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One last homecoming for Modano?

by Travis Betts / Dallas Stars

While Dallas Stars fans may have given Mike Modano his last standing ovation as a player after Thursday’s game against Anaheim, the veteran of 1458 NHL games has one more stop to make before he makes a decision on hanging up his skates for good. The Stars travel to the club’s birthplace, Minnesota, for a game Saturday in what could be the last hoorah in Modano’s storied career.

Modano was the No. 1 overall draft selection of the Minnesota North Stars in 1988. Before becoming the franchise’s leader in nearly every statistical category, Modano skated in 315 regular season games, 39 postseason games and a Stanley Cup Finals for the North Stars before the franchise relocated to Dallas in 1993. For Modano, thinking of Minnesota brings back a number of memories from the beginning of his career.

“The draft, and obviously, my first game in the NHL with those guys, and the fans at the Met Center,” Modano said, rattling off a list of significant moments from his days with the North Stars. “The Finals in ’91 obviously stands out for a lot of us that were a part of that run. It was the start of my career. [Minnesota] impacted me in a great way and I still remember a lot of those times and a lot of the people that go to those games.”

While Modano was sidelined in March for appendectomy surgery, he had time to think about whether the 2009-2010 season would be the last of his career, and said that it would be “ironic” if his final game was to be played in Minnesota. Modano acknowledged that playing against the Wild is a little different than other road games because of the people and places around the Twin Cities.

“There’s a lot of familiar people who are still there, season ticket holders at that were there at The Met that I see every time we’re there. They’re all nice to see as well.”

If Thursday’s game was indeed the last in Dallas for Modano, then longtime teammate Marty Turco put it best when he called it “a storybook ending” for the veteran of 21 NHL seasons. In the second period, Modano made a crafty pass from behind the net to 14-year teammate Jere Lehtinen, who set up Jamie Benn for Dallas’ first goal. With 1:47 remaining in regulation, he tipped Trevor Daley’s shot past Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller, sending the game into overtime. When the game reached the shootout, Modano scored what turned out to be the game-winner in the second round before throwing his stick into the seats as a souvenir.

But perhaps the most memorable part of the evening came with 5:28 remaining in the third period. With Anaheim getting ready to go on a power play, the jumbotron camera focused on Modano, who was sitting on the bench. The referees delayed dropping the puck for several minutes while the crowd at American Airlines Center stood and applauded him for 16 seasons worth of memories. Players from both benches stood, tapping their sticks along the boards. Modano couldn’t help but become emotional before finally standing up and raising his stick to the crowd in appreciation.

“Over the course of the game it got tougher and tougher [not to show emotion], but that last time out was really hard. They were showing the Stanley Cup and special moments, and the reception was amazing, far more than I thought was going to happen. At that time, it was just tough to keep it in,” Modano said.

“I was thinking, wow, this is almost surreal. And the crowd – that ovation that they gave him when we had the penalty, I mean that was unbelievable. And it was emotional. Obviously it was getting the best of him on the bench, and most of the guys on the bench were getting emotional too,” said Stars head coach Marc Crawford.  “It was fun to be on the bench, close to it. It was really neat to see how the Dallas Stars fans reacted. There was so much good feeling there, and you could almost see people remembering [all the great moments].”

After the game Modano was named – appropriately – the No. 1 Star.

Modano took some time after practice Friday afternoon to reflect on what the fans’ reaction meant to him, not only during Thursday’s game, but through his career in Dallas and Minnesota.

“The fans have been fabulous since we’ve been down here, and they’ve been a big part of my life obviously. I’ve been around them for half my life, so it’s been a great relationship I’ve had with them, and they’ve been there every step of the way, so it was a great feeling to see them all there, and to be received like that.”

Things almost never go this close to the script. For most athletes, exits are anticlimactic, except for the lucky few who finish their career with a championship. And although the ultimate prize is not in the cards for the Stars this season, Modano, electric even at age 39, may have made a pretty memorable departure.

Now, with just one game remaining on the schedule, is it possible for everything to go according to plan one last time? Who knows. And even if Modano decides to call it a career after Saturday, and even if he falls short of a two-point night with a shootout winner and a handful of standing ovations (he has a knack for setting the bar high), the fans in Dallas and Minnesota will still have a lot to be thankful for.

After all, he gave us two full decades of hard work, dedication, and memories that will last a lifetime.

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