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All through his fabulous career, Modano defined by family

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It was evident during former Dallas Star icon Mike Modano’s touching retirement press conference Friday afternoon that even at 41, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer among American-born players has a strong attachment to his family.

At one point early in his speech, his wife Mandy had to bring a box of tissues to him on the stage, and then in the event’s most memorable moment, as he broke down while addressing his parents, his mother Karen approached the stage and gave him a comforting hug and kiss.

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“My mom and dad, thanks for all you did,” Modano said through the tears. “Those long van rides and 6AM practices, your love and support and sacrifices you made to give me a life in hockey.”

While Karen was up there, emcee Ralph Strangis then encouraged Modano’s father, Mike Sr., to the stage as well and the three shared an intimate hug. That, as much as anything else, demonstrated just what Mike Modano was all about.

Former Stars owner Norm Green, the man whose vision it was to move an NHL club from Minnesota into the middle of football country back in 1993, noted how he would point to Modano and his grounded upbringing as an example of how hockey players were the most down-to-earth athletes anywhere.

“Often, when we first arrived, people didn’t know much about hockey and they were wondering what hockey players were like,” Green said when he spontaneous grabbed the mike during the media Q & A portion. “I had the perfect example. I said, ‘You’re going to find that hockey players are by far the best athletes of any sport you’ve ever seen.’ And the reason is all the other sports, it’s easy for a kid to start playing them. It doesn’t matter if it’s football, basketball, baseball, soccer, they can just go in the street and play, but hockey requires family involvement.

“Families have to dress them (in hockey gear) and take them to the rink and I used Mike Modano as the perfect example of why family involvement creates good quality people, and Mike has had Karen and Mike - right from the beginning and even after he was a great success, they were at almost every game. So if ever there’s an example of why hockey players are gentlemen, good players and good citizens, Mike, of all of them I would suggest, is the best example, because he’s such a huge success and he’s the easiest guy in the world to talk to.”

There’s no question that Modano’s parents were heavily involved in his early hockey life as he grew up in the suburban Detroit area, spending several years skating for the Little Caesar’s organization that is still funded by Red Wings owner Mike Illitch. And yes, there were early-morning practices and a lot of travel involved.

“We would take him at 6-7:00 in the morning to the ice rink,” Mike Sr. confirmed, “because there was only one rink in that area at the time, so you had to take the ice time when it was available. We did that up until he was 10, 11, 12.”

Karen related the story of how a young Modano would come home from school at 3:00 and watch cartoons with his hockey jersey on until Mike Sr. came home and set up the frozen rink he built in the back yard.

“He’d freeze the back yard, I’d be out there until bedtime, 9-10:00,” Modano recalled.

Then there was the hockey he played in the basement, presumably when it was too warm to skate outside. He started out having Karen play goalie for him using a garbage can lid, but as he got older and putting more power behind his shots, Modano eventually found a better target to shoot at.

“Until they started coming a little faster, then she was out,” Modano said of his mom’s short-lived goaltending career. “(She used) the old Sears catalog for shin guards.”

“There’s not a pipe in our basement that’s not nicked up,” Karen said. “A garbage can was not enough. He brought home a piece of broken plexi-glass from the rink and used that.”

And as much as Stars fans hated seeing him leave after the 2009-10 season and pulling on the jersey of the hated Red Wings last year, for Modano, signing a free agent contract with Detroit was all about the chance to go home. He wound up seeing his parents more during that one year than he had in any other since leaving home at 16 to play junior hockey for Prince Albert of the WHL.

“Last Thanksgiving was the first Thanksgiving he’s been home in 20 years,” Karen said. “Last Christmas, the same thing.”

“Once or twice a week, we’d have dinner at her house or mine or go out to dinner, so it was a chance to see them an awful lot, probably more than I did when I lived there,” Modano said.

Of course, more than getting the chance to spend time with him, Modano’s parents got to see him play much more frequently than they had in many years.

“We only got to go a few times each season when the Stars came to Detroit,” Karen said. “Last year, it was really wonderful until he was injured. That took a lot out of it.”

But even though his season in Detroit didn’t quite turn out the way he would have liked, as Modano missed half the season with severed tendons in his wrist, he wouldn’t change anything.

“Just going back there, back home with the Wings, to play in that town, hockey is God there,” said Modano, who totaled four goals and 15 points in just 40 regular season games, while adding one assist in two playoff contests. “It was a chance to win, maybe, there was that opportunity there, so it was just a situation I think I would have kicked myself now if I would have said no.”

So Modano is happy to end things on his own terms and now looks forward to embarking on a new chapter in his life, which right now is still open-ended.

“I think I was just mentally drained, I think I just didn’t have it to get motivated and go through the whole process again,” said Modano of his decision. “I think I mustered that up for the Detroit year and then to get injured and sit there for 12 weeks rehabbing and then not having it to go through in the playoffs, I just thought, ‘I’m drained.’ That’s the stage I wanted to get at, just physically, emotionally, and feel like I was spent and just walk away.

“I just think you get complete closure of a big part of your life, but then the beginning of something, maybe it’s exciting and new post-hockey.”

Whatever he winds up doing, he knows that he will continue to have the love and support of his very proud parents.

“It’s just every mom’s dream to have a son like that,” Karen said. “Everybody loves him and it makes you feel much better. I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about him. Only me. I’m the only one that’s allowed to say anything. But he’s so sweet, I just love him.”

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