IN THE AUTUMN OF 1999, AFTER A SHORT SUMMER OF long panics, Mike Modano looked like he had it all. Only 100 days had passed since the Stars made hockey history by winning the triple-overtime game that brought Lord Stanley’s Cup to Dallas. In winning the cup, Modano had remade his image as a goal-scoring poster boy by leading the Stars through a grueling two-month playoff battle, playing with a broken wrist. Instead of putting points on the scoreboard, Modano used his incredible skating speed on defense, breaking up passes and forechecking his way to elite status in the league. On paper his job was secure: Five years remained on his contract, at more than $7 million a year, and his once far-flung business dealings were coming under control. At home, Modano and his longtime live-in, Kerri Nelson, were working on the blueprints for their dream house and planning their long-awaited wedding.
On the surface it seemed like Modano had everything-fame, fortune, and the girl next door-all wrapped up in a pretty package. But, as Modano learned, happiness can slip away as quickly as a skate blade on bad ice.
OCTOBER 2, 1999, STARTED OFF BAD AND GOT WORSE. In an on-air interview with Stars analyst Daryl Reaugh, broadcast live on the Jumbo Tron between the first and second period of the second game of the season, Modano announced his engagement to Kerri. “As I was ending the interview,” Reaugh remembers, “I just said, ’I understand that you’ve popped the question to your longtime girlfriend, Kerri Nelson. ’” After a collective sigh from female fans, the arena became so quiet you could hear a beer spill. Nervously. Modano muttered what was meant to be a compliment, but his intonation came out flat. “Mo, in his understated, joking manner just said, ’Yeah, I figure that nothing better was going to come along.’ Of course, anybody who knows Mike knows that he meant that Kerri was everything he wanted, but as we went to commercial, I felt bad for how it came out of him. I knew that the guys were going to have a field day with that one.”
But the worst was yet to come. Four minutes into the second period, Modano was viciously pushed from behind by Mighty Ducks defenseman Ruslan Salei, and he slid headfirst into the dashers. As Modano lay motionless on the ice, the crowd, having just applauded his plans to walk down the aisle, began to wonder if he’d ever walk again. At the hospital, X-rays showed a mild concussion, strained neck ligaments, and a broken nose. The doctors told Modano that he had been only centimeters away from a career-ending spinal cord injury. What the X-rays couldn’t show was the damage to Modano’s confidence.
By the time he recovered physically and was back on the ice, the Stars were riddled with injuries: Joe Nieuwendyk, Shawn Chambers, Jere Lehtinen, and Richard Matvichuk had been sidelined, and the team was struggling. Gun-shy, Modano played tentatively. “I was really unhappy with hockey,” says Modano now. “I always count on having a great October to carry me through the rest of the season, and when my average October crept into Thanksgiving and early December, I was miserable. I didn’t like going to the rink, Practice and games weren’t fun. I felt like I had so much going on all at once. I realized that my complicated personal life was affecting my hockey.” Coach Ken Hitchcock tried to prop up his flagging star, but to no avail. “No one was harder on Mike than Mike,” says Hitchcock. “When he’s not performing, he hurts the most because he hates to let people down.”
Modano’s doubts about hockey caused him to have doubts about everything. He contemplated retirement. He began to second-guess his decision to get married. “I was really forcing myself to believe that getting married was the right thing to do. I had lots of pressure to do it from my friends and family.”
But he didn’t want to hurt Kerri’s feelings. He may have been a big man on the ice, but he sometimes felt like a little boy when it came to dealing with women. “Kerri knew that I was unhappy,” says Modano. “My body language around the house was really distant. I just figured that one day it would all just change. I had a hard time being straightforward with her and being honest about how I felt. The first three months of the season were just a nightmare. I really didn’t have the time to get away from the game and deal with our relationship.”
Adding to the pressure was the fallout from breaking off his association with Howard Gourwitz, his agent and business manager for 12 years. A year earlier, Modano had gotten fed up with Gourwitz’s “you play hockey, I’ll do the rest” attitude that left the revenue producer feeling he had no control over the revenue he produced. “It wasn’t any one thing with Howard, but a combination of things,” Modano says. “These days agents are making a lot of money off players-you’re talking 4 or 5 percent on $50 million, which is about $2 million. And for what? Making a couple of calls and eventually going with a player’s rising market value. I took a step back and looked at the amount of money I was worth and his cut. Personally, after 12 years, I was ready to cut the cord.”
