DALLAS – Mike Modano spent 20 minutes choking back tears while he thanked old teammates, family, friends, coaches and fans before stepping off the stage to watch his No. 9 get lifted to the rafters.
There was one more stop for the guy who made hockey cool in football-mad Dallas: handshakes from former Cowboys quarterbacks Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman, not to mention the most likely candidate to have his number retired next at American Airlines Center—Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki.
“The fans and having those guys there and Troy and Roger and Dirk and those guys,” said Modano, “it certainly put a great touch to it.”
Modano’s number was the fourth in franchise history to be retired after Bill Masterton (19), Bill Goldsworthy (8) and Neal Broten (7).
Aikman was in the middle of winning three Super Bowls in four seasons when Modano and the rest of the Minnesota North Stars showed up in 1993 and became the Dallas Stars, not even remotely sure how hockey would catch on in Texas.
The answer came 21 years later, when thousands showed up hours before a pregame ceremony on a chilly, windy Saturday for a celebrity-like outdoor parade of former Modano coaches, owners and teammates, including most from the franchise’s only Stanley Cup winner in 1999.
It was almost as much a celebration of that team as it was Modano, with a circular curtain at centre ice falling and revealing those players at the start of the 50-minute ceremony.
“They taught me a lot about winning,” Modano said at a news conference after the event. “I think it was important for us to have them all here to share in this because without them, that probably wouldn’t have happened.”
It was a celebration of hockey in Dallas, too, with Modano recapping his decision to move away from home in Livonia, Mich., at age 16, then settling in Minnesota after the baby-faced 18-year-old was the No. 1 pick in the draft in 1988.
“And now when people ask me where I’m from, I say, ‘Texas. Dallas, Texas,'” Modano said on a video before he appeared. That drew a roar from a record crowd of 19,109 that filled most of the seats an hour and a half before a game against the Minnesota Wild, who replaced the North Stars seven years after the move.
Hall of Famer Brett Hull, who scored the disputed winning goal to beat Buffalo and current Stars coach Lindy Ruff in the Stanley Cup finals, was at the centre of the line of players behind Modano during a 20-minute speech that ran the gamut of thanks.
“He’s going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” Hull said. “And I said today if he’s not, take my stuff out. If he doesn’t deserve to be in there first ballot, no one does. Except for Gretzky, I guess.”
Well, in that case, the highest-scoring American-born player in NHL history qualifies. At least that’s what one of his former owners said in one of several videos during the ceremony.
“Mike is our Wayne Gretzky,” said Norm Green, who moved the franchise from Minnesota to Dallas.
Modano spent his first 20 seasons in Minnesota and Dallas before playing one injury-plagued year in Detroit. He sobbed openly through many goodbyes—first in Dallas and Minnesota in 2010 and when he retired a year later.
By comparison, he was pretty well composed Saturday night, even when thanking his parents and wife Allison, who is expecting twins this summer. There were a number of pauses, but it never took him long to get going again.
And he got some help with cracks from the fans—including a scream to “put the biscuit in the basket”—that made him laugh in the quiet moments.
“From the moment I got off that plane in 1993, Dallas felt like home,” Modano, now an executive with the club, told the crowd. “You’ve allowed me to be part of your lives and you mine. It’s been an amazing ride.”
The video tributes—from opposing players and Dallas sports icons—continued during just about every break in action during the game, including one from former Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith that drew a big roar. Nowitzki chimed in, too.
“I can’t wait to see your No. 9 jersey up there for every game from now on,” Nowitzki said.
And Modano’s name, believe it or not, will always be right up there with Staubach and Aikman, too.
Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler