As the number of California-born players grows at all levels of hockey, much of the credit is given to Wayne Gretzky for his arrival with the Los Angeles Kings in 1988.
The next great prospect pool is growing in Texas -- and for that, credit can be given to Mike Modano and his arrival with the Dallas Stars in 1993.
From the hockey hinterlands, the state of Texas now boasts a thriving hockey culture, one that houses not only the Stars, but three American Hockey League franchises -- the San Antonio Rampage, Houston Aeros and Texas Stars -- as well as two teams in the Central Hockey League. In addition, there are a growing number of youth players, thanks to programs like the Dallas Junior Stars.
Much of that growth is attributable to Modano, who will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Oct. 15 in a ceremony in Dallas, along with Stanley Cup champion and NBC hockey analyst Ed Olczyk and New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello.
"It was a lot of work and there were a lot of things to do, and you were getting pulled in a lot of different directions all the time, but there was always a part of me that saw what [Troy] Aikman accomplished here in town and [Roger] Staubach and Nolan Ryan and things like that. Here's an opportunity for me to be that face for hockey. There wasn't anything I turned down if it helped promote the game and the Stars and helped the team in some sense in this city. It wasn't very hard to say yes to."
-- Mike Modano
"He was the poster child for USA Hockey at the time and carried the flag well," former Stars teammate and current GM Joe Nieuwendyk told NHL.com. "He did a lot for hockey in this state. With the success of our team in the late '90s and the ownership take over and the building of StarCenters around town, it really got hockey going in our city and Mike was the face of that."
There wasn't anything resembling a hockey culture when Modano arrived. The Michigan native set about changing that.
"We had to sell the game again," Modano told NHL.com. "We had to get at clientele, a fan base. Create a buzz. … We had to do a lot of work in order to make this thing work in Dallas."
A lot of that work was laid in Modano's lap. As the best player on the team, he knew it would be his job to go into the community and sell the team and the game. Modano relished the opportunity.
"It was a lot of work and there were a lot of things to do, and you were getting pulled in a lot of different directions all the time," he said, "but there was always a part of me that saw what [Troy] Aikman accomplished here in town and [Roger] Staubach and Nolan Ryan and things like that. Here's an opportunity for me to be that face for hockey as well. There wasn't anything I turned down if it helped promote the game and the Stars and helped the team in some sense in this city. It wasn't very hard to say 'Yes' to."
Modano said there were a few northern transplants who gave him and the team a bit of a foothold, but the key was getting the new fans into the building.
"We knew it was more of a spectator sport," he said. "If we could get people in the building and see the excitement and pace of the game, the energy of it, we could hook into a new type of fan base. We felt we did that right off the start. People were hooked. We still have fans from the early days that are still around. Once you get a loyal hockey fan, they're around forever."
As Modano worked as hard off the ice as on it, others noticed and followed along.
"Mike never said 'No' to anybody as far as promoting the game of ice hockey," Ken Hitchcock, who coached the Stars from 1996-2001, told NHL.com. "When I was around him, I never saw him say 'No' to anybody. I think that unselfish attitude really helped grow the game. He, as the face of the franchise, that unselfishness forced other players to do it. It really grew the game in a proper manner. There are a number of players from that group that have iconic stature in that city and that state, and I think Mike's unselfishness and willingness to go anywhere to promote the game and sell the game had a huge impact on generations."
Modano was elite on, off the ice
By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Staff Writer
Mike Modano became the face of the Dallas Stars off the ice and an elite player on it -- which is why he's being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. READ MORE ›
The next generation already can be seen. Austin Smith, a Dallas native, was drafted by the Stars in the fifth round in 2007. He made his professional debut with the club's AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars, last season and will spend the 2012-13 season with the team. Plano native Stefan Noesen was chosen by the Ottawa Senators with the 21st pick of the 2011 NHL Draft, and Coppell native Collin Jacobs was picked in the fourth round that same year by the Buffalo Sabres.
The first name called at the 2013 NHL Draft could be Plano native Seth Jones, a defenseman playing with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. Jones developed most of his hockey skills while living in Colorado, but played a few years with the Dallas Junior Stars prior to playing with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Michigan.
"It was not by accident that a lot of kids [in Texas] joined hockey because of Mike Modano in the late '90s," Nieuwendyk said. "If you went back and dug even deeper and looked at registration numbers in that time period, they probably went through the roof and that's because of the team's success but because of Mike Modano, as well."
Jones said when his family moved back to Texas, he had a preconceived notion of what hockey in the area would be like. However, he was pleasantly surprised at just how high-quality the program he joined was.
"I had a great coach in Colorado that I grew up with the whole time I was there, Kent Murphy. He taught me everything I know today," Jones told NHL.com. "But when I moved to Texas I was a little bit worried because I got out of my comfort zone and tried something new, a new style of coaching. I came in, my first year playing in Texas I played for Trevor Hanas. He was a great coach for me, and I had kids like Colin Jacobs on my team and Cason Hohmann, who's playing for [Boston College]. That was a great first year for me, a lot better than I expected coaching-wise."
Modano -- who knew Jones' father, former NBA power forward Popeye Jones, when he played for the Dallas Mavericks -- said he's prouder of the development of players like Jones and others still to come from Texas than he is of the fact he's a Stanley Cup champion and the highest-scoring U.S.-born NHL player in NHL history.
"I think there's more pride in that than anything in coming down here to help transition a team and a city and a state that didn't know much about hockey and now has the most professional hockey teams of any state in the country," Modano said. "There's a lot to it that you feel you were a part of and helped start that back in '93. There's a little bit of pride in that, as well, that you helped jump-start a state into liking or being a part of hockey."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK