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Modano a Hall of Fame player, person

DALLAS -- We could start with the effortless skating, the goals -- most ever by an American-born player in the NHL -- the Stanley Cup ring, the Olympic silver medal and the virtuoso performance in making hockey a thing in Dallas.

Instead, we will start this story about Hall of Fame-bound Mike Modano with Joe Micheletti.

Micheletti was in transition from NHL player to broadcaster when he got a job doing analysis for the Minnesota North Stars in the early 1990s. From the get-go, Micheletti, one of the most recognizable commentators in the NHL, was drawn to Modano, the North Stars' young star.

Modano, the first overall pick in the 1988 draft, wasn't a superstar quite yet, but he was on that track. Still, Micheletti always found him warm and engaging. There are a handful of players in the game you always look forward to catching up with, Micheletti told ESPN.com, "and that's how I always considered Mike."

The two would talk about a variety of things, not just hockey, but life things.

It's a good thing the two got along, because neither hockey lifer could have known that almost a quarter-century later, Modano would become Micheletti's son-in-law and the father of Micheletti's twin grandchildren born last summer.

When Modano first started to date Micheletti's daughter Allison, a professional golfer, and then when they became engaged and announced they were going to have a family, people would sometimes pull Micheletti aside, eager to tell their own Mike Modano stories. Many of the recollections came from trainers and other hockey staff who had encountered Modano during his 1,499-game career.

Invariably, the stories focused on Modano's humanity, his selflessness, his generosity. During the 2004-05 lockout, for instance, Modano made a point of searching out trainers and other hockey-related staffers to make sure they were doing OK without hockey and, in some cases, without a paycheck. He delivered checks to them and insisted they call if they needed help.

"These were not small checks," Micheletti said, recounting the stories passed along to him. "Even now it kind of chokes me up talking about it."

The Hall of Fame is a place that, by its very nature, invites big discussions about the game's biggest stars. And by almost any measuring stick you'd like to use, Modano's credentials stand out: Hall of Famer; 561 career goals and 1,374 points that are tops among U.S.-born players (we don't count former teammate Brett Hull, who played for Team USA but was born in Canada); a Stanley Cup in 1999; and a member of a seminal group of Americans who won the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996 over one of the best Canadian teams of all time.

Ron Wilson was the coach of that 1996 team, and he recalled Modano as being among a small group of the game's greatest forwards, who seemed not to skate, but rather to glide around the ice. Modano was part of a group that seemed to defy science, guys such as Bobby Hull and Guy Lafleur.

"Their jerseys just seemed to flutter in the breeze. It just looked like they should have been wearing a cape," the veteran coach said with a laugh. "And the way Mike played, he should have been wearing a cape out there."

Hull played with Modano internationally, winning that World Cup and then a silver medal in Salt Lake City in 2002. He recalled marveling at Modano's speed and grace.

"Sitting on the bench and watching him skate with the puck and do the incredible things at such high speed, it was awe-striking," said Hull, who remains one of Modano's closest friends and who will present Modano with his Hall of Fame plaque in Toronto.

"Your jaw would drop and you'd go, 'Holy crap, how did he do that?' Because I was basically the opposite," said Hull, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.

But the Hall of Fame is about being more than a good player. Or at least it should be. There are layers to becoming a Hall of Famer, things that might be somewhat hidden beneath the surface that transcend box scores, that can be revealed only by peeling back layers and probing more deeply. And so it is with Modano.

Because when the North Stars packed up and moved to Dallas before the 1993-94 season -- shedding the "North" part of their identity and their name -- it fell to Modano first to teach and sell the game to the marketplace, and then to deliver on the promise of building a champion in the Southwest.

To do that, he had to be himself, charming and handsome and without conceit. Then -- and this was the hard part, the part fans maybe never understood -- Modano had to remake himself as a player.

