DALLAS – Even if the next face of the franchise is in the building when the Dallas Stars retire Mike Modano’s No. 9, any comparison will fall short.
This is the guy who made hockey cool in Dallas as many fans were just trying to figure out what they were watching. This is the guy who knew how daunting the task was the moment he arrived from puck-mad Minnesota two decades ago.
Sure, Jamie Benn or Tyler Seguin could be the one leading the Stars back to championship contention one of these days. But after Saturday, any return to glory will come under Modano’s number hanging in the rafters.
“The only difference is I was 22, 23 coming into a town that didn’t know anything about hockey,” Modano told The Associated Press.
“So I grew up with this town, with the sport, so people couldn’t relate to the sport without relating to a few of us in the same sense. And having the success that our team did and individually that I was able to have, those opportunities and those scenarios don’t get played out too often in many cities or organizations.”
It’ll be a pretty rare party Saturday when the Stars play Minnesota, where Modano started his career as a No. 1 pick before the North Stars moved south in 1993, replaced by the expansion Wild seven years later.
There are 53 names on the “green carpet” list for the pre-game festivities, many of them former teammates who beat Buffalo for the franchise’s only Stanley Cup in 1999 and lost in the finals a year later to New Jersey.
Modano had several tearful farewells as his playing days wound down—first saying goodbye to Dallas and Minnesota fans in 2010 and then leaving the game in 2011 after the Livonia, Mich., native’s one season with Detroit.
Now an executive with the Stars, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer and two-time Olympian had a big hand in planning this send-off. But that won’t make it any less emotional for someone who hasn’t been afraid to show his soft side.
“To walk out there, I think it’s going to be really tough,” said the 43-year-old Modano, the highest-scoring American-born player in NHL history. “And then walking over to the jersey and watching that get lifted up. I think those two moments are going to be really tough and having family and friends really close on the ice with you. It’s going to be a real up and down night.”
Both of his owners will be there. Norm Green moved the team to Dallas and used to tell anyone who would listen they needed to see this rare superstar-to-be, and Tom Hicks brought in Brett Hull to spark the Stanley Cup runs before financial issues left the club in the hands of creditors.
“In every sport, you need to have an image. And there was not a more perfect image than Mike,” Green said. “He was a good-looking guy that was extremely talented and he was very flashy on the ice.”
Hicks didn’t buy the team until three years after the move, but the presence of Modano was hard for anyone to miss.
“They clearly tried to use his handsome face and personality to be the star attraction to bring in fans, particularly female,” Hicks said with a chuckle.
Ask a fan what they remember about Modano—besides the face—and they’re likely to recall the image of the No. 9 sweater rippling in the breeze generated by his speed moving up the ice. The smooth-skating Modano was a born scorer—561 goals, 813 assists and 1,374 points—who turned into a two-way player in a defensive-minded system that led Dallas to a title.
He was always humble and engaging off the ice, perhaps because he knew that was one of the best ways to build hockey in Texas.
At the peak of the Stars’ success, he actually made it worthwhile to debate whether he belonged in the same conversation with two of the biggest names and numbers in Dallas-area sports—No. 12 (Roger Staubach) and No. 8 (Troy Aikman).
Those two Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks won five Super Bowls between them.
“We felt it could be an amazing town if we had some success and we created a fan base that was kind of looking for something new maybe,” Modano said. “We made a lot of new fans in this town and maybe we were able to steal some away from other sports teams in the town.”
Even though the Stars are struggling to draw big crowds after missing the playoffs five straight seasons, they will fill the building one more time for Modano.
Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler