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Modano's heroics inspired a U.S. generation

by John McGourty

Mike Modano is part of a "bridge generation" in American hockey.
Watch Mike Modano highlights
Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, James Blake and Pete Sampras don't know how lucky they are because there was a time in his early teens when Mike Modano was pondering his future in tennis.

At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Modano, the Michigan-born center of the Dallas Stars, would be giving away nothing in terms of strength, will or desire.

After giving a lot of thought to the matter, Modano decided he would rather be a hockey player and accepted an offer to play Canadian junior hockey with the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League. His success there led to being chosen by the Minnesota North Stars as the No. 1 overall pick of the 1988 Entry Draft.

And that led to Modano being part of the transfer of the North Stars to Dallas, where they became the Stars, and won the 1999 Stanley Cup. You could see from the time he entered the NHL in 1989 that Modano had the makings of a champion.

"I was big into football and baseball," Modano said. "In high school, I played a lot of tennis. Actually, I was really contemplating what to do with tennis. I loved playing. But that summer we kind of thought about what I was going to do and after we got a couple calls from Canada and a couple teams up there in the league, I said this could be something that really would be be exciting for me, a new challenge, just to see where it went."

Modano is part of a "bridge generation" in American hockey. There were an increasing number of American players in the NHL back in 1988 but not that many. Now, there are 24 NHL players from Michigan alone.

Modano said he is glad American kids have so many options today, but it wasn't like this just two decades earlier.

"There basically were only two (options): Either pack up and go to Canada or wait it out until you're about 17 and kind of see what's available as far as colleges and scholarships. We just had the two at the time," Modano said. "Going back, I mean, some of the NCAA rules were that you couldn't be recruited until you were 17. At the time, I was just 15, so having to take that gamble of either sticking it out in Detroit and waiting a couple years and see how college went, or making that decision to go to Canada and see what's available there and kind of see where I stood as a player, if that was the route I was going to take or make another life decision or choice. It was tough, but like I said, it was the only two decisions to be made."

Modano had great success in his three junior seasons and led the Raiders in scoring in his second and third seasons while finishing in the Top Ten in league scoring. A lot of people didn't like seeing an American do so well, some of them on the ice and some off.

"Well, I guess back in that day, being an American going to Canada, they looked down on that," Modano recalled. "It was tough. Kids went out of their way to make it difficult for you when you were playing against them. Even guys on your own team were like; 'Why are we opening up a spot for an American when we have plenty of players up in Canada that do that same deal, or are just as good a player?'

"There was a lot of pressure to come in there and do well. I think that's what kind of motivated me to go in there and kind of be a consistent guy and do things well and kind of make a name for myself and open people's eyes.

"Probably after that first year and into the second, I think people kind of … I grew on them a little bit. The town became really very open and very hospitable in many ways and making life very easy for me there. Kids in high school and the guys I played with really became great friends and still are to this day. But, yeah, (I) did have to fight some inner battles up there."

Modano, now 37, was inspired by the victory of Team USA at the 1980 Winter Olympics, a repeat of the American hockey success 20 years earlier in the 1960 Winter Olympics. One of his career highlights was being a member of the winning American team in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. The United States lost the opening game of that final series to Canada and trailed in the third period of the third and final game before rallying to win 5-2, the same score they won by in Game 2.

"Those two experiences that Team USA had in the Olympics in 1960 and 1980 come to the forefront when you talk about international hockey and the Olympics," Modano said. "The 1996 World Cup is something that they still talk about, the hockey that was played.

"Losing that first game in Philadelphia and then having to go to Montreal to win two was really something that was, well, the odds were against us having to go there and having to win in Canada and Montreal.

Modano is a big supporter of USA Hockey and he's well aware player registrations have tripled in the past 20 years.

Modano counts winning a silver Olympic medal at Salt Lake City in 2002 among his most important achievements. Playing for the coach who masterminded the 1980 triumph made it that much better, Modano said.

"The experience in Salt Lake City with Herb Brooks and that series of games that we had with Russia and Canada with the finals, those two moments were ones that really stand out," Modano said. "Just having Herb there on the bench and having him being part of that whole experience and being in the finals, yeah, it's really tough to match that type of atmosphere that was going on there."

Modano is a big supporter of USA Hockey -- he's been involved since he played in the 1988 and 1989 World Junior Championships -- and he's well aware player registrations have tripled in the past 20 years. He derives a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that he has helped spur hockey enthusiasm in the United States through his play with the Dallas Stars and on Team USA in international play. Nothing charges up the fan base like championships and Modano has helped deliver to both constituencies.

"That right there (1996) was probably a real springboard for the sport and for Americans," Modano said. "Like I said, just the location of these teams now, the development of kids at an early age, you're hitting all areas of the United States. With that you're increasing your odds and the popularity of the game.

"Now, you have more and more kids playing and kids from Texas being drafted now and Arizona, and stuff like that. International play has always been something that we've tried to really improve on and tried to be recognized with other top countries in the world."

The NHL's move to Dallas and the subsequent sitting of teams in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, California and Arizona has spurred southern registrations and contributed greatly to USA Hockey's growth.

"Growing up in Detroit, I was very fortunate to be a northerner, a Midwesterner, where hockey was right up there in the top two or three sports in the country," Modano said. "I enjoyed the game from the moment I stepped on (the ice). I had a lot of great people and a lot of great friends and teammates and players and coaches and whatnot who helped with that development over time in the years that I've played.

"International play has always been something that we've tried to really improve on and tried to be recognized with other top countries in the world." - Dallas Stars center Mike Modano

"Being a kid and growing up in Detroit, obviously you're very familiar with the Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs. My dad being from Boston, we quickly became Bruins fans as well, too. So, you know, I've been blessed and very fortunate to be around the game for such a period of time. I'm very thankful for my youth-hockey experiences, all the traveling and the coaches who took time out to help develop us and put their time and effort into growing the sport as well.

"I think it's never been more evident than the expansion in the National Hockey League in the cities in the country we never thought hockey could exist, or flourish as much as it has in the Florida region and California and Texas, to name a couple.

"Being a part of that whole transition from Minneapolis to Dallas has been quite rewarding to see the growth of the game. And, the last couple years having kids actually born from Dallas, drafted from the (Junior) Stars, or moved on to college scholarships or the junior leagues in Canada and to further their development as well.

"It has expanded without a doubt here in Texas, and I think if you asked around, it's probably been the most -- the biggest franchise move and the most popular one that has happened in the league, the one that has taken off and helped really develop hockey in a southern mentality."


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