Modano's success transcends his on-ice milestones
In some ways, Mike Modano's story is the story of hockey in the United States over the past two decades.
After the Minnesota North Stars made him the second American-born player to be selected first overall in the entry draft in 1988, Modano came to the NHL with high expectations. A sleek player who honed his skills with the rough-and-tumble Western Hockey League's Prince Albert Raiders, Modano has -- by almost every measurement -- met or exceeded whatever lofty expectations he and his country have set on his shoulders.
The 36-year-old has captained a Stanley Cup-winning team; played on three U.S. Olympic teams, earning a silver medal in 2002; and played in six All-Star Games. He twice led all playoff performers in assists, all while playing his entire career (at least thus far) with the same franchise.
But now, as he has passed Joe Mullen as the most prolific American career goal-scorer and is closing on Phil Housley as the highest-scoring American of all time, Modano also reflects the slow yet seminal changes that have taken place in hockey in America in that period of time.
If the roots of the game have been slow to take in places such as South Florida and Atlanta, the game has thrived in Dallas. Why? Because players such as Modano not only went to work there part of the year, but also moved there and became part of the community.
"No one wanted to move. We all wanted to stay in Minnesota, not knowing what to expect or what our reception would be in Dallas," Modano told ESPN.com, recalling the team's sudden departure from the Twin Cities after the 1992-93 season and its unexpected arrival in Big D.
There were early benefits of such a relocation, though.
Modano, a native of Livonia, Mich., and a superstar in Minnesota with the North Stars, went shopping and wasn't mobbed as the team started out more as a curiosity than as a group filled with objects of adoration. But that changed as the team prospered and built one of the most loyal fan bases in the league. When the Stars won a Stanley Cup in 1999, the team's future in Texas seemed secure, as did Modano's place there.
The veteran center said players were pleasantly surprised at the different lifestyle, the Southern hospitality. That lifestyle led him and others to make their permanent homes in Texas, building relationships outside the team. Modano, who recently became engaged to former "Dancing with the Stars" star Willa Ford, expects to make his post-hockey home in the Dallas area.
When the team arrived, there were only five sheets of ice in the area and two were located in shopping malls and did not accommodate hockey. There were no high school or travel hockey teams, and only 250 kids played the game. Heading into this season, more than 7,500 youngsters in the northern part of the state were enrolled in minor hockey, playing on 23 sheets of ice. Nearly 70 high school teams play in the area. Less than a decade after the Stars became the first team to win a Cup in a nontraditional market, players from Texas are showing up on NHL depth charts, as are players from California and other exotic locales.
Modano believes it's not just the presence of teams in those places that makes it work, but also the presence of the players, specifically American players, who make their homes in these communities.
"Europeans come and go," Modano said. No slight against them as teammates, he added quickly. "They come here to play, but they eventually go back to their own country."
Whether it's in California or Texas or Florida, the connection between the fans and players and the growth of the game is undeniable. Make the connection and the game grows. Don't make the connection and the challenge is greater. "It does nothing but help the game grow," said Modano, who is considered by many within USA Hockey to be the country's greatest international player.
The observation reminds us of a conversation with former netminder and hockey analyst Darren Eliot. Asked about the trends he was looking for this season, Eliot said he was curious about whether the wave of American-born players that appear on the edge of the NHL's horizon represents the much-anticipated next generation of stars that will take the hockey baton from Modano, Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick, et al.
When the Americans won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, the game was at its peak in the United States, thanks to the play of players like Modano. "Between 1996 and 2006, nobody stepped into the breach, really. That popularity started to go dry" in the United States, Eliot said.
Skilled center Phil Kessel, blue-chip defensive prospect Jack Johnson, 2006 first overall pick Erik Johnson, Jack Skille and Bobby Ryan (who spent part of his youth in California) all have the potential to restore the profile of hockey in America. And that doesn't include young Americans already making an impact, such as Ryan Miller, Dustin Brown, Brian Gionta, Paul Martin and John-Michael Liles.
"Americans like to root for Americans," Eliot explained. "They also need to be stars, not just solid players."
Modano charted a path along that very same star course, and now, in his 30s, has the luxury of being able to reflect back while keeping a cool eye on the future. In recent years, he has begun to think in terms of career accomplishments, especially now that he has passed Mullen's 502 goals and is approaching Housley's 1,232 points, despite missing 23 games with a hip/lower-body injury. A year ago, he led the team with 77 points.
"Once I started moving in on the numbers, everybody started talking about it a little bit," Modano said. "You know you're there and you're close, so you try and enjoy the chase, and hopefully it will be over soon."
Did he ever approach the game carrying the burden of the nation's hockey hopes? Not really, he said. His expectations were always what drove him.
As for the end of his career, something that always seems to come up in these conversations, Modano sounds a little whimsical. He has thought about his exit strategy, yet the new NHL plays to his strengths, which have always been skating and playmaking.
He joked that the more he plays, he's thinking less about quitting and more about turning it into a "Chris Chelios scenario," where he just keeps playing and playing.
Not that the Stars -- or their Texas fans -- would mind one bit.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.