There's a message behind this Mike

Mike Modano is a great hockey player, but he'll tell you right out he's not the next Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.

He doesn't pretend to be, either, but the 14-season veteran of the National Hockey League has learned some things from the greats who came before him. Perhaps the most important lesson being that when you speak, even if it's softly, say something that matters.

You don't get a lot of that in the NHL, a culture which generates little more than platitudes or even stony silence regarding the issues of the game.

Hockey players grow up that way. The game has a long-established culture of conformity. Players often leave home at a frightfully early age and come under the influence of coaches who fast become father figures. They play for institutions that promote the virtues of obedience over free speech, servitude over independent thought and, quite often, team secrecy over the common good.

Modano, not outspoken by nature, has been a part of that system, but a lifetime in hockey has opened his eyes to certain aspects of the game and, lately, he's opened his mouth.

In recent seasons, Modano has become something of an advocate for cleaning up the dirty side of hockey, the burgeoning problem of cheap hits, especially from behind.

More recently, he's joined former teammate Brett Hull in speaking out about the quality of the game, everything from pace and tempo to scoring and lack of same.

In recent days, Modano has even called out ownership of the Dallas Stars. In remarks made to the media in Dallas on the eve of the opening of the season, Modano went where few players ever go: placing theories of accountability at owner Tom Hicks' door.

"I think the (Texas Rangers) situation had a big trickle down effect on us,'' Modano said about an apparent change in Stars spending policies that might or might not have been influenced by costs associated with Hicks' ownership of the Texas Rangers. "I think that has had a big impact on how we spend money. It's tough. It's tough to separate the two when you are owning both of them.

"I think we were OK for a while, but now things are getting restructured in trying to prepare the franchise for what is going to happen after this year."

In other words, Hicks got back on budget after years of being aggressive with free-agent signings.

Not the kind of statement one usually associates with Modano, a player who rarely said much of anything pro or con in his early years with the Minnesota North Stars or after the franchise was transferred to Dallas. Even with a Stanley Cup ring (1999) on his finger, Modano was not the player one rushed to for a quote.

I don't think I have to speak out on every issue. But I do feel it's important to speak out on issues that impact the game.

Mike Modano

That's starting to change now -- and not just because he's captain of the Stars.

"I don't think I have to speak out on every issue," Modano said after a recent stop in Buffalo, in the very locker room were he celebrated Dallas' one and only Cup win. "But I do feel it's important to speak out on issues that impact the game. I'm not Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux or Brett Hull, but I watched them when I came into the league and they were the ones who addressed the important issues. They had respect around the league so when they said something, it was usually important, and it was for the good of the game, and I think people listened to them because they had their respect.

"They had a sense of what was important in the game and around the league and they spoke to those issues. I don't speak out as often as Brett (a former teammate on that Cup-winning team now with Detroit) but I do try to address the things that I think are important in the game."

One gets the sense that the comments regarding Hicks and his spending policies were something Modano would like to have back or at least have made behind closed doors. Shortly after he made those remarks he was invited to Hicks' office for a one-on-one with the owner who insisted that the two budgets are separate.

Still, Modano took a stand. He gave voice to what a lot of the players were thinking since the team failed to re-sign free-agent defenseman Darien Hatcher, the team captain before Modano and a big part of the Stars' history of success.

After this season most people project a lockout by the owners in an attempt to force a new collective bargaining agreement with a salary cap or some other form of cost certainty. A great many clubs have been arranging their rosters for this. Fully 70 percent of new contracts issued this past offseason are reportedly to be for just one year.

Modano appeared more circumspect about the Dallas situation after the meeting with Hicks, but he hasn't backed away from some of the league-wide issues, especially hitting from behind.

He had a scary incident with Ruslan Salei of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim two seasons ago when Salei sent him headlong into the boards with a hit from behind. Modano suffered a concussion and a shoulder-neck injury. Many both in and outside the game felt he was fortunate not to have suffered a great deal more.

It prompted him to be more vocal, even though the unwritten rule in hockey is that its best to keep quiet rather than be labeled as someone who's "soft" regarding the physical side of the game. It's a little like not debating the pros and cons of communism so as not to be referred to as a "pinko." Modano knew he might become an even bigger target, but he took the risk anyway.

"I was very candid about that because I think the respect factor around the league is an issue," he said. "We're talking about people's livelihood and their well being and someone has to speak out on those issues.

"This is a rough game and I respect that, but things like that (hitting from behind) aren't what this game is all about. I think it's important that players respect each other. We have an obligation to play the game the way it was meant to be played."

In regard to speaking about other league-wide issues, Modano said he'll do his part even if it's painful.

In the aftermath of the Stars' game against the Sabres on Monday, he didn't duck the question as to why he was taken off the first power-play unit early and didn't even see the ice through the third period in an eventual 4-3 loss, Dallas' first of the season.

When a reporter noted that teammate Sergei Zubov was benched and goalie Marty Turco was pulled, Modano volunteered that it wasn't just those two who incurred coach Dave Tippitt's displeasure.

"I wasn't out there either. I didn't play very well, and we didn't deserve to be out there," he said. "We had a shaky start to the game and never got it going, and that's why we weren't out there.

"I think it was a pretty straightforward message. We personally didn't play well."

Not an easy thing to admit when you're that captain of a team and a star of epic proportions in the league.

Yet Modano didn't hide.

And that's saying something that matters.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mailbag.