ST. PAUL, Minn. – Mike Modano stood by himself next to the boards behind the blue line during a first-period break, while a highlight video from his Minnesota North Stars days played on the big screen above the ice.
The crowd stood and offered an extended cheer. Modano’s face quivered, the emotion evident as it was during the ovation he got from his home fans in Dallas two days earlier. If this was the final game for the 39-year-old stalwart centre, it was fitting that it came in Minnesota.
All 1,459 games of Modano’s career have come with the Dallas Stars franchise, which moved from Minnesota in 1993 and stripped the “North” from the team’s nickname. The North Stars drafted Modano in 1988 and went to the Stanley Cup finals three years later, an improbable run still remembered fondly in the region.
The NHL’s career leading American-born scorer – who has 557 goals – hasn’t given the final word on his future, but the Stars’ game against the Wild on Saturday could have marked the end.
It sure looked and sounded like it.
Modano was honoured with the game’s “First Star” despite not scoring and managing only one shot on goal. After Dallas beat Minnesota 4-3 in a shootout, Modano donned a North Stars jersey and circled around the ice a few times to more cheers. In a postgame news conference, his voice cracked and his eyes watered.
“It’s a little tough deciding what to do, and how to move on, and how to let go of the game,” Modano said. “It’s been such a part of your life since you’re seven or eight years old, and now you’re going to suddenly just stop and wake up the next morning and it’s all over – I guess that’s the hard part.”
Modano caught up with former North Stars teammate Neal Broten at Xcel Energy Center before the game and reflected on memories of playing in Minnesota.
“Rare and unique,” Modano said, of the opportunity to finish the season here. “A lot of fond memories.”
He described his decision as a “tug of war” and said he doesn’t have a timeline in place for making up his mind. Modano’s contract is expiring.
“A lot of people have said to keep going and go as long as you can, but sometimes the scenario and the situation isn’t such,” Modano said after the team’s morning skate. “Those factors will be played out as the summer goes on. It’s hard to make those decisions right now. I need some time, I think.”
When the North Stars moved to Dallas, Minnesota hockey fans went without a pro team until the Wild joined the NHL in 2000. Modano kept on going, though, matching his career-most 93 points in the final season in Minnesota with another 93 points in the first season in Texas. He scored a career-high 50 goals that season, forever endearing himself to a fan base in a place where football rules and most ice is used to keep drinks cold, not so much for skating.
Former North Stars official Lou Nanne remembered hearing about an athlete popularity poll taken in Dallas a few years after the move that put Modano right up there with Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman.
“He has that kind of presence,” Nanne said.
That’s what prompted the North Stars to draft Modano with the first overall pick in 1988. Trevor Linden was also strongly considered, but the Livonia, Mich., native won out.
“He had that flair. He was big. He was fast. He was quick. He had great stick-handling ability. He had a tremendous shot,” said Nanne, the general manager at the time of the draft. “He had an excitement about him every time he was on the ice.”
The North Stars were struggling at the time, on the ice and at the gate.
“We thought he’d be a great player. We didn’t think he’d be this good,” Nanne said. “You can’t judge an 18-year-old and know he’s going to be a Hall of Fame player, but he had charisma and he electrified a crowd. We needed somebody like that who could sell tickets.”
After spending the season with his junior team, Modano brought a buzz to Minnesota when he joined the North Stars. Two years later, they were in the Stanley Cup finals.
“It was always the secret hope of mine that Dallas would let him become a free agent, and he’d end up with Minnesota again,” Nanne said.
Modano acknowledged he was spoiled by that runner-up finish in 1991. It took him until 1999 to win a title.
This summer, he’ll assess the direction of the Stars franchise and consider his feelings. He didn’t rule out signing with another team if the opportunity was available.
“Possibly. I think that would determine what situation was there and who was there, the players that’d I’d know on that team and coaches and if I had any history with anybody,” Modano said. “That would definitely be a last resort if it didn’t work out in Dallas.”