"There's no question Mike Modano made hockey popular" in Texas, said Doug Armstrong, who was in the Stars' front office during their pinnacle in Dallas and is now the general manager for the St. Louis Blues. "Mike Modano made hockey sexy,"

Even now, so long after the fact, Modano acknowledged it's amazing to consider the journey made by him and the Stars and their fans. There were, he said in a recent interview, growing pains. For instance, the announcing of basic hockey plays such as icing or offside on the public address system at old Reunion Arena.

"Trying to catch up fans and people and teach them about the game, what to look for," Modano, 44, recalled. "It was kind of a hard adjustment because we just came from the state of Minnesota, where hockey is pretty much it.

"It was tough, but the fans came out. It took off."

The Stars swept the Blues in the first round that spring, and the fans barely sat down from the beginning of the postseason until the end, when the Stars were dispatched by the Vancouver Canucks in the second round.

"They pretty much stood throughout the whole game," Modano recalled. "No one had ever seen that before. It happened in no other building."

That playoff experience would begin a stretch that saw the Stars make the playoffs in seven of the next eight seasons, culminating with a victory over Buffalo in the 1999 Stanley Cup finals and a return to the finals against the New Jersey Devils the following year. All that did not come without several false starts and a commitment by the team's best player to change his approach to the game.

Modano recalled Ken Hitchcock, who came to Dallas as head coach in January 1996, telling him that he and linemate Jere Lehtinen were going to match up against opposing teams' top lines every night, as opposed to trying to get more advantageous matchups against lesser players. Instead of avoiding players such as Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg and Sergei Fedorov, Modano would now go head-to-head with them.

"The thing I saw was the changing of a mindset of a player," Hitchcock, now the coach in St. Louis, told ESPN.com. "He stopped focusing on [his] points and started focusing on wins and important points."

Modano went from being a player looking for space to one willing to fight for that space, Hitchcock said.

"I saw that evolution," he said.

It was not an easy transformation. Modano recalled having the conversations with Hitchcock and his coaching staff -- including defensive genius Doug Jarvis, Rick Wilson and perhaps the greatest defensive player of all time in Bob Gainey, who at the time was the Stars' GM.

Maybe "conversation" isn't the right term. Maybe "browbeating sessions" would be more accurate. What they were saying to Modano seemed counterintuitive to how he'd played his whole career, his whole raison d'etre, if you will.

"Bob and I talked about this until we were blue in the face," Modano said. "He would say, 'Mike, you can't play the way you're playing and expect to win and be consistent and be what we want you to be,' I really was unsure of what he was saying."

Finally, though, it wasn't so much of an epiphany as a beatdown that led to Modano's buying in.

"Just like a horse or a dog and you just kind of lay there submissive, saying, 'I give up, I'll do it,'" Modano said with a laugh.

There were no guarantees it would work, of course. But it did.

"God, looking back at it, there's not a day that goes by that I'm not thankful they were in my face every day to get me to change," Modano said.

Ron Wilson -- who coached against Modano many times while leading the San Jose Sharks and coached him internationally -- said sometimes elite players never quite understand the importance of making adjustments that stop them from being a liability in certain situations or limit a coach's options when it comes to using them.

"It took Mike two or three years to do that, then he was a totally dominant guy," Wilson said.

Then he could do it all -- kill penalties, work the power play and use his speed or his tremendous shot.

"And it looked like he was never trying because he skated so well," Wilson said. "It was easy to overlook how good Mike was without the puck unless you played or coached a lot against him."

Modano was not the first superstar to have gone through that metamorphosis, nor will he be the last. Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman is often held up as the shining example of an offensive star who gave up personal success in the form of goals and assists for the greater good.

But Modano's sacrifices and the raising of the Cup in '99 and the return to the finals the next year reinforced everything that had been sold to the fan base in Texas: Trust us, this is going to work, you will love this team and this team will repay that love with success.

Hull remembered winning in '99 and the jubilation mixed with relief that he saw in the team's captain.

"I don't think he stopped crying for two hours," Hull said. "The emotion that got lifted off him had to be incredible. That's when it struck me how he'd sacrificed to do this.