Down and out and on the road in Tampa Bay, Modano ran into former Minnesota teammate Stu Gavin, who was working for Corporate Planning Associates in Toronto, a firm specializing in personal investment management for CEOs. “I told Stu I wasn’t happy with my financial situation and that I wanted to talk to somebody,” Modano remembers. Gavin arranged a meeting with senior VP Bob Murray.
Modano instantly liked the affable Murray. “I made him my business manager immediately, ’ he says. “My contract was already done and I didn’t need an agent. Besides, after the deal is done, you never hear from them anyway.”
Modano look Murray’s advice to clean house and consolidate his money management. (Gourwitz had used 12 different money managers.) Together they went through the painstaking process of interviewing and analyzing every person with which Gourwitz had contracted. At the same time, Murray breathed new life into Modano’s portfolio, the goal being to make the hockey star the most successful player in the league off the ice. He lined up new endorsement deals with Pepsi, Easton, and Reebok, with most of the money going directly to Modano’s primary outside interest-the youth foundation he had established for Dallas children’s charities. Murray’s creative business sense and his determination to understand every detail of Modano’s business interests kept the two in the office for long days of sorting through contracts, interviewing managers, and rearranging the financial team. Slowly Modano’s financial picture began to grow clearer, but his personal life and his hockey were still out of focus.
Modano and the Stars hit the road in mid-December 1999, on a 10-day swing through the frozen plains of western Canada. The team was playing “just brutal,” according to Hitchcock, and Modano was part of the problem. Then, on December 17, an errant skate sliced team captain Derian Hatcher’s calf muscle, knocking him out of the lineup for at least two months. The Stars had bottomed out and Modano was as low as he’d felt since moving to Dallas six years earlier.
A BLESSING IN DISGUISE
IN THE SPRING OF 1993, 23-YEAR-OLD MODANO AND HIS Minnesota North Stars teammates learned that the team was relocating. Incongruously, their new hometown was to he Dallas, a city nationally known to be crazy over one sport: football. Only a handful of diehard hockey fans knew the difference between a blue line and a tan line, “I was petrified to think of going someplace that hadn’t seen ice before, and I wasn’t looking forward to the thought of having to educate people to the game of hockey,” Modano says. “But hey. I was single, and I knew Dallas had great golf courses. So it was easier on me than the married guys.”
Bracing for the hard sell they faced in turning Dallas into a hockey town, the Stars showcased Modano. His speed, deceptive puck-handling skills, and wicked slap shot would help put fans in the seats and the Stars on the scoreboard, but it was his good looks the Stars hoped would make him the new “Troyboy” in town. A natural-bom lady killer with thick, sandy blonde hair, his thin upper lip exposes perfect white teeth and a perfectly pouty bottom lip. His root-beer colored bedroom eyes kill with kindness-sincere, unassuming, and innocent. But once he laces up his CCM’s, the glare turns ferocious, and his gift for finding the only unprotected three inches of net makes $9 million goalies cry.
For its first season in Dallas, the Stars smartly paired the beauty and the beast: Modano with tough guy Shane Churla. By combining a little sex appeal and a lot of violence on the ice, accompanied by blaring rock and roll at every time out, hockey became the “it” sport. Modano was surprised at how easily the abrupt move to Dallas was accomplished. “The crowds were more sophisticated than I expected,” he says. “I fell in love with the town. I really felt that this is where I was supposed to be, and 1 felt this is where some great things were going to happen to me. After the first few games, I began to think that the move to Dallas was a blessing in disguise.”
When then-coach and now general manager Bob Gainey talks about the early days in Dallas, he still appreciates that Modano didn’t play the haughty superstar, “Mike never had that ’I’ m the talented one, you guys butt out and let me do what I do best’ attitude,” says Gainey. “But he still had a lot of hockey to learn.”
Gainey saw the gradual series of events that helped mature Modano on the ice. In 1996, he played for Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey, and for the first lime stepped onto the ice with elite players. ’”That was the first time he saw what he could do with the other big names,” Gainey says. “It was a rite of passage for him, and from that point on. he embraced the opportunities to test himself and see how he stacked up against the competition.”
