In 1993 Michigan native Mike Modano was playing for the Minnesota North Stars when the team became the Dallas Stars. Six years later, Dallas got a Stanley Cup parade. Due in no small part to Modano’s efforts on and off the ice, the city had become—and remains—a hockey town. By the time he retired, in 2011, “Mo” owned the record for most career NHL points by an American. On November 17 the 44-year-old, whose number nine was lifted to the rafters of the American Airlines Center this past March, will become the twelfth U.S.-born player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He currently lives in the Dallas area and works in the Stars’ front office.
Jason Cohen: When you start out in pro hockey, do you ever think this day—being inducted into the Hall of Fame—will come?
Mike Modano: No. You don’t ever really think about this coming, until you hit that three-year mark after retirement, and the chance of being voted in is around the corner. So I was a little nervous—to say the least—the last couple of weeks leading up to it: not knowing whether or not I was going to get that phone call from Toronto.
JC: Your number-retirement ceremony in Dallas was pretty emotional. Have you stocked up on tissues for the Hall of Fame already?
MM: Yeah, it might be a tough one. This might be the topper of ’em all. But I don’t have much time up there, so I don’t want to waste it crying.
JC: The Google result for your own website calls you “the greatest American hockey player of all time,” which is statistically a fact. Are you good with that description?
MM: Chris Chelios and Brian Leetch, who were both defensemen, would be right up there. A couple of others that had some great careers. But like you said, statistically, I take it.
JC: You’re from Michigan. You were drafted by a team in Minnesota. What did you think when you found out that you were going to be living in Texas?
MM: It wasn’t really too appealing, to say the least. We knew a move was inevitable, but taking the North Stars out of Minnesota was really hard for a lot of us. It was one of those things that you just never could imagine. People to this day are still devastated about it.
JC: What do you remember about that first season?
MM: It was a bit of a novelty down here for a little while. I think fans just didn’t understand what was going on. But we felt that if we got people to watch the game in person, live, at Reunion [Arena], that we would be able to attract people. It’s really hard to sell on TV: the speed, the physical part of it, the finesse and skill. And people came out in droves. There’s still a handful of people that have their season tickets that can talk about hockey in the first couple of years down here.
JC: Former Stars owner Norm Green has compared you to Wayne Gretzky. How conscious were you of trying to do for Dallas what Gretzky did for Los Angeles?
MM: We obviously went to a very unknown hockey market, like Wayne did in L.A. No one really knew about the game, so we had a lot of work to do. It was an accomplishment, to create a sport down here that people didn’t think could exist or be as popular as it turned out to be.
JC: I just remember that there were always so many Detroit Red Wings fans at the games, even a few years down the line.
MM: There’s a lot of transplants from up north. I had a lot of friends who moved to Texas when we were kids. It was the place to be in the seventies and eighties: businesses were thriving, everybody was moving down here, people were getting into real estate and oil. People move, or retire, they’re getting out of the cold, but they miss hockey too.
JC: Tom Hicks’s tenure as the Stars’ owner didn’t end well [Hicks lost the team in bankruptcy proceedings], but overall, do you think he did good things for hockey in Dallas?
MM: He was great for hockey. He was the best owner in the NHL at the time. He did what it took to win—he spent money where he needed to spend money, he got free agents to come here. He treated us all so well.
JC: Legend has it that the Stanley Cup was dented during a party at the home of Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul, supposedly it was thrown off a balcony and bounced into the swimming pool. True?
MM: Yeah, pretty accurate. It had a couple of good dents on it. It got put through the ringer that two or three weeks it was here in town. It wasn’t a good group of guys to leave that cup with for three weeks.
JC: Do you think we’ll ever get an NHL team in Houston?
MM: I don’t know. I think they’ve always been on the NHL’s radar. It’d be great for Texas to have another team. But I know the NHL really wants to beat everybody else to Vegas—that’s everybody’s number one spot.
JC: Much to Dallas fans’ chagrin, you played your final season for the hated Detroit Red Wings. Was it fun for you to get that one year in your hometown, or would you have preferred to stay in Texas?
MM: It was a great time. I loved it. I wish I would have had more time there. The injury [Modano missed three months when his wrist was cut by an opposing player’s skate] kind of picks at me to this day. If I’d stayed healthy that whole year, I probably could have squeaked in another year in Detroit. Or two.
JC: The Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki was one of several other Dallas sports greats at your number-retirement ceremony. He’s not looking for it yet, of course, but what advice would you give him about retiring?
MM: Oh boy. You know, it’s hard. It’s really hard to say goodbye to something you love and that you committed your life to for such a long time. It takes a few years to [pauses] . . . it takes a few years to let it go.
JC: It seems like a lot of TV guys say your name like it’s a line from Dragnet, i.e., “Book ‘em, Dan-o.”
MM: Well, it’s a Canadian thing. In Canada they pronounce it “Mo-dane-oh.” Americans pronounce it “Mo-dah-no.”
JC: You’re okay with either?
MM: Ah, either one. They haven’t figured it out after 22 years, so it doesn’t matter now.
JC: I guess you just can’t worry “aboot” it. So, your wife, Allison Micheletti, is a professional golfer. So let me phrase it this way: How much better of a golfer is she than you?
MM: Uhhh, she’s a lot better. She’s got a little better head for the game. Physically, we’re pretty close, but she thinks it better. Somehow she grinds it out, and that frustrates me, and I lose.
JC: Besides being a professional athlete herself, Allison is the daughter of a former hockey player, NBC Sports announcer Joe Michelleti. Did you know him well?
MM: Oh, yeah. I knew her dad really well. He did a lot of our hockey games in Minnesota, when we first started. Our friendship was well established before this even had a sniff of happening.
JC: You’re being inducted into the Hall of Fame with Dominik Hašek, who was the Buffalo Sabres’ goaltender in 1999, when you guys won the Stanley Cup [thanks to Brett Hull’s controversial series-clinching goal]. The Stars’ current coach, Lindy Ruff, was the Sabres’ coach then. How often does that game come up?
MM: [Laughs.] It’s always lingering. I think it still sits in Lindy’s craw pretty bad. He was very upset about the way that game ended. So, still a little salt in the wound when he’s around us. It’s talked about a lot, obviously, because it’s our only Stanley Cup. I think he just bites his lip.
JC: I guess there’s an easy way to heal that wound.
MM: Yeah, I think the Stars are building something pretty special here. They’ve got a unique group of fairly young guys who could stick around together for a long time. The guys are pretty close. That’s the biggest thing, getting the right chemistry, where everybody, relationship-wise, off the ice especially, gets along, and it seems like it carries over to the ice. Lindy’s gonna have a second chance at a Stanley Cup.
JC: Who reminds you the most of yourself on this team?
MM: It’s hard to say. Everybody talks about [current Stars captain Jamie] Benn a lot. He’s kind of the guy this thing is getting built around. He’s a guy that pushes his team to another level. There’s a lot of weight on his shoulders, but it doesn’t seem like a lot bothers him right now. That’s the good thing about being young—you don’t really quite grasp the magnitude of what it takes. That comes with age, and experience.
JC: Speaking of being young, I know your son, Jack, is barely three months old, but are you feeling any pressure to raise the first truly Texan NHLer?
MM: We’ll see. He might be a golfer