DETROIT – Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch has kept his eye on Mike Modano over the years. It would be hard not to, considering Modano led the Ilitch family to their first hockey championship.
In 1985, long before Modano was considered one of the best Americans to play hockey, he was the star of the Little Caesars’ Midget AAA team. The 1985 squad from Detroit headed east to Rhode Island to compete for a USA Hockey National Championship, and returned home winners.
“I think it was in Rhode Island, and that’s all I can remember really,” Modano joked. “No, I just remember winning it, and then we came home and Mr. Ilitch came in and saw us one day and was excited and congratulated us, so I’ve known Mr. Ilitch for that many … 25 years.”
Now, Modano has returned to his hometown with the same mission as he had in 1985 – win another title for the Ilitches. Ownership couldn’t be happier that the Livonia, Mich., native will be wearing the winged wheel this season.
“Well I had him as an amateur, and that was great,” Ilitch said. “He won me my first midget national championship and we went nuts. In all of America, we were the best. So that was a big thrill. His coach kept raving, this kid’s going to make the NHL, this kid’s going to make the NHL.
“I just followed him very, very closely. Every time I thought of him or saw him, I kept saying, ‘There’s going to be another Modano popping up in Detroit, and in 20 years, nobody’s popped up. Anyhow, that’s pretty much my thoughts about him. He was always in our thoughts, it was almost like he was here from the standpoint that his name has been so strong, and he’s been such an exceptional player, a hall-of-fame type of player, so he never leaves your mind when you start out with him and he does well. It’s just natural that you have to follow him.”
Modano has given the Ilitches quite a career to follow. He was drafted first overall by the Minnesota North Stars in 1988, and was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team in 1990. The Livonia native won the Stanley Cup with the Stars in 1999, and he participated in six NHL All-Star Games.
Despite spending his entire NHL career with the Stars’ franchise, Modano is no stranger to Joe Louis Arena. As a member of the Little Caesars youth hockey program, Modano had access to the Wings and their arena that most hockey players can only dream of.
“Once a week, or twice a week, we would come down here and practice,” Modano said, “and be able to go through all the guys’ sticks and grab their sticks that they weren’t using, and grabbing everybody’s sticks that they got rid of … great memories.
“I moved closer downriver to Westland to play for Little Caesars, so I’m thankful for that decision and for my parents to move me closer to play hockey with these guys, like Mr. Ilitch said, a national championship in ’85 for him, the first championship they ever got.”
The 40-year-old center said it was a thrill to represent the Red Wings as a youngster.
“I think I was nine-years-old probably when I first started playing for them,” Modano said. “We had a pee-wee tournament up in Quebec, we represented the Red Wings. I just thought having the Red Wings’ jersey on at that time, being nine-years-old, it was the greatest thing in the world.”
While this time around he won’t be able to wear the No. 9 on the back (Modano will wear No. 90), he will be donning his hometown team’s jersey once again.
“We couldn’t have written a better script,” Mr. Ilitch said. “It’s a big thrill for us.”