For Mike Modano, the closure he was seeking never happened and it still eats away at him.
After 20 NHL seasons with the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars franchise, Modano still felt the desire to play, so he returned to his hometown of Detroit to skate for the Red Wings in 2010-11. He was hoping it would be a triumphant last hurrah, perhaps accompanied by one last long playoff run.
But often in life, one’s dreams hardly ever match the reality, and Modano’s thoughts of a final stab at glory were derailed by a debilitating wrist injury midway through that season. After missing 40 games, he returned late in the year but had a difficult time regaining his early-season form and wound up dressing for just two of the Wings’ playoff games before they bowed out in the second round to San Jose.
He officially retired as a Dallas Star on Sept. 23, 2011, but now, after one season away from the game, he admitted that he still fantasizes about coming back for one last go-round.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been able to fully close the door on that deal,” said the 42-year-old Modano, who was elected to the United States Hockey Hall of Fame this past summer. “I think my last year in Detroit was a lot of fun. I wish it ended differently, with the injury and everything, that really set me back. I wish it would have ended better. That’s just a taste in my mouth, leaving it the way it was, that still haunts me.”
Would he seriously consider a comeback attempt?
“I think I’m just in la-la land, just dreaming about it,” he said. “I don’t know how it would work out, but I can’t really see it happening. I think in the back of my mind, I’d love to see something work out where I could go back for a year, but I don’t know, I don’t see it.”
Either way, Modano’s legacy as one of the greatest American players ever is firmly secure, as the country’s all-time leader in career NHL goals with 561 and in points with 1,374, while his 1,499 games played ranks second among U.S.-born players.
Additionally, his 92 game-winning goals are tied with Jeremy Roenick for the most ever among Americans, while his 29 short-handed goals rank second and his 157 power play goals are third.
A Stanley Cup winner with Dallas in 1999, Modano made two other trips to the Finals and retired as the American leader in playoff points with 146, while both his 58 post-season goals and his 15 playoff game-winners sit second among U.S.-born players.
His impact on his nation’s international fortunes were just as monumental, as he helped Team USA to the 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship, a runner-up finish in the 1991 Canada Cup tournament, and a silver medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. He also represented the U.S. at two World Junior Championships, the 1998 and 2006 Olympics, the 2004 World Cup and three World Championships (1990, ’93 and 2005).
“Being American-born and being a part of a lot of those national teams and the Olympics, the Canada Cup tournaments, were great experiences,” said Modano, who compiled eight goals and 31 points for Team USA in 38 career games of best-on-best competition.
“I was very fortunate to get those opportunities to travel around the world and play hockey in all areas of Europe and Russia and places like that. USA Hockey has been a big part of my life since I was about 15, and it’s opened a lot of doors for us internationally to be able to play the game.”
Not surprisingly, Modano cited the ’96 World Cup of Hockey title as his international highlight, recalling with pride how Team USA defeated the more celebrated Canadians for the first time in a best-on-best tournament.
“I think the ‘96 World Cup was pretty special,” said Modano, who recorded two goals and six points in seven World Cup games that year. “I think the talent that we had on that team and Canada, to have to go to a best-of-three and have to win two games in Montreal was a great thrill. And then in Salt Lake in 2002 with Herb Brooks coaching and that gold medal game against Canada, those two highlights stick out pretty well.”
Despite his retirement and that of all his old teammates on those legendary U.S. squads -guys like Roenick, John LeClair, Chris Chelios, Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Brian Leetch and many more - Modano believes that the state of American hockey remains very strong.
“There’s a great crop of USA players going through the league right now, so there’s definitely some positives and a nucleus that’s turning into some great NHL players, let alone international,” Modano said. “There’s a bright future there.”
And it’s one he’d like to be a part of, acknowledging that he would probably be interested in remaining involved with USA Hockey in some capacity, perhaps in a supporting role for a younger-age international tournament.
“We’ll see, we’ve had some talks about that, but that’s something that kind of intrigues me a little bit,” admitted Modano, who became just the second U.S.-born player ever selected first overall at the NHL Entry Draft, when the North Stars chose him first in 1988.
“You’re working with young kids, maybe the World Juniors or the under-18 teams - that’s always rewarding when you can pass on a little bit of knowledge to some up-and-comers. It’s short-term, those are short tournaments, so it’s not too demanding a year-round commitment, but that’s something that could be interesting and fun to be a part of. That’s probably something that I’ll talk to them about in the fall.”
There’s no question a man with his experience and on-ice wisdom will have much to share to the next generation of American stars.
And what does he miss most about not playing anymore? The thrill of skating in the high-stakes pressure-cooker that is the NHL playoffs.
“I think it’s more the games and playoffs, that’s kind of what you lived for as you got older,” said Modano, who totaled four goals and 15 points in 40 games for the Red Wings his final year.
That’s what you remember, when you had success and a lot of fun playing the game. That was the best time, in the spring. One more deep run in the playoffs would be fun, especially here in Dallas, where we had some great runs. The playoff years were a lot of fun, the atmosphere in this town was something that we still talk about.
“It’s been hard to let go.”