SAN JOSE -- Mike Modano was a kid growing up outside of Detroit hearing stories about Gordie Howe, learning of his legacy, of what he meant to hockey in Michigan, to the Detroit Red Wings. When it came time to pick a number to wear, there was only one Modano could think of.
He chose No. 9. He chose "Mr. Hockey's" number.
"My dad was a Boston guy, but he grew up watching a lot of the Red Wings and he knew all about Gordie Howe, so when the number was available for me as kid, I remember it was just a number I wanted to have," Modano said by phone Friday. "I was kind of fortunate to fall into it as I went on. When I went Prince Albert [Western Hockey League], the guy who wore No. 9 left because his junior career was done. When I went to [the] Minnesota [North Stars], Dennis Maruk had it but he was retiring. I kept getting it wherever I went."
Except Detroit, of course. Modano had to wear 90 in his one season with the Red Wings. No. 9 was obviously unavailable, retired by the Red Wings, hanging in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena.
The number meant a little more to Modano on Friday, when he learned that Howe died at the age of 88.
Video: Mike Modano reflects on the legacy of Gordie Howe
Modano joined Howe on the Red Wings' official all-time roster in the 2010-11 season, his last in the NHL. He joined Howe in the Hockey Hall of Fame three years later. His No. 9 now hangs in the rafters at American Airlines Center, the home of the Dallas Stars.
"You not really able to pull quality YouTube videos off of him, you can't really justify why everybody says he's the greatest when there are guys my age who never really watched him play, but it's his reputation, that's what has done it," Modano said. "When you're that great you transform the game and you add so much to it. That's what makes greatness."
Modano said he met Howe early in his NHL career when he was playing for the North Stars.
"Sometimes the buildup is more than reality, but it was the opposite here," Modano said. "The buildup was one thing, the reality was times a thousand to me."
What stood out?
"I remember the handshake," Modano said. "The hard, strong hand. His grip was amazing. But then he was very curious about how things were going, how I was doing. He was always approachable, just laid-back, easy to talk to. Finally when you see him in person, it was like, 'Wow.' You hoped you could be half the guy that he was."
Although he never confirmed it, Modano was convinced that Howe knew he was from the Detroit area. Modano grew up in Highland Township, Mich.
"I think he did know," Modano said. "He came up and said he wanted to introduce himself to me, congratulate me, wish me good luck with my career. He knew I was from Detroit. He was pretty caught up on who I was. He was always gracious and approachable. He would always come up and say hi. He was always really interested in how things were going."
Things came full circle for Modano in his final NHL season. He went home to play with the Red Wings and he wound up attending card shows with Howe.
"There was a little I guess pressure, a little intimidation to live up to what the Red Wings were all about," Modano said. "I was kind of awestruck in that sense. It's such a tradition, such a history there that you wanted to not be the guy that diminishes that in any way or takes that away. So many great players have been there, including Gordie, who have established and raised that team to a different level. There was pressure to show up, play, and not falter when I was there."