Modano's No. 9 to be immortalized

Mike Modano will get to hear cheers from Stars fans once again when his number is retired Saturday. AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

FRISCO, Texas-- Mike Modano has aged, though you can't really tell it by looking at him.

That young kid with the broad smile and the ability to skate circles around nearly anyone on the ice is sitting at a Starbucks on a chilly February morning not too far from Dr Pepper StarCenter, where another group of young kids is practicing and pushing to try to make the postseason.

Modano looks as though all he'd have to do is lace up the skates and he could play today. He's still in terrific shape -- even a more-than-occasional latte hasn't changed that. And he talks about the game like he never left.

"Maybe I'd still be playing if I hadn't gotten hurt," Modano said.

You can tell he believes it. But a wrist injury shortened his one year in Detroit at the end of his career, and Modano wasn't ready to try to rehab and go through an entire offseason to try to return.

Watching and listening to him as he sips his coffee, you can tell there's more wisdom than youth now in the 43-year-old Modano's life. Kids will do that to you. Modano and his wife, Allison, are preparing for twins a few months from now.

"I can't wait," Modano said. "Part of me always had a hard time thinking I could have kids and play hockey. I didn't want any distractions or outside things to affect me. I don't know if that was a selfish thing, but I thought when hockey ended that I'd have kids."

Hockey, of course, hasn't ended. Just playing hockey has. Well, at least playing in the NHL. There's plenty of time for Modano to skate with his kids as they grow up.

And whenever they attend a Dallas Stars game, they'll see their dad's No. 9 hanging in the rafters. He's the fourth player in franchise history to earn that honor, but the first who can claim to have played most of his professional hockey career in Dallas.

The summer of 1993 was the beginning of a kid from Michigan, drafted by a team from Minnesota, becoming a true Texan. A strange and winding journey, to be sure.

"I never thought that would happen," Modano said. "Never. I didn't know anything about Dallas except that the Cowboys played here. I watched them on TV. I never even thought of visiting Texas or vacationing here. And all of a sudden, I'm playing here."

He was doing more than that.

"He became a salesman," said Stars president Jim Lites, who helped the organization make the transition to Dallas. "He was young, good-looking and we knew he'd be with the franchise for a long time. We sold Mike Modano and Mike Modano sold hockey."

It wasn't an easy sell. Modano remembers how confused football fans tried to figure out what was going on as players glided on the ice.

"They weren't sure what the lines meant or what the penalties were," Modano said. "The biggest thing that mystified them was the time we spent on the ice. They couldn't believe it was only 30 or 40 seconds at a time. They didn't know how hard it was to skate all-out for that amount of time."

But they'd learn. Slowly, they'd learn.

"We knew Dallas would support this team if we won," Lites said.

That took some time. But critical players and personalities joined Modano in his quest for a Stanley Cup. Joe Nieuwendyk's deft touch and solid leadership arrived as the team was becoming one of the best in the Western Conference. Guy Carbonneau was one of the best defensive forwards in the league and a stalwart on the penalty kill. The irascible Brett Hull just found a way to put pucks in the net.

The personalities allowed Modano to play, rather than lead. A young Derian Hatcher helped keep the team together with his subtle brand of leadership. Modano blossomed. He improved his defensive game under coach Ken Hitchcock and showed his toughness -- yeah, he had some of that, too, as he hung in against tough lines as opposing coaches did all they could to try to stop him -- but also used his skating ability to become a consistent force in the league.

It culminated in a Stanley Cup in 1999. Hull scored the memorable winning goal in the third overtime of Game 6 in Buffalo (current Stars coach Lindy Ruff was coaching the Sabres then), but it's the image of Modano skating with the Cup high above him and a smile that looks as though it might never go away that sticks with most fans.

It's worth noting that Modano had an assist on that goal. That's fitting, in that he had a playoff-high 18 of them in that run to the Cup.

It was the wins -- that same team returned to the Stanley Cup finals the next year, only to lose to the Devils -- and the personalities who helped make going to a Stars game at Reunion Arena in those days an event in Dallas.

No, the Stars were never more popular than the Cowboys. Nothing is or ever will be for Dallas-Fort Worth sports fans. But the Stars packed the building and there were few places in those years, even in Canada, that were as loud.

"It was unbelievable," Modano said. "Those two Game 7s against Colorado and Detroit, I don't think I've ever heard a building louder."

But it didn't last. Some of the team's stars aged. Hitchcock and former general manager Bob Gainey were gone as the Stars couldn't keep competing at a championship level. Through all the coaching changes, new GMs and even new ownership, Modano was still there. But the differing landscapes were wearing on him. Finally, when owner Tom Hicks exited and a new front office began running the team, it was time for a young group in the dressing room to find its way.

Modano wasn't ready to retire, which left Nieuwendyk, who had become the GM, with the difficult job of saying goodbye to the face of the franchise, who admits he was frustrated.

"Some people have said I was stunting the growth of other players and my attitude probably wasn't the best," Modano said. "We had the Hicks demise, the meltdown. You bring in [coach Marc] Crawford for a year and then [Coach Glen] Gulutzan. There was no quick fix to a problem that needed five years. That frustrated me."

Without an owner, Modano wasn't sure what direction the club would eventually take.

"Joe couldn't spend any money and we weren't sure who was going to be the owner," Modano said. "That's not how I saw the end happening. I was trying to find out answers and I couldn't find out anything. I was getting frustrated, and that probably put a damper on my attitude."

It's an honest answer. So is the fact that Modano just wasn't ready to say goodbye to the game when the Stars were ready to move on. He played just one more year, one that was shortened a bit by injury.

Now he's back in Dallas and moving on to a new phase in his life, even if he still thinks about playing.

"There are moments I do," Modano said. "The speed is not there, but the thought is."

He's looking forward to seeing some of his former teammates' numbers join his in the rafters and thinks Jere Lehtinen should be the next one up.

As for what he's most proud of, it's more than winning the Stanley Cup. He's proud to be a Texan.

"I love it here," Modano said. "And I love that we made hockey a sport in this town. People learned about the sport and now kids are playing it here and getting drafted from here. I want to see that building packed again."

Youth hockey has grown in Texas in large part because of Modano. As for the packed house, he'll get to see that Saturday. And he deserves it.