Western Hockey League protected list.
"The most beautiful vision I've seen in sports is Mike Modano winding up behind the net," former NHL center Jeremy Roenick said. "He had those lengthy long strides that allowed him to blow by everybody. His jersey would be billowing behind him. I watched that in awe."
Games: 1,499 | Goals: 561 | Assists: 813 | Points: 1,374
Everyone in hockey loved watching Modano skate. "His jersey did flow differently than everyone else's," USA Hockey general manager Jim Johannson said. "He played in such a graceful way."
Modano had both style and substance during a 21-season NHL career highlighted by 561 goals and a Stanley Cup won with the Dallas Stars in 1999. He holds the records for NHL goals and points (1,374) by a United States-born player.
Video: Mike Modano becomes all-time U.S. goal scorer
It was Rick Wilson, now a St. Louis Blues assistant coach, who recruited Modano to leave his suburban Detroit existence in Westland, Michigan, at age 16 and prove himself in the Western Hockey League.
Modano said that decision, and Wilson's guidance, changed his life. "When I got there, I felt like I had something to prove," Modano said. "That was the motivation to do well. I was in Canada where people love their sport. They expect nothing less than your best."
It created a stir when Modano agreed to play in the rough-and-tumble WHL because it was presumed that if the offensively gifted center wanted to play Canadian junior hockey he would go to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. That's where Michigan native Pat LaFontaine had gone several years before.
"It's freezing cold in Prince Albert," Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "When you go there you are going to play hockey. He was going to a small town in Saskatchewan and a league known for long bus rides and physical play. That's the commitment he had to play hockey."
When Modano arrived in the WHL with braces and boyish good looks, he didn't fit the league's image. He was tested physically and mentally.
"He was like the anti-Western Canada kid," former Calgary Flames general manager Craig Button said. "It didn't matter how talented he was, people just thought he didn't have the DNA of a good, hard Western Canadian."
Modano handled whatever the WHL threw at him. At 16 he scored 32 goals. At 17 he had 47 goals and 80 assists for 127 points in 65 games. The Minnesota North Stars made Modano the No. 1 pick in the 1988 NHL Draft.
"It probably took courage just to leave home, and then you consider the physical aspects of that league," Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said. "You would think a kid growing up in Michigan might take the college route. Obviously to have a player of his talent go out there was a coup for the Western Hockey League. This was a breakthrough moment for young American players."
Few players looked more majestic playing the game than Modano, who at 6-foot-3 could skate like he was jet-propelled and hammer a puck at more than 100 mph.
"Some players look like they are digging into the ice when they skate and Modano looked like he was hovering just above the ice," St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "He was so graceful and elegant and [his] acceleration was phenomenal."
Modano could roar past opponents like he was Kyle Busch zooming down the backstretch at the Daytona 500. Button, a former member of the Dallas Stars management team, said opponents often didn't appreciate the role Modano's size played in his explosiveness.
"Players knew he was a great skater but they didn't realize how long he was," Button said. "While you were trying to judge his speed, he was moving past you. He was getting by good defensemen."
Roenick said no one looked "as magnificent" as Modano did when he skated. "He was like an eagle," Roenick said. "He could just fly across the ice."
Modano's powerful skating stride often overshadowed the rocket-like quality of his shot. "His shot could scare the heck right out of you," former Rangers general manager Neil Smith said.
The oddity of Modano's cannon blast was that he made it seem effortless. "He could rip a 100 mph shot," Roenick said, "and look like he never broke a sweat."
Modano's puck-handling was an underrated aspect of his game.
"He could handle the puck like it had feelings," Roenick said. "So soft. So easy. So gentle. No one can lay a saucer pass like him. It's a hard game, and Mike made it look way too easy."
Early in his career, it was clear he was destined to make American hockey history. On March 18, 2007, Modano scored his 503rd goal to break Joe Mullen's record for the most by a United States-born player. On Nov. 7, 2007, he scored twice for the Stars in the first five minutes against the San Jose Sharks to reach 1,233 points and move past Phil Housley as the leader among United States-born players. At the time, he had played 242 fewer games than Housley.
Roenick was playing for the Sharks when Modano set the record. He and Modano were rivals from the time they were 10 years old competing in the same tournaments. Roenick said that at some point he realized that his obsession to compete with Modano had made him a better player.
"I realized I was grateful that Modano was in the League to be my measuring stick," Roenick said.
Modano played a significant role in helping the Americans win the silver medal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Playing on a line with John LeClair and Brett Hull, Modano had six assists in six games. Johannson said Modano's work in those Olympics was the best playmaking exhibition he has ever seen.
"In the same game, he saucered a pass 90 feet, if not more, to Brett Hull," Johannson said. "He knew exactly what he was doing. Then he came down the ice, going as fast as anyone can physically skate, and threw a 2 ½- foot perfect saucer pass to Hullie again. He deadened that pass perfectly. I've never seen other guys who could have done that "
Modano's feats of strength mesmerized many through the years. Smith recalls seeing Modano score a shorthanded goal on a 5-on-3 power play. "It was about his skating and skill," Smith said. "I don't believe I've seen anyone else do that."
Unquestionably, Modano knew how to use his skating ability. "He knew that his great speed pushed defenses back," former NHL center and current NBC Sports commentator Ed Olczyk said. "He created a lot of open ice in a lot of NHL cities on a lot of nights."
In Game 2 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final, Modano broke a bone and tore ligaments in his left wrist when he was slammed into the boards by Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jay McKee. He missed the final 10 minutes of the game but returned for Game 3. He was a key performer in Game 5 when the Stars won 2-0 and in Game 6 when Brett Hull's triple-overtime goal gave Dallas a 2-1 win to clinch the Cup. Modano assisted on all four Stars goals in the final two games.
"Not only was Modano willing to play hurt, he delivered," Button said.
The Stars scored 13 goals in the series, and Modano assisted on seven.
"He is a jack of all trades and master of all of them," Hull said. "He can shoot, pass, skate, play defense, kill penalties and run a power play. And he's one of the top three physically fit people I ever played with."
When Cup was finally won, Modano collapsed in a pool of tears on the ice. All of those seasons he had played trying to prove himself had finally been rewarded.
"I remember hugging him on the ice, and you could feel his emotion," Button said. "You could feel the release -- it was like 'I won, and now no one can ever say I didn't win.'"
For more, see all 100 Greatest Players