When you think of American hockey, the name Mike Modano is practically a synonym. The Michigan native went on to collect records and accolades throughout his career that have yet to be matched by an American player. For nearly two decades in the NHL, he was a star – in more ways than one.
As a member of the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players of all time, there’s no question that Modano left his mark on the league. But more than that, he left an impression on an entire country. Referred to as “Superman on Ice,” Modano left those watching him in awe and led a generation of American talent.
Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap small buildings in a single bound. That prose would have been fitting to describe the physical capabilities Modano boasted on the ice.
He combined speed with strength and skill. He played with physicality, but grace. Was he actually Superman?
“I don’t know if Mike had his jersey specially cut,” said former NHL forward Bill Guerin, “But it always looked like he had a cape on.”
Modano left a legacy in the league, but he continues that legacy off the ice in his philanthropic endeavours. A sterling example of a true pro, Modano promoted hockey, excelled in the game, and used his success to help others. If there was ever an example of a true pro – it’s Mike Modano.
Awards & Accolades
Over the course of his 21-year career, Modano played for the Minnesota North Stars and helped the team move to and succeed as the Dallas Stars before spending his final season with the Detroit Red Wings. He rose up numerous leaderboards and was recognized for his efforts along the way:
- First in goals scored by an American-born player (561)
- First in points by an American-born player (1,374)
- First in career playoff points by an American-born player (146)
- First in games played by an American-born forward (1,499)
- First in North Stars/Stars history for goals, regular season and playoffs (557, 58)
- First in North Stars/Stars history for assists, regular season and playoffs (802, 87)
- First in North Stars/Stars history for points, regular season and playoffs (1,359, 145)
- First in North Stars/Stars history for games played, regular season and playoffs (1,459, 174)
- NHL All-Rookie Team (1990)
- NHL Second All-Star Team (2000)
- Seven-time NHL All-Star Game participant (1993, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2009)
- Stanley Cup Champion (1999)
- USA Hockey Bob Johnson Award (2002)
- USA Hockey Hall of Fame Inductee (2013)
- First-ballot inductee in the Hockey Hall of Fame (2014)
- IIHF Hall of Fame inductee (2019)
While there aren’t any individual awards on that list, it’s a still testament to what Modano was able to accomplish. He re-wrote the American history books while helping to shape a re-located franchise. For his remarkable career, he had his jersey retired by the Stars in 2014, and he was named one of the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players in 2017.
Mike Modano – Junior Days
Before he was an American star, Modano had to work his way up in the hockey world. After his father put him into hockey at seven-years-old to try and help ease his mischievous behaviour, he quickly got a handle on the game and excelled.
He played in the 1982 Quebec International PeeWee tournament, played Major Midget at age fourteen, playing against players two to three years older than him (which is a huge difference at that age), and his early success prompted his family to move to Westland so he could play for the Detroit Little Caesar’s AAA Hockey Club. In 1984-85, he scored 50 goals and 50 assists en route to winning the USA Hockey National Championship. People were taking notice.
In 1986, Modano was invited by Rick Wilson, head coach of the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, to join the team. He accepted, and in his first game collected a hat trick.
“When I got there, I felt like I had something to prove,” Modano said. “That was the motivation to do well. I was in Canada where people love their sport. They expect nothing less than your best.”
The next season, he was named to the WHL All-Star Team. He finished his Raiders’ career with 118 goals, 176 assists, and 294 points in 176 games.
Modano and Number 9
The number nine has become a symbol of greatness in the NHL, and Modano is a part of that legacy as one of ten number nines to be retired. Growing up, he chose this number due to two of his hero’s.
The first was Boston Red Sox Ted Williams, the idol of his father, and the second was his idol, none other than the original nine, and the best to ever wear the number, Gordie Howe. What’s interesting about this, is how that number worn by Modano would then inspire another generation to wear it.
Draft Day 1988
On June 11, 1988, just before Modano’s 18th birthday, his name was the first one called in the NHL Entry Draft. The Minnesota North Stars selected him, making him just the second American to ever be taken in that spot, after Brian Lawton in 1983. After being selected, Modano played one more season in the WHL before making the jump to the big leagues.
His selection was always compared to others drafted in the top-10, especially the number two selection of Trevor Linden, but also including Jeremy Roenick (eighth overall), Rod Brind’Amore (ninth overall), and Teemu Selanne (10th overall). Not to mention a trio of future stars drafted in the fourth round in Mark Recchi, Tony Amonte, and Rob Blake. There were some very talented players taken in 1988.
Modano and the Minnesota North Stars
Modano Impresses Early, Gets Snubbed for Calder?
Modano signed his first NHL contract in December of 1988, making his NHL debut in the 1989 NHL Playoffs where he played two games, without collecting a point. In 1989-90, he played his first full NHL season, instantly becoming a star.
Related: The Best #9’s in NHL History
In his rookie campaign, Modano collected 29 goals, 46 assists, and 75 points. The North Stars made the playoffs, losing round one in seven games to the Chicago Blackhawks. Modano got his first two playoff points, a goal and an assist in the series.
When it came time for the NHL Awards, it was between Modano and 31-year-old Calgary Flames right-winger Sergei Makarov. Makarov had just come over from Russia after playing professionally for the past 12 years overseas. He put up 86 points in his first NHL campaign and was awarded the Rookie of the Year honour.
Of course, comparing a 12-year professional veteran to a 20-year-old true rookie isn’t exactly a level playing field, so this decision prompted the NHL to review and update it’s Calder Trophy eligibility, capping the age at 26 years old.
Early Issues in Minnesota
In that rookie season, and especially in his sophomore campaign, there were some questions surrounding Modano and his effort levels. His second season saw him finish with 28 goals, 36 assists, and 64 points in 79 games, a drop from his previous season. The team as a whole played well though, reaching the Stanley Cup Final, although they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Modano had eight goals, 12 assists, and 20 points through the 23 games in playoffs.
Modano believed that him not reaching his previous year totals was due to the defensive system run by head coach Bob Gainey. In fact, he reportedly confronted the coach about this.
In 1992, Modano signed a four-year contract extension as the North Stars prepared for their final season in Minnesota. Modano reacted well to his new deal, which made him the highest-paid player on the team at $2 million per season and came out with a 93-point campaign (33 goals, 60 assists). He earned his first All-Star Game appearance, making the season a perfect goodbye to Minnesota.
Minnesota Relocates to Dallas
For the 1993-94 season, the North Stars moved south to Dallas, Texas and simply became the Stars. In this reshaping of the organization, Modano subsided to Gainey’s philosophy and revamped his game to fit the system. He repeated his previous season point total of 93 points, which was a career high, and scored 50 goals – also a career high.
The most beautiful vision I’ve seen in sports is Mike Modano winding up behind the net. He had those lengthy long strides that allowed him to blow by everybody. His jersey would be billowing behind him. I watched that in awe.”
Jeremy Roenick, former NHL player
If he wasn’t in Minnesota, Modano became the face of the franchise and a beloved figure on the team by fans. He even sold the most jerseys on the team. In that first season in Dallas, he was named an alternate captain and would maintain a letter on his jersey for his entire 16-year career in Dallas.
In the two years to follow, Modano started having injury troubles. A concussion, a knee injury and ruptured ankle tendons saw his goal-scoring slow, but his defensive game remained improved from his Minnesota days. In 1996, the Stars missed the playoffs for the first time in their short history, and Gainey stepped down as head coach (but remained general manager).
Related: Dallas Stars’ 50-Goal Scorers
Ken Hitchcock was brought in as the replacement and while he still enforced a defensive system, he asked Modano to focus on offense. While he wouldn’t beat his 50-goal, 93-point totals again, he became one of the best overall players in the league, often earning votes annually for the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the league (four times finishing in the top-10), the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy as the most gentlemanly player in the league (three times finishing in the top-10) and the Hart Trophy as league MVP (three times finishing in the top-10).
With Gainey’s defensive guidance and then Hitchcock’s loosening of the leash, Modano was a force every night and he was rewarded. His ice time went from 15-18 minutes a night to averaging 25 minutes a night. He was a machine.
With the addition of Hitchcock, plus the stockpiling of players such as Joe Nieuwendyk and Sergei Zubov, and then Ed Belfour and Brett Hull in 1998, Modano led the Stars back into the playoffs in 1997, and then to back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 1997-98 and 1998-99. In that second season though, the top regular-season team was just the beginning, setting up one of the most memorable Modano stories of his career.
Modano Pushes Through for the Stanley Cup
In the 1999 NHL Playoffs, Modano was on a mission. The Stars had just won the Presidents’ Trophy and were looking to continue their success in the playoffs. The Stars swept the Edmonton Oilers and defeated the St. Louis Blues in a 4-2 series before facing off against a stacked Colorado Avalanche team.
But the Stars prevailed, winning a hard-fought, seven-game battle against the Avs, heading to the Stanley Cup Final to face off against the Buffalo Sabres.
In Game 2, Modano actually broke his wrist. But rather than sitting out the most important games of his career, he pushed forward, playing all six games in the Final. He ended up leading the Stars and finishing second in the NHL for playoff scoring with 23 points in 23 games.
“He is a jack of all trades and master of all of them. He can shoot, pass, skate, play defense, kill penalties and run a power play. And he’s one of the top three physically fit people I ever played with.”
Former Stars’ teammate Brett Hull
He assisted on all five of the final goals the Stars scored, including Hull’s triple-overtime goal in Game 6 to clinch the Stanley Cup. Upon winning hockey’s Holy Grail, he collapsed into tears.
