In a classy and fitting twist, during a press conference held Friday afternoon at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Dallas, Modano signed a one-day contract and put on the Dallas Stars sweater one last time so that he could go out the same way he spent the first 20 of his 21 seasons - as a Star.
After enduring an injury-plagued final year with his hometown Detroit Red Wings, Modano was excited to come back to Texas, calling it home, and pull on that signature number nine sweater one more time after signing the deal at the podium with his former teammate, Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk.
True to form, Modano didn’t even make it 45 seconds into his speech before he got choked up and had to pause a moment.
“I think it was unique getting a call from Joe and asking me if I wanted to make an announcement of this sort and making it official of me retiring as a Dallas Star,” said Modano before tearing up. “I thought I’d get through the first sentence. It looks easy on paper.”
“He put this organization on the map,” said Nieuwendyk, who centered the Stars’ second line behind Modano from 1995-2002 and claimed the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP during the club’s 1999 Stanley Cup championship. “He’s been a great ambassador and a great face for the franchise. I knew this day would come for him, but I couldn’t imagine him retiring, as simple as it sounds, just retiring with the last jersey he had on as a Detroit Red Wing. It’s kind of like Emmitt Smith when Emmitt went to Arizona. No one’s going to remember that, but they are going to remember the impact that he had, so I thought that was important for our franchise that we had an event like this and I think it was important to Mike as well.”
A native of Livonia, MI, Modano holds virtually every offensive franchise record, and retires as the NHL’s all-time leader in career goals (561) and points (1,374) among American-born players. There’s little question his efforts were instrumental in successfully selling the sport of hockey in Texas when the Minnesota North Stars relocated here in 1993.
Besides his skill on the ice, which was a major component of the ‘99 Stanley Cup team, his down-to-earth personality, coupled with movie star good looks, made him an instant celebrity in the Metroplex and attracted new fans to the game.
Modano enriched the lives of many people over the years, on and off the ice, which was evident by the hundreds of people packed into the Ritz-Carlton’s ballroom, including many former teammates.
Besides most of the current Stars roster, also on hand to offer him support was fellow Cup winners Jere Lehtinen, Craig Ludwig, Richard Matvichuk and Brett Hull, among others. Also in attendance were Modano’s parents and two sisters, his wife Mandy and a large group of personal friends.
Perhaps having so many loved ones in the same room heightened the emotion for Modano, who stopped his speech multiple times while choking up, and was thankful when Mandy ran up to the podium to give him a box of tissues.
“It does feel pretty overwhelming, and the people you seemed to touch along the way of the course of a career is pretty amazing,” Modano said. “But I look back at 21 years with one franchise, and I think that’s what made me most proud of anything.”
As he recalled each phase of his career, Modano specifically thanked numerous people who had an impact on him and his career. Starting with the fans in Minnesota and in Dallas, Modano went on to single out former North Stars GM Lou Nanne, who drafted him first overall in 1988, before tearing up when recalling how Dennis Maruk gave up his number nine jersey for him, thus allowing that to become his legacy.
He also cited people like former owner Norm Green, who was the man who master-minded the club’s move from Minnesota to Dallas, while also highlighting many other people associated with the team such as Tom Hicks, Les Jackson, Ken Hitchcock and Dave Tippett.
Two other individuals he made a point to mention, each of which induced more tears, were Rick Wilson, his former coach in junior hockey at WHL Prince Albert and later an assistant coach in Dallas, and former Stars coach and GM Bob Gainey, the architect of that Stanley Cup squad.
Later, as he broke down again while thanking his parents, his mother Karen spontaneously approached the podium and comforted him with a kiss before Modano said, “Now sit down.” Emcee Ralph Strangis then summoned his dad, Mike Sr., to come up to the stage as well and the three shared an intimate hug in front of hundreds in a truly touching moment.
As one might expect, Modano pointed to the experience of winning it all in 1999, as well as a return trip to the Final in 2000, as the ultimate moments in his career.
“The pinnacle was ’99, obviously,” confirmed Modano, who contributed five goals and 23 points in 23 playoff games that spring. “It was one of those years, in training camp, we knew it was Stanley Cup or nothing for us and we had a team built for those playoffs in that season. We picked up Brett, picked up Eddie Belfour, we traded for Sergei Zubov a few years earlier and Sydor. We had Matvichuk, Hatcher, we picked up Keane and Skrudland, Guy Carbonneau, Pat Verbeek, just guys that were playoff-experienced guys that had been there before and just meshed with the guys that had already established themselves as NHL players. That was certainly an unbelievable experience that year. Those two runs to the Finals certainly made a buzz here in Dallas about how exciting hockey can be for two months.”
Modano acknowledged that the outpouring of emotion the night of his final home game at the American Airlines Center on April 8, 2010, when he bid farewell to the crowd and wound up scoring the tying goal late in the third period before winning it in a shootout, was another cherished memory.
While he considered the possibility of retiring last summer before deciding to keep playing, Dallas opted not to re-sign him and Modano was approached by the Red Wings to play in his hometown. That gave him the unique opportunity to be near his parents on a regular basis and he jumped at it.
“It was the hardest thing I had to encounter in my short time as a GM, but I think it’s never had an impact on our relationship,” said Nieuwendyk of his decision not to bring him back to Dallas last year. “We’ve remained good friends and I think he understood my position and I certainly respected his position and I think in a lot of ways, going home to Detroit for him was a good option.”
Unfortunately, Modano suffered severed tendons when a skate cut his wrist, landing him on the disabled list for half the season. Overall, he wound up with four goals and 15 points in just 40 games in 2010-11.
After suiting up for just two playoff games and finishing the year as a healthy scratch as Detroit was eliminated in Game 7 against San Jose in the second round, he knew it was time to hang ‘em up.
“I think the last three or four years, I thought it was difficult to play and certainly getting that motivation of gearing up to play every year, training in the summer,” said Modano of his thought process regarding the decision to retire. “I thought I might have been done after that last year here, but certainly when Detroit called, I thought that might revitalize me a little bit, excite me, and it did.
“But it’s been in the back of my head for the last three years, and over the course of the summer, I knew that when the season was over in Detroit, that was it. And then when July came, that was another strong sign that nothing was going to happen and then we tried to figure out a date and it was today.”
So what’s next for the greatest player in franchise history and one of the top five to ever don a Team USA sweater?
“I’m just going to probably not make any decision about what’s next,” Modano said. “I’m just going to take some time. I’ll do some broadcasts here for the Stars for Fox network and the NHL Network, but nothing is written in stone as yet. I just got to see how the Stars’ sale goes.”
That suggests a position with the club’s front office is a possibility whenever the Stars’ ownership scenario gets settled, something Nieuwendyk seems to envision as well.
“I’m thankful that his day took place and I think he’ll move on in this organization,” Nieuwendyk said.
That would only be fitting for the man who had a major hand in making sure the franchise succeeded here