Over the next four seasons, Modano blossomed as he honed his skills. The team progressed further each year in the playoffs-conference quarterfinals in ’97, conference finals in ’98, and eventually Modano’s crowning moment when he lifted the cup in 1999.
THE CAPTAIN AND THE COACH
STARS COACH KEN HITCHCOCK LOOKS MORE LIKE A PRO-fessor of philosophy than a hockey coach. A stern disciplinarian, strategist, and Civil War buff, he is not a player’s coach-he isn’t out to make friends with guys on the team. He’s there to teach them to play his “defense first” system. He is obsessed with the details of the game and demands that his players have blind faith in the results of that obsession. He’s known to have a mean streak and rides his players hard. Over the years, Mo and Hitch have battled to a mutually respectful teacher/student relationship. Hitchcock admires Modano for being a star player who is easy to work with, while Modano, who doesn’t agree with many of Hitchcock’s defensive strategies- especially when they limit his scoring potential-has never complained about the results of playing the system. Even so, Modano sometimes acted out his frustrations by nehaving like a naughty schoolboy when Hitchcock addressed the post-practice media. As Hitchcock laid out his battle plans and called for his players to he “willing to pay the price” and to remember that “reward is the journey, not the destination,” Modano would slink up behind him and playfully roll his eyes.
But it was all business when Hitchcock and Modano met on December 18, the day after the horrendous injury to Hatcher. “Mike came into the meeting wanting more responsibility,” recalls Hitchcock. “He wanted to start winning and wanted to know what he could do to make the team win. I told him he’d have to switch from being the lead scorer to being the lead horse.”
The lead horse meant team captain-a distinction in hockey that is more than an honor. It is a leadership position that can make or break a team. “When Hitch gave me the ’C patch, that was the thing that really changed my year around,” Modano says now, “I realized that when you wear the ~C every eye is on you. The expectations of being a leader, making sure that guys follow you in games and play the way you should play, that’s what really did it for me.”
With that vote of confidence from Hitchcock, he learned to love the game again. “Not only did he turn the team around,” says Reaugh, “but he also played the best hockey he’s ever played. He filled all the gaps on a team mangled with injuries and became the best player in the NHL.” Modano concurs: “Once 1 defined my goals, everything became simplified and structured. I was full of confidence.”
Not only did Modano’s inspired play turn the team around, but he also went on the best streak of his 11 -year career, scoring 46 points (22 goals and 24 assists) in his final 35 regular-season games. Despite the sluggish start in the fall, he still finished the season with 81 points, placing him ninth in the NHL scoring race.
However, that confidence didn’t spill over into his personal life. Wedding plans were underway, but Modano was still undecided.
In late February, Kerri finally took control of the situation. “One night after a game,” Modano says, “she just came out and said, ’Hey, are you having second thoughts? Do you want to talk about it?’ I had a hard time being straightforward with her and being honest about how I felt.” After a week of thinking it over, they decided to call off the wedding. “Breaking up with Kerri was just brutal. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life-the most scared I’ve ever been.”
Meanwhile, Modano’s stunning turnaround on the ice was the talk of the NHL. The national media scurried to find a reason why. And when Modano let it slip that he and Kerri had broken off their engagement, the wires started burning. Spans Illustrated ran a story pinpointing the split with Kerri as the beginning of his scoring streak. At least that’s how the two of them read it. ’That article was just devastating to her,” Modano says. “It made it sound like I just broke up with my girlfriend, then went on the best streak of my career. Every newspaper from coast to coast picked it up and wrote the same thing. She couldn’t hide from that.
“It’s my fault for opening my mouth and talking about the breakup because everyone was looking for a reason to explain my 180-degree turnaround,” he says, still upset six months after the fact. “People forget that Kerri and I were living together during the whole Stanley Cup year. She loves hockey and knows more about the game than most people, and she was with me at the happiest moment in my life.”
FINDING THE PERFECT HOUSE IN HIGHLAND PARK FOR A single guy wasn’t an easy project for real estate agent Eleanor Mowery-Sheets. She exhausted her exclusive “hip pockets” as well as the MLS listings before her son Christian scoured the area and delivered handwritten letters to any house they thought Modano might like.
Sara and Bob Rathjen had been living in their house for less than a year. They had made their plans for the home while riding bikes through the Italian countryside and taking pictures of the farmhouses in Umbria. But when the Rathjens opened the letter, they were intrigued. “We had so much fun building one house,” says Sara. “We thought it would be fun to build another one.”
