When Mike Modano retired in 2011 after playing 1,499 regular-season games, the Dallas Stars great had to have known he had a strong chance to one day be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But truth be told, there was never any doubt.
Modano, the all-time leader in goals (561) and points (1,374) among players born in the United States, will enter the Hall of Fame during a ceremony in Toronto on Nov. 17. He received the call in June while driving in his car and when he saw who was on the other end, he knew he had to stop.
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"Just a little disbelief. You just don't feel like there's a part of you that buys you're going in with the greats to ever play the game," Modano told NHL.com. "You feel like you, in some weird way, you don't belong in there with those guys. But it was quite a call. I just had to pull over to the curb to take that one."
Modano is one of four players who will enter the Hall this year, joining Dominik Hasek, Peter Forsberg and Rob Blake. Former referee Bill McCreary will be enshrined, along with former coach Pat Burns, who was posthumously elected. Modano is thrilled to be a part of such a tremendous class; he played against Hasek when the Stars defeated the Buffalo Sabres in the 1999 Stanley Cup Final.
"I just have some great memories playing against those guys," Modano said. "I played a lot of great playoff series against those guys. Certainly that'll make it more meaningful. Those guys were great competitors, and I think playing against them all the time … it seems that we played against those guys every spring, and I think it made us better players having to compete against them for sure."
Born in Livonia, Mich., Modano was one of thousands of American hockey players who were inspired by the 1980 Olympic team. Little did Modano, who was 9 years old at the time, know that he would go on to represent his country at many international events, including the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and the Olympics in 1998, 2002 and 2006.
"I was at a Silver Stick tournament in Port Huron, and it seemed like the world stopped there for a minute," Modano said of the United States' victory against the Soviet Union in 1980. "They all gathered around in the lobby and watched the game. We were kind of glued to the TV at that time.
"Looking back, you never knew how big of an impact that Olympics alone would have on a lot of people, on our country and the game of hockey. It certainly was a bit of a rally cry for our country at that time and what it was going through. Just to see a bunch of college kids upset the Red Army … looking back at it, it was pretty neat to play with some of those guys and against them that were on that team and hear some of their stories about it."
Modano played his junior hockey with the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League. In 1987-88, his second season, he had 47 goals and 80 assists in 65 games. There was some question whether Modano or Medicine Hat Tigers center Trevor Linden would be selected first by the Minnesota North Stars at the 1988 NHL Draft, but Modano would ultimately win the race and become the face of the North Stars franchise.
Linden would go second to the Vancouver Canucks as part of a first round that included Jeremy Roenick, Rod Brind'Amour and Teemu Selanne. Blake would be selected by the Los Angeles Kings three rounds later.
"That was just a great class," Modano said. "Trevor and I were really kind of neck-and-neck right up to the end. Right after the World Juniors, we got back from Russia, and it was just kind of a sprint to the end to Montreal to see what was going to happen. Minnesota didn't really show their hand too much what direction they were going to go. I think (former North Stars general manager) Lou Nanne just wanted to keep it a surprise and leave it until the last second. Right out of the chute, that was one of those big things that happened, and you can always say '88 was quite a class. I think Blake was in there and Brind'Amour and [Curtis] Leschyshyn … quite a few guys that had some great, long careers."
After playing one more season of junior hockey, Modano joined the North Stars full-time as a 19-year-old in the fall of 1989 and scored 75 points (29 goals, 46 assists) in 80 games, helping Minnesota qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Growing up in hockey-crazed Michigan, the transition to a market such as Minnesota was basically seamless.
"It was amazing. It couldn't have been a better start for me to go somewhere like that where hockey is just so passionate," Modano said. "The fans love it, the kids and everybody is so involved in the game of hockey throughout that whole state. It was a great fit, and that organization, the fans, it really was something that was special to have at the start of my career."
In the fall of 1993, the North Stars franchise moved from Minnesota to Dallas. Modano admitted it was a challenge for him and his teammates, who not only had to perform on the ice but also sell the game to a new market that included many people who had never watched the sport before.
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"It was quite a culture shock," Modano said. "We were surprised that Dallas was even on the map as far as a team that was going to go as far as moving. We were quite surprised at that and really surprised that it even happened. We were shocked that we were going from such a hockey hotbed like Minnesota to Texas, where we knew we had to educate a lot of people about the game, and starting over and building a product down there that people were going to enjoy and come out to watch. We never thought, I think, in a million years that it would turn out the way it has."
Modano really helped put hockey on the map in Texas when Dallas defeated Buffalo to win the Stanley Cup. It was his 10th season in the NHL, and Modano admitted that with each passing season he wondered if he'd ever get the opportunity to hoist the Cup high above his head. But the Stars made huge strides once Ken Hitchcock replaced Bob Gainey as coach in 1996, the same year Modano helped the U.S. win gold at the World Cup of Hockey. Things had definitely taken a positive turn.
"I was 25, 26 at the time and I was really kind of starting to struggle," said Modano, who had 58 goals and 88 assists in 176 postseason games. "I was getting frustrated. I didn't really see where the direction of our team was going. I think we had just missed the playoffs and then Bob stepped down, Hitch came in, and then we had the World Cup that summer. A lot of things changed that really kind of got me excited about a new beginning. Our team from then on had a six- or seven-year run there that really was one of the best ones that a lot of us have ever seen and been a part of.
"It was pivotal, but the fans and the organization and management all had patience, and I'm glad that they did and I was able to return the favor and the belief that they had in me originally when they drafted me."
The Stars reached the Stanley Cup Final again in 2000 but lost to the New Jersey Devils. But all eyes in Texas were on the Stars during their impressive run, and hockey has grown on every level in the state over the past two decades. The impact Modano made in the Lone Star State is indisputable.
"Just the growth of it minor-wise and even minor-pro … the Central Hockey League, there's farm teams down in Texas, so the growth's been unbelievable," Modano said. "That's been the biggest reward of everything, just seeing the growth of the game and kids enjoying hockey and having the opportunity to play. Certainly it's grown leaps and bounds."
After spending 21 seasons with the same franchise, Modano played the final season of his career in his home state, agreeing to a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings in the summer of 2010. A wrist injury limited Modano to 40 games. He had four goals and 11 assists.
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"The opportunity was really there, and [Red Wings GM] Kenny [Holland] called me in early July, and I just felt you don't really have those opportunities to go home and play for the Wings and play in front of your family and friends and be a part of such a tradition organization like that," Modano said. "I had to take it. I think I probably would have kicked myself if I didn't take that chance. I was feeling the best I felt in about three years, and then the injury happened, and then mentally after coming back from that, I was just drained. I didn't have much left anymore."
Things haven't slowed down for Modano since he called it quits three years ago. He married his wife, Allison, who is the daughter of former NHL defenseman Joe Micheletti, in 2013. The couple welcomed twins in July.
"It's just so great and special," said Micheletti, the color analyst for the New York Rangers on MSG Network. "Everybody knows Mike was a great player and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But I can only tell you that he's a better person and father and husband than he was a player. He's a marvelous guy. It's well-deserved and it's something that our family is really looking forward to and going to enjoy."
It will cap an emotional year that started when the Stars raised Modano's No. 9 to the rafters of American Airlines Center in March.
"I'm telling you, it's been quite a year-and-a-half or so," Modano said. "Just amazing things. All the exciting things that happened, it's been great. Great things that Dallas put on with the jersey, and obviously the kids were right up there. They're my first two. This is kind of icing on the cake, I think."