“I remember hugging him on the ice, and you could feel his emotion,” former Stars’ Director of Player Personnel Craig Button said. “You could feel the release — it was like ‘I won, and now no one can ever say I didn’t win.’”
Despite his outstanding performance through the playoffs en route to the Cup, the Conn Smythe Trophy went to Nieuwendyk who led the playoffs with 11 goals. Modano’s broken wrist has been overshadowed since however, due to a controversy surrounding Hull and the placement of his skate in that final game.
Modano Starts Re-Writing History
Modano and the Stars returned to the Final in 1999-00, with Modano scoring a crucial Game 5 overtime goal to force a Game 6, where the team ultimately fell to the New Jersey Devils. In these back-to-back Stanley Cup Final visits, Modano collected 81 points in each regular season, and 23 points in each playoff run.
The Stars legend spent the next decade in Dallas, serving as the captain in 2003-04 and 2005-06, although the team never lifted the Cup with him again. Instead, Modano began re-writing the Stars and American-born record books.
On March 17, 2007, just days after becoming the 39th player to ever hit 500 goals (and 14th to do it with a single team), the Stars were up against the Nashville Predators. Modano scored two goals, his 502nd and 503rd, in a 3-2 loss. Those two goals tied and then passed Joe Mullen for the most goals scored by an American-born player.
Early the next season, Modano earned another American honour, again by scoring two goals. On Nov. 7, 2017, he scored two goals in the first five minutes of the game, passing Phil Housley for the most points from an American in NHL history. The second, record-clinching goal was the most impressive, coming shorthanded on a breakaway. The milestone even earned Modano a call from former President George W. Bush. According to Modano, the American goal and points records are the most meaningful achievements in his career.
In that season, and for the rest of his time with the Stars, his number started to dwindle until the end of his contract in 2010. After two decades with the same team, his time with the Stars was up. In his final game, which just-so-happened to be held against the Minnesota Wild, he received a video tribute, a standing ovation, was the first star of the game, and to cap it off he did a lap around the rink – in a Minnesota North Stars jersey.
Modano Heads to Detroit
Not just ready to retire, Modano signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings in his home state. With number nine already retired for the player who originally inspired him to wear it, he opted for number 90 instead.
Despite scoring in his first game, he didn’t have a great with the Red Wings, collecting just four goals, 11 assists and 15 points in 40 games. He then played just two playoff games, and the Red Wings lost in the second round, despite bolstering a lineup with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, and a top-of-his-game Jimmy Howard.
On Sept. 23, 2011, Modano decided to hang his skates up, after the best career from an American player ever. The Stars signed him to a one-day contract so that he could retire as a member of the franchise he helped build. Upon his retirement, he was the last active player to have played in the 1980s and the last to have played for the Minnesota North Stars.
He spent three seasons with the Stars’ organization as a Special Advisor, and in 2019 joined the Minnesota Wild’s front office in the same role. In 2014, the Stars retired his number 9.
Modano’s International Play
Modano was a regular on Team USA throughout his hockey career. In the IIHF Under-20 World Junior Championships in both 1988 and 1989, he collected five and then 15 points, leading the tournament in assists in that second year.
He went on to play in three World Championships, two World Cup of Hockey tournaments, the 1991 Canada Cup, and three Olympic Games. He has an Olympic silver medal from the Games in Salt Lake City and a gold medal from the 1996 World Cup.
Other than the Stanley Cup run, the silver medal run in Salt Lake City is arguably some of the best hockey Modano ever played.
“In the same game, he saucered a pass 90 feet, if not more, to Brett Hull. He knew exactly what he was doing. Then he came down the ice, going as fast as anyone can physically skate, and threw a 2 ½- foot perfect saucer pass to Hullie again. He deadened that pass perfectly. I’ve never seen other guys who could have done that.”
Jim Johannson, USA Hockey general manager
For his efforts with the international teams, he was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013 and the IIHF Hockey Hall of Fame in 2019.
Modano started the Mike Modano Foundation, which provides resources and education for at-risk, particularly abused, abandoned and neglected children in the Dallas area. In 2002, he opened the Mike Modano Infant and Toddler Cottage, which provides a safe haven for at-risk children and youth.
To this day, he provides support through funding and resources to organizations dedicated to children and families that have suffered from child abuse.
Modano: An American Star
There’s no question that Modano is one of the greatest American’s to ever play the game. He broke every major American record he could while helping to build an organization in Dallas, Texas. In doing that, he brought a Cup to the franchise and helped ignite the Southern States into hockey fans.
The term “Superman on Ice” is an accurate description for the Hall of Fame player. Speed, strength, and grace. As it says in his 100 Greatest NHL Players biography, “All that Modano was missing for superhero status was a giant “S” on his chest.”
On top of his play on the ice, Modano gave back to the community and continues to do so through the Mike Modano Foundation. He will remain a hockey legend throughout the history of the game.