Modano and Murray were lunching at the Celebrity Bakery in Highland Park when Sheets called with the news. They wolfed down their chicken salad sandwiches and sped past the Dallas Country Club searching for the street. Inside the house, Mowery-Sheets ran around flipping on lights, turning on soft music, and lighting candles.
The deal went down in 24 hours.
I arrive for my tour of Villa Modano on a hot August day. Cheryl Lilley, Modano’s personal everything-dogsitter. housekeeper, chief cook, and bottle washer-seats me at a barstool at the counter and opens a Sub Zero refrigerator chock full of homemade goodies.
“I love everything about my job,” beams Cheryl as she cuts me a huge portion of her special banana split dessert.
As I listen to her describe Modano’s favorite pre-game meals (“anything with pasta and chicken”), it’s clear that she’s really his surrogate mom. “Are you ready for the tour?” Cheryl asks as I lick the whipped cream off the Vietri plate.
I have come to see what I thought would be a stereotypical “rich guy” bachelor pad–after all, the new owner calling the decorating shots is a hockey player. But what I walk into is an authentic Italian farmhouse with imported fountains in the front courtyard and a brick wood-burning pizza oven on the back loggia. Not a bean bag chair or a dart-board in sight. (Although a pool table does sit beneath an 18th-century Flemish tapestry in what is supposed to he the formal dining room.)
As we head up the stairs, the back door bursts open, and two wet 3-year-old golden retrievers. Scout and Bella, come barreling down the hallway past the mint-conditioned 17th-century Italian chest, sliding to a halt on the Luters limestone floor. Accompanied by the dogs, Cheryl guides me from room to room, pointing out even’ detail, from the huge wooden beams imported from an old barn in Pennsylvania down to the quarter-inch crystal elephant (he collects them with trunks up only-a sign of good luck) hidden on a bookshelf.
As we chat about the painting of Scout and Bella, which hangs on Modano’s bedroom wall (photos of them are in almost every room), we are interrupted by the rapid click-click of stiletto heels marching determinedly toward us down the hallway. Into the room sweeps decorator Jacklyn Butler, a pillow tucked under one arm and fabric swatches in the other. The three of us stand in the bed-room while Jacklyn talks about some of the important pieces she and Modano have picked: the early 18th-century Flemish mirror with a gilt bronze ormolu over a faux tortoise shell finish on the living room mantel and the beautiful 18th-century Portuguese chair in the family room. Tucked on the wall in the powder room just above the python trash can she points out an elegant reverse glass painting that, according to Jacklyn, “not just any man would step up to the plate and buy.” But apparently Modano has a sense of style, and he knows what he wants when he sees it.
I did find some encouraging guy touches: His office walls are lined with autographed pictures of Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer. Ben Hogan, and Tiger Woods. Mounted on the wall across from the foot of his bed is a new high-tech Sony plasma screen connected to a DVD system. I couldn’t help but notice that, sitting on top of a stack of books on his bedside table, was a copy of Phil McGraw’s Relationship Rescue.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
ARRIVING FASHIONABLY LATE TO OUR INTERVIEW AFTER a three-hour workout, Modano slips into his office at the Crescent through a private entrance. Stylishly-dressed for a summer workday in black Calvin Klein jeans and a gray Armani T-shirt, he drops the keys to his black BMW and a credit-card-sized cell phone on the desk. Meanwhile. I am standing in the sixth-floor lobby of i2b Ventures,an Internet technology investment company, one of Modano and Murray’s new business deals. Beside me sit three Boy Scouts and two adults who have come to meet Modano and record a recruitment announcement because, as the Circle Ten Council’s Richard Cocoran explains, “Mike has the kind of image that we like to hang our hat on.”
There is no receptionist-the company is so new they haven’t had time to hire one. Eventually I stick my head around the comer and call out. Behind me the Scouts fidget to find the remote control to the big-screen TV, hoping to change the channel from the CNBC business news and ticker tape scrolling across the big screen. Andrea Wildenthal. the woman 1 find out later is responsible for taking care of Modano’s day-to-day finances, comes to the rescue.
