With weight of Stars on shoulders, Modano helped deliver glory

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Mike Modano was probably the player most vested in the 1999 Stanley Cup.

While it took a village to pull off the feat, Modano has always been the face of the franchise. Drafted first overall by the Minnesota North Stars in 1988, moved with the team to Texas in 1993, led the team in scoring in 11 different seasons, hold most of the franchise scoring records — Modano carried a lot of weight.

So when he assisted on Brett Hull’s Cup-winning goal at 54:51 of overtime in the wee hours of the morning in Buffalo, well, it was quite a feeling.

“I was so glad when it went in, glad that we won of course, but just glad it was over,” Modano told DallasStars.com from his home in Arizona this week. “It was such a huge relief.”

Modano said he always teases Hull that it just as easily could have been his goal. Modano skated up behind Hull and tried to poke the puck out from between his skates. Then, after Hull kicked the puck to his stick, Modano said he was about a foot away and also could have tried to punch it in.

Video: 1999: Brett Hull’s 3OT goal gives Stars first Cup

“I always joke with Hully that I could have scored the goal instead of him,” Modano said. “We were both there. I watched it all the way. I was trying to get the puck, and Brett just had it stuck to his skate and was twisting and turning, so he kind of hit my stick away.”

In the end, it didn’t matter who scored, Modano said. The Stars won as a team and celebrated as a team. That’s one of the things that he said sticks out during the journey that was his career.

Modano came in as a high-scoring center who was focused only on points. He hit 93 points in season’s four and five, and then didn’t match that total for the rest of his career. Instead, he saw his plus-minus push up to the plus-20s, 30s and 40s and drew votes for the Selke Trophy in nine different seasons. That’s when he helped the Stars become one of the best teams in the league.

“I just think what he did was remarkable,” said former Stars coach Ken Hitchcock. “He changed his game and he helped us become a winning team, and it was probably never more evident than that season.”

Modano drew the toughest assignments most games and still led the team in scoring with 23 points in 23 playoff games. By allowing Joe Nieuwendyk (11 goals) and Jamie Langenbrunner (10 goals) to get better matchups, Modano, Hull and Jere Lehtinen helped create balanced scoring for the team. There were times, players like Guy Carbonneau and Mike Keane stepped up and added key goals.

Tweet from @DallasStars: ���Pressure, pressure, pressure. That was the formula to win the Presidents’ Trophy and win the Stanley Cup.���Ed Belfour discusses the details that has led to the Hall of Fame netminder���s success. #GoStars https://t.co/8InjBQGyEp

“I understood it and I liked that they took advantage of it,” Modano said of the strategy by Hitchcock to play the top line against the other team’s best players on most nights. “You look at the playoffs and Joe’s line really stepped up, and guys like Carbonneau and Keane had big goals too, and then we did our job. We were all happy to just contribute to a win. That was what was great about that team.”

Modano drew Buffalo’s Michael Peca as a checker for much of the finals, and that was a challenge unto itself. Peca was a typical Selke Trophy contender and also didn’t mind playing a hard, physical game. Modano suffered a broken wrist in Game 2, and had to push through Peca’s stickwork the rest of the series.

“It was a real change of pace and we had to adapt,” Modano said. “The Colorado series was speed and pace and skill, and the Buffalo series was just no space and ugly and grind it down. You had to work for everything and you didn’t get a lot of great opportunities on (Dominik) Hasek. It was very territorial. You just waited for a bobbled puck or mishap that would leave you an opening. Peca was good. He was good on the draw and he played pretty nasty.”

Still, Modano said he could have played Game 7 if it would have been necessary.

“My wrist was broken after Game 2, and the ligaments in my index and middle finger were torn, so I had to deal with that,” Modano said. “But we worked on the glove and I was able to cinch the hand down, and it felt good. I think I could have played Game 7, I don’t think that would have been a problem.”

Getting it done in Game 6 was good, too, he said. Because the Stars had been pushing so hard for three seasons, being able to lift the Cup was a massive accomplishment for the team and for Modano.

“I would feel so empty if I didn’t get one, especially when you look at ’98, ’99 and 2000 where we were so good,” Modano said. “The fact it was the organization that drafted me, that we had the move to Texas, that we became the team we did – all of that means a lot less if we don’t have that championship.”

Now, he can look back at all the hardships and challenges as things that made him better.

“Bob (Gainey) showed a lot of faith in me,” Modano said of the then-Stars general manager. “There was probably the temptation to move me in there, and he just stayed with me and pushed me. To be able to adapt and change my game and become the player that he wanted me to be, that was a good feeling. There was a lot of gratification when we finally won it.”

After playing one season with the Red Wings, Modano retired with the Stars and worked with them for a few seasons. However, the two parted ways in 2015 and Modano joined the front office of the Minnesota Wild last year. He is an executive advisor and said he’s excited about his future with the team. He is working with former teammate Bill Guerin, who now serves as Minnesota’s GM.

“He’s been around good people and he’s been in the trenches, so he knows what to do and he knows how to do it,” Modano said. “He’s got a great personality and he does a really good job of making everyone feel at ease.”

Modano spends a lot of his time in Arizona and Utah with his wife and four children, and said they have been handling the social distancing well. He said he’s looking forward to expanding on his work whenever the time comes to return.

“I really like what we’re doing there,” he said.

And as for the reruns of the 1999 playoffs on FOX Sports Southwest, Modano said he was watching all of them.

“I must have played back the last few minutes of that Game 7 against Colorado 20 times,” he said. “That place was so loud. It was really a fantastic memory for all of us.”

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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