"I don't think people have a clue the sacrifice he made. He bought in from day one. Was he happy about it? No, but that's the type of gamer he was."

The will to make such a commitment in some ways seemed to be at odds with Modano's easygoing attitude.

Defenseman Darryl Sydor recalled being traded from Los Angeles to Dallas during a Florida road trip. It was just ahead of a matinee game, and Sydor didn't even get in a morning skate or pregame meal before he laced up with his new teammates. Modano came by and clapped him on the back and said, simply, "Don't sweat it, do what you do." The two would become fast friends.

Sometimes the team would go out to dinner and Modano would suggest not watching hockey, feeding into the notion that somehow his connection to the game was more fragile than that of others.

"But he'd be the first guy to be staring at the game, watching the other guys. He'd be the first one glued to the TV and wouldn't talk during dinner," Sydor said with a laugh. "He was good for me because I was so intense in the game that he actually reeled me back a few times and said, 'Hey, relax.' Because he was so relaxed."

Sydor recalled the team not playing well one night and asking Modano, who was sitting next to him between periods, "Where are you right now?" Modano said he was thinking about the beach and the ocean in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Then he went out in the third period and helped the Stars win another game.

It was this personality that endeared him so to people in Dallas, even as his play was at such a level that fans couldn't help but be drawn to what was taking place on the ice. Without Modano, where is hockey in Texas? Maybe nowhere.

"Mike Modano is the Dallas Stars," said Sydor, now an assistant coach with the Wild and still a close friend of Modano's. "When you talk Dallas Stars hockey, it's him. In the state of Texas, he's the guy. He's the man, I think. He's the Troy Aikman of hockey."

Hull agrees: "There is no franchise without Mike Modano in Dallas."

The team moved to Texas, pinned everything on Modano and he delivered.

"He fulfilled the prophecy," Hull said.

Modano has returned to the fold with the Stars, rejoining the franchise as an executive adviser and alternate governor, and he helps out president and CEO Jim Lites as needed. Mostly, though, his job now is to be a dad to 4-month-olds Kate and Jack, something he admitted he couldn't imagine himself doing when he was playing.

There's a kind of symmetry to all of this, his new family and the Hall of Fame and everything else. Modano's journey in some ways reinforces the end, the closing of the circle.

"I just don't know how it's going to feel once I get there," Modano admitted of the ceremony set for Nov. 17 in Toronto.

He's talked to former great Pat LaFontaine about the weekend and how best to enjoy it, to take it in. It's not an easy task, though, putting a career like his in perspective. It's also hard to acknowledge that in some ways this is the final page about to be turned, at least in terms of being a player.

"This is kind of finally the end, for this to happen, this is the final chapter in my hockey career," Modano said.

Of course, he added, if you're going to go out, going out as a Hall of Famer isn't a bad final chapter to have written.

"That induction thing is still surprises me -- you feel like you don't deserve it and you don't belong," he said. Then to be honored as a first-ballot inductee, well, "that's a pretty neat deal."

And so we could close with the skating and the goals and the accolades and, certainly, Modano's legacy. Instead, we close with this story told by Allison Modano to her dad, Joe Micheletti.

Modano doesn't travel much now and the couple split their time between Scottsdale, Arizona, and Dallas. Recently, though, Modano had to go out of town to fulfill a charity golf commitment. He flew back after the golf and arrived home late at night. When he got home, he didn't go to bed, but rather pulled a chair into the twins' room and watched them sleep for several hours.

"That's neat," Micheletti said. "To me that just tells me you're in the right spot with your life."

When the Hall of Fame announcement came last summer, it was great, but it didn't change the things Micheletti already knew about is son-in-law.

"I just think that the person he is outweighs anything he did as a player. I mean, he's one of the greatest players that ever lived. But, who he is and how he treats people, he's got a real special way -- he treats people the way they're supposed to be treated," Micheletti said. "So I look at that as I'm so happy for him and this is so deserving."

But the bottom line, Micheletti said, is this: "He's a Hall of Fame person."

And maybe that's as good as it gets.