FRISCO, Texas – Mike Modano was caught off guard when the Dallas Stars fired coach Dave Tippett this week.
Yet, the surprising move by former teammate and new Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk isn’t changing Modano’s mind. Modano, the face of the franchise and the highest-scoring American-born player, is returning for his 20th NHL season.
“I made a commitment to Tom (Hicks, the team’s owner) and those guys,” Modano said Saturday before playing in a celebrity baseball game that benefits his charitable foundation. “Hopefully, we’ll have a fun and exciting year.”
The Stars are coming off an injury plagued season in which they missed the playoffs for only the third time since moving to Dallas in 1993, and the only time in Tippett’s six seasons.
Hicks reassigned co-general managers Brett Hull and Les Jackson within the organization on May 31 and hired Nieuwendyk, the Conn Smythe Award winner when the Stars won their only Stanley Cup title in 1999.
Nieuwendyk’s first major move came when he fired Tippett on Wednesday, and introduced Marc Crawford as the new coach the following day.
“Joe had obviously been involved with the Stars in the past,” Modano said. “Once he had the interview, I think things really accelerated and got to the point where Tom didn’t waste any time and neither did Joe.”
Modano, who turned 39 last week, took a month off after the season to ponder his decision before deciding that he would play in 2009-10. He was already under contract for US$2.25 million next season, the last of a five-year deal.
The No. 1 overall pick by the Minnesota North Stars in 1988, Modano has spent his entire career with the franchise and is the only player remaining who moved with the team from Minnesota to Dallas.
Modano had 15 goals and 31 assists in 80 games last season, and his 543 career goals and 1,329 points are tops for U.S. natives. He holds every significant franchise scoring mark and has led the club to three Stanley Cup finals.
The Stars reached the Western Conference finals in 2008 and expected to make another long playoff run. Those high hopes were derailed by numerous injuries and the controversial signing of Sean Avery, who was gone after two months.
“Our situation was really hard.” Modano said. “Over time, it was tough to overcome. The injuries kept adding up and they were longer than anyone imagined it would be.”
The key blow came in November when captain Brenden Morrow had a season-ending ACL injury. Forward Jere Lehtinen, defenseman Sergei Zubov and top-line centre Brad Richards also missed extended time.
“When you do miss the playoffs, change is going to happen,” said Morrow, who also played in the celebrity game. “We all realized it and it was unfortunate for coach Tip.
“We think we’re headed in the right direction. Everyone is coming in healthy and we have a good positive outlook for next season.”
Nieuwendyk put his mark on the team by replacing the player-friendly Tippett with the fiery Crawford, who coached Nieuwendyk in the Olympics.
Dallas goalie Marty Turco was excited about the hiring of Nieuwendyk.
“It’s an amazing thing for this organization, this city and its hockey fans,” Turco said. “It’s going to go well beyond my career. He’s going to come in here and breed a winner.”
The 48-year-old Crawford spent this season in the television booth. He guided the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup crown in 1996.
Crawford has been compared to Ken Hitchcock, who Modano and Nieuwendyk both played for when the Stars brought their only Stanley Cup to Texas 10 years ago.
“Tip was definitely a player’s coach,” Morrow said. “We all respected him for that. Now we have coach Crawford, who has more of a dictatorship than Tip had. I think that is Nieuwendyk’s impression that is the direction we needed.”