Andrea leads us down a hallway that seems to wind the length of an ice rink past a row of executive offices that are either empty or still piled high with half-unpacked boxes. As we move down the corridor, 1 watch downtown Dallas unfold like an old animation flip book-the floor-to-ceiling windows of each room reveal snippets of the skyline curving 180 degrees around the western corner of the building. At one point I spot a huge crane lifting an iron beam above what will soon be the roof of the American Airlines Center, where the Stars will open their 2001-2002 season.
As we are ushered into Modano’s office, he rises to greet the Scouts and politely listens as Cocoran begins his pitch. After a few autographs and souvenirs are passed out, Modano “one-takes” the message, and the Scouts are gone.
He turns his attention to me and settles back into a high-back leather chair propping his Prada loafers on the desk-a sockless GQ version of Giant’s Jett Rink, complete with a miniature Stanley Cup lowering like the oil rig in the famous movie poster. On one wall is a painting of Modano’s 1999 Stanley Cup victory lap-the most prized possession in hockey raised overhead, his trademark cockeyed grin preserved in acrylic forever.
To me he looks like just like any other 30-year-old, successful Dallas businessman. After all, he’s chosen to live in Dallas after he retires from hockey, he’s involved in many new ventures, and his office is in the Crescent Towers. But if he is another Dallas businessman, he’s not a very busy one: The desktop is void of paper. files, or even Post-ItR notes. Modano himself blows the serious businessman image when he turns to his computer to show me all the bells and whistles of i2b’s new web page and shouts, “Hey. Andrea, what’s my password?’”
“Having a little trouble with that memory, eh,” jokes Murray, who comes immediately to the rescue and casually picks up a hockey stick from several lined up along the wall waiting to be autographed and delivered to various charitable organizations. With Murray unconsciously flicking imaginary wrist shots at Modano, the three of us plot my itinerary to observe “Mike Modano, New Age businessman” in action.
Lucky for me, the business schedule is light-only a few papers to sign and pictures and sticks to autograph. They do have to meet with a new sponsor. Park Cities Motors, which, as I learn when we arrive at the dealership, entails Modano’s picking up the keys to a new Mercedes 500SL and working out a few details of the promotion that he has promised in exchange.
That business finished, we’re off to Stanley Korshak to see what really motivates Mo: clothes shopping.
Along the way, I learn how he spent his summer vacation, “1 didn’t get serious about working out until August 1.” says Modano. “July was just a big party-I went to Atlanta for ballgames. L.A. and New York for partying. I love to go to New York and stay at the Palace and hang out at the Spa Bar, Central Plaza, and Area 51. The clubs there are amazing-they’re still going at 4 a.m. It’s so fun.”
He also had fun jet-setting around with newfound playmate and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. On a trip to Vegas on board Cuban’s private jet, the Internet guru and sports junkie talked a little e-business with Modano, the e-rookie and hockey star. “He’s incredible to listen to,” says Modano. “The story of how he made it is unbelievable. He’s a guy who wants to have fun and enjoy what he’s doing. He’s living his fantasy, and there are only a few people in the world who can say that.”
At the moment, Modano is living my fantasy. We’re entering Stanley Korshak, where Modano’s fall and winter wardrobes are awaiting the tailor’s chalk.
As we pass through the cosmetics department, a beautician glances up at Modano and smears eyeliner across the face of a client. Politely waving and greeting most of the employees by name (he’s obviously done this before}, he strolls into the Armani boutique as if it were his closet.
Basically, it is. Along with Fred Segal in Santa Monica and Barneys in New York, Modano’s fashion passion is gratified at Korshak. And today his personal shopper. Bart Trigg, is ready with a garment rack crammed with suits, sport coats, and suede pants awaiting the royal fitting. The once-empty room begins to fill with salespeople who suddenly find a need to be in the Armani room.
Modano disappears, only to reappear looking like the Most Eligible Bachelor that he is, according to People magazine. He’s done some modeling, which has provided his teammates with plenty of amusement. “I like it,” he says, “but 1 don’t gel wrapped up in all thai glamour stuff.” He laughs at himself. “1 certainly don’t want to be a supermodel.”
After getting all the suits fitted, Trigg winks at me as he slips Modano a pair of black suede pants and a hand-crocheted taupe cashmere sweater, whispering, “Let’s see what he thinks of this.”
The door to the dressing room closes. Tension fills the room, You could have heard a button move on a $800 silk shirt. Modano emerges, blushing at all the attention cast his way, fiddling with the collar, forcing it down into an awkward roll. Trigg jumