Dear 29-year-old Mike,
I got to let you know something before you go out there for triple overtime in Buffalo.
I know, I know, you’ve got to be out on the ice with your guys. But you’re going to want to hear this. Because you’re about to go through one of the most amazing, important times in your life. And when it ends, those memories are going to last forever.
So know this: That feeling you have, deep down, that’s telling you it’s going to be really, really tough to bounce back if this thing goes seven? That feeling is the truth. You’ve got a broken wrist that you’re numbing every day and praying that it doesn’t get worse each shift. Hull’s on a bad knee and he’s probably not suiting up for Game 7. The boys in the room are out of gas. This is it. This is really it.
You could have never dreamed of what’s on the other side of this period.
I mean, do you remember clearing off the snow on the lake that you used to live on outside of Detroit?
Do you remember how this all began?
Dad taught you how to skate out there when you were six years old and, man, once you got started there was no going back. You knew right away that you just loved to skate. Then you moved off the lake, so Mom built you a little rink in the backyard in the winters and you were out there basically every waking hour. And the funny thing is, you didn’t even know a lick about the sport, really.
When you were five, and Dad was working his construction job, he had a talk with a few of the boys he hired to help him. They were the Rankin brothers. Jack, Mike and Bobby Rankin. Jack played some semipro hockey in his day and Bobby played in college up at St. Lawrence.
Dad told them that you had too much energy. Like way too much energy. You were always getting up to no good around the house and bothering Mom. At Kindergarten class, the teachers would complain that you’d never pay attention like the other kids did and you always had to be doing something.
So Dad and the Rankin boys had an idea to keep you moving.
They thought that if they strapped some skates on you, you could make something of all that energy.
You understood, right away, what they were thinking. Once you got outside, and you skated in the open air on the lake … you were hooked. That feeling of the cold wind hitting your face harder and harder the faster you go drew you back out there every day.
As you got older, you started to discover that the sport exists outside of your backyard. You and Dad would watch channel nine on Saturday nights to see those great Toronto and Montreal teams play. Sittler, Salming for the Leafs. Lafleur, Robinson for the Habs. These guys lit up on the TV. And since Dad was from Boston, on family vacations up there during the holidays, you’d go to the Garden with him and see the Bruins play. The electricity in the building stayed with you long after you left.
Back home, it was just a 30-minute drive to the Joe in Detroit, where the Wings played. They were going through a tough stretch back when you were a boy. But the fans in town always had a great passion for their team. Hockey, in that part of our country, meant a lot to everyone. And the Wings gave back to their community in a bunch of different ways. You were part of that when you started going to Little Caesars hockey camps when you were 10. That took the game to a whole new level for you.
Through those camps, you were able to see more games at the Joe and fall in love with the sport even more. You began to compete against some of the best players in the area, and that led to a tough decision.
One thing a lot of people don’t know is that you thought about trying to make it in tennis. You were a pretty good player as a boy, and for a bit you considered going to Florida to try and really give it a run in tennis.
Mike Modano, the tennis pro. Maybe in another life.
But in this life, you chased that feeling of freedom that only hockey could give you. That led to you, Mom and Dad making another big choice. Going to Canada for juniors was the best option if you were going to try and make it to the NHL. But it was a big choice. Mom was a bit hesitant to send you up there, especially because you were only 16.
Rick Wilson, the head coach of the Prince Albert Raiders in Saskatchewan called you up in the summer of ’86, telling you how he wanted you to come up there and what he believed was possible for you. There was no changing your mind after that.
But in this life, you chased that feeling of freedom that only hockey could give you.
Do you remember how confident you were in the decision?
Mom and Dad — though they wanted a few more years of you at home — knew it was the right call, too.
In Prince Albert, you’d meet two of the most important people you’d ever come across.
Ralph and Carol Ring, your billet family.
One of their sons, Martin, had just moved out, but Stephen was still there. They made your transition from Livonia to your new home as easy as you could have ever imagined. Ralph worked as an executive with the Raiders and Carol worked in city hall, but she would sing the anthem before games. They, like everyone in the town, had a deep connection to the team. The Raiders were the heartbeat of Prince Albert.
Coach Wilson and his wife, who was also named Carol, were such great leaders for that team.
You know, it’s funny, because when people think of you down the road, a lot of them are going to remember you for your skating. That will be a point of pride for you. But what they won’t know is that you were a bit of late bloomer when it came to really finding that explosive stride. It wasn’t until Carol Wilson, who was a great figure skater, worked with you that you started to find that next level. She made your stride a bit longer and all of sudden you gained a step on some of the older kids playing in the WHL.
That’s what people in Prince Albert do, they help one another.
It was a small farm town, but they loved their hockey. I mean, of course, the whole country of Canada did. The word passionate doesn’t quite cover it. So when you got to town, there was definitely some push-back about an American being up there and scoring as many points as you did. I know you remember that part. Some of the other teams always had a few guys in their bottom six that wanted to take a run at you or remind you that you weren’t at home anymore.
But you got through it. I know how much you loved Prince Albert once you got to know it. You spent summers up there and you’ll keep in touch with those friends you made outside the rink for life.
In the summer of ’87, you began to see what could happen when your time with the Raiders was done.
That year, the draft was at the Joe in Detroit. Even though you weren’t eligible until the next year, you and Dad went to see what it was all about. A few of the guys you played against in the WHL got picked in the first round, including Joe Sakic. You lined up against him a couple of times the year before. He was a great player and you knew if you worked hard in your draft year, you could have a chance to go early in the first round, too.
That next season, you didn’t hear much about the draft until after the world juniors ended in Moscow in January. You guys didn’t have a great tournament, but when you got back home the NHL released the Central Scouting Bureau draft rankings, and you saw your name up at the top with Trevor Linden.
Here’s the thing about the draft, that you might not fully appreciate for some time: Going first overall will mean a lot to you — to American hockey — as you get older. I know, at the time, you just wanted to be an NHL player. But receiving the honor of being the second American to be selected first … that’s a big deal. Trevor was a great junior player, so to battle with him through the end of that ’88 season will help you grow.
The draft was at the forum in Montreal. Your whole family was there with you, including Ralph and Carol.
I know you knew that it was likely you’d go first or second, to Minnesota or Vancouver. But I also know you looked up and down that draft board and let your mind wander. You saw Pittsburgh had the fourth pick and you wondered, A career playing beside Mario … what would that be like?
But when Lou Nanne made the call to take you first overall, you’d learn that Minnesota was the place you wanted to be. That passion Michiganders have for hockey is matched by Minnesotans. And you were lucky to join a franchise like the North Stars.
The TSN interview after the pick, where you were sweaty and more nervous than you’d ever been, wasn’t your best. But at least your braces were off. Did you forget how you got them off a few weeks before? New teeth, new job. Pretty good week, I think.
After another year in Prince Albert, you finally had to say goodbye to the Rings and the Raiders. You headed to Kalamazoo for training camp with the North Stars in the summer of ’89 and you learned, real quick, that the NHL was a big step up from the WHL. You walked into the locker room and saw guys like Brian Bellows, Stew Gavins and Basil McRae. You weren’t in Saskatchewan anymore.
You also realized in your first practice that you weren’t the fastest anymore.
That shook you a bit. But everyone in the room did a good job of welcoming you and making you feel a part of the team. That made your rookie season a bit easier.
But, Mike, I’ve got a quick piece of advice for you here.
Don’t get in another fight. Just don’t do it. I know, I know, when you dropped the gloves with Rod Brind’Amour that year, it made sense in the moment. But, yeah, he handled you pretty good. You did your best … but just don’t look up the fight on the Internet when you’re older either. That part of the game just isn’t for you, pal.
In Minnesota, you grew into the player you always wanted to be. The Stanley Cup run in ’91 taught you a lot about what it takes to win in this league. You guys snuck into the playoffs that year with 68 points, but you learned quickly that it doesn’t matter how you got there — what matters is that you’re there.
The fans in Minnesota packed the arena every night during those playoffs and you only lost one home game before the Cup final. That Pittsburgh team that you ran into, man, they were good, right? Mario, Jagr, Coffey…. They could really play. They beat you guys in six, and it stung for a while.
I know you remember that feeling this year before you played Buffalo.
But, of course, there’s a big difference with this year’s team. You aren’t playing for Minnesota anymore. The team moved to Dallas in 1993 and I know it wasn’t easy on you to say goodbye to the people of Minnesota. You were one of the leaders on that team and those last few games at the Met Center were pretty emotional. I know seeing those little boys and girls in their North Stars gear — knowing they won’t have a team the next year — that hurt.
But hockey is a business sometimes, you know that.
Not many of the guys could really believe that they’d be heading to Texas, though.
Remember when they broke the news to the team.
Dallas? Really? That’s Cowboy country.
They had won back-to-back Super Bowls the year you headed out there and it was pretty obvious that, no matter what you did, or what they did, they were going to be the front-page story. In a way it took some of the pressure off of you as players. You were able to do your thing and try to help build up a fan base however the team wanted because people were pretty new to the sport. America wasn’t the hockey hotbed it is now. In ’93 it had only been a couple years since the Gretzky trade so the southern half of the country was still coming around on the game.
But, you noticed right away how nearly every fan who made it to a game in those first few years left with a smile on their face. And they always wanted to come back for another one. Even though the team struggled a bit those first few years, you were all building something special down there.
Those Dallas fans are smart when it comes to their sports though, you saw that. After a couple of years of being there they wanted a winner. In ’96, when things weren’t going so well, Ken Hitchcock came in to coach the team and things began to change, almost immediately. He pushed you hard. There were times when guys in the room would look at each other like, Can this guy just relax for a day?
But that was Hitch.
That summer after he came in, you sat with him and Bob Gainey, the GM, and you worked out how you could help this team get over the hill and bring a Cup to Dallas. You all decided that it would be best to add some more dimensions to your game, to make you a 200-foot player and those types of responsibilities would be given to all the veterans on the team.
You know, when you look back on how the ’99 Cup run came to be, you’ll remember the preseason trips to Vail. When Hitch took over, he made those trips to Colorado mandatory before the season started and it really helped all the guys get to know each other. There was a lot of bonding, training and a bit of golf, too. That trip in ’99, everyone knew before the season started that the team had to make a deep run that year. The fans in Dallas were hungry and they knew you and the team were capable of getting it done.
You saw how the team shaped up that year. You knew going into the playoffs that this was going to be special. From the veterans in the room like Brett Hull and Guy Carbonneau, to leaders like Derian Hatcher and Joe Nieuwendyk and all the way through the lineup to Ed Belfour in net — this group was built to win big games. You just had to prove it.
When you look back on how the ’99 Cup run came to be, you’ll remember the preseason trips to Vail.
In the Conference Finals you played that great Avalanche team with the guy you saw in ’87 at the draft, Joe Sakic. They were an excellent group and after they beat you at home in Game 5, you were down 3–2. Those next two games, and you know this, they were some of the best hockey you’ve ever been a part of. From top to bottom Hitch had you guys executing in every zone, on every shift. To go back to Colorado and win there, then to survive a Game 7…. I’m sure it felt like destiny that you would beat Buffalo in the finals.
But now you’re here. In the locker room of the Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo, and it’s getting late.
It’s Game 6. You’re up 3–2 in the series. And you’re about to head out there for triple overtime.
Look around. You see how beat the guys are?
Look at Hitch. He even looks tired.
But, man, this is it.
When you get out there, just try to get the puck in their zone. That’s the first step. They’ve got an incredible goalie in Hasek. He’s on tonight. You’ve got to get some traffic in front of him and make him work. As the period goes on, just try to cycle it and make them skate as much as possible.
Late in the frame, when the body is hurting the most, that’s when you’ll get your chance.
You’ll get the puck in the corner, you’ll shake free of Zhitnik and try to play along the wall. The puck will sort of fumble toward the net, so stay with it. Hully will be out there with you and it’ll be one of his first shifts in a while because of his knee. He’ll be near the crease and then it’s just going to happen.
It’ll be a blur. No matter how much detail I describe it to you in, it’s going to be a blur.
You’ll be trying to get the puck and next thing you know, Hasek will be on his stomach and Hully will be screaming.
It’s not going to take two days or two weeks for it to hit you that you won the Stanley Cup — it’s going to hit you right then and there. It’s the best feeling in the world, Mike. It really is. You’re going to cry for two hours straight that night, I promise.
The pain in your wrist, in your legs — it’ll all just fade away in a split second as you wheel into the corner with Hully.
You’ll skate around the ice with the Cup over your head, and it’ll feel like it weighs a pound, not 35.
When you get back to the locker room, before the press and the friends and family can come in, there will be a moment.
Everyone on the team, from the coaches to the players, will have a chance to huddle in the middle of the room and tell each other what this experience — what this night — means to them. I want you to look around at all those guys and really soak it all. Remember your own journey. From the lake in Livonia, to Saskatchewan, to Minnesota and all the way to Dallas. Think about all the people who made this possible. Know each guy in that room has a story like yours.
Appreciate those guys and what you’ve all just accomplished.
You’re going to cry for two hours straight that night, I promise.
When you get back home to Dallas, and you see Young Street packed with thousands and thousands of Stars fans, it’s going to blow your mind. There will be hundreds at DFW to welcome you back when you land, too. It’s going to be incredible, trust me.
But what will take some time to set in is that your team changed the sport of hockey in the state of Texas — forever. You’ll notice in the few years after the Cup that the atmosphere at your home games is truly the best in the league. The fans will stand all game during the playoffs and every shot, hit and goal will sound like a touchdown at Cowboy Stadium. Dallas will become a hockey destination, because of what that ’99 team did.
That to me, Mike, is legacy.
Be proud of that.
The Stanley Cup isn’t everything. But I wanted you to really appreciate the journey you went on with those guys, and know that that team still matters to the people of Texas.
There’s plenty more for you in the game after ’99.
But, to be honest here, I don’t want to spoil it all for you.
There’s great things coming. From playing for the Wings, to retirement, to seeing your jersey go to the rafters in Prince Albert, to the Hockey Hall of Fame — this game will give you more than you could have imagined. You'll meet Allison, the love of your life. She will be your best friend and with her you'll find the most fulfilling life after hockey. But most importantly, you’ll become a father to Kate, Jack, Reese, Luca and Quinn. Your family will be the greatest blessing of all. And that’ll change the way you see the world forever. I can’t wait for you to experience that.
There will come a time in your life when you’re not playing hockey anymore. You’ll go to events, or meet people, and somebody will introduce you as “Mike Modano, one of the greatest American hockey players of all time.”
I know you didn’t grow up thinking about becoming that. All you wanted was to be a good teammate and win a Stanley Cup. But I hope that when that day comes, and you see the impact you had on the game, that it means something to you. Your generation of American players — guys like Hully, Tkachuk, Guerin, Roenick and so many others — helped pave the way for the game to reach another level here in the U.S. Those world-class players you’ll see on TV when you get older, know that some of them look up to you guys right now.
You and your family worked hard to reach this point, know that. You’re one of the lucky ones who gets to play this game for a living.
So when you head out there for triple overtime, remember to cherish every second of it.
And make sure Hully gets the puck.