With the retirement of Mike Modano, there’s going to be a lot of reflecting going on around the player who meant so much to the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars organization. He’s a Hall of Famer for sure, based on his skill, but I think Modano’s influence on the game was even more important than the goals and assists he put up so prodigiously.
In fact, I believe he is the most important American player ever.
Two highlights ram home the argument for me. First off, Modano was part of the 1996 World Cup of Hockey team that upset the Canadians and spurred a great deal of interest in the game stateside. This was the team made up of that “Greatest Generation” of U.S. players which, yes, I believe will be surpassed soon in talent, but that squad did more for grassroots hockey than the players today have or will.
The reason I’m so sure of this is because of the second prong in Modano’s arsenal: He was the face of the Dallas franchise when the Stars came down from Minnesota and won the South’s first Stanley Cup in 1999. The grassroots work done by the Dallas organization has been well-documented over the years, so as a shorthand reminder, the team built rinks and youth programs once they came to town and less than two decades later Texas is producing first round draft picks (Stefan Noesen, 21st overall in 2011) and other prominent NHL prospects (Chris Brown, Colin Jacobs and Blake Coleman to name a few). Modano was the player many of these kids looked up to as they grew to love the game.
And at the end of the day, Modano was just a fantastic hockey player. If we’re talking about important American teams, you can’t forget the Miracle on Ice. But the first two heroes that come to mind from that Lake Placid squad are Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig. Eruzione’s greatness ended with that famous goal, while Craig played just 30 games in his NHL career, giving up 100 goals in the process. Important players? Sure. On par with Modano? Not so sure. Even Brett Hull, in the upcoming Oct. 17 issue of The Hockey News, called Modano the greatest American player ever. And Hull, Canadian by birth, but American by choice, was pretty decent around the net himself.
One influential team that often gets overlooked is the 1960 American Olympic squad, which took gold at Squaw Valley. No less an authority than New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello told me how important they were to the growth of the game. Jack McCartan’s 39 saves in a 2-1 victory over Canada were certainly key, as were Bill Cleary’s 12 points overall in the tournament, which lead the team. Brothers Roger and Bill Christian were also big factors.
When considering Modano’s contemporaries, there are a lot of names that come close in terms of influence and prestige, but none made their marks as trailblazers the way ‘Mo’ did in Dallas. Mike Richter and Brian Leetch brought the Stanley Cup back to Manhattan, but New Yorkers have always been big hockey boosters. Jeremy Roenick’s outsized personality and skills made him a video game god and a pop culture hero thanks to the movie Swingers, but his best days were in hockey towns Chicago and Philadelphia – same with Chris Chelios in Chicago, Montreal and Detroit, Phil Housley in Buffalo or Pat LaFontaine on Long Island.
When considering important Americans, there’s one more name I find intriguing: Tim Thomas. Does any other player in history embody the American dream more than a kid from Flint, Mich., coming from working-class roots, being the underdog for more than a decade and persevering to win the Stanley Cup, alongside the Conn Smythe and Vezina all in the same year? Something to consider.
Right now, however, the spotlight is rightly on Mike Modano and all the good he brought to hockey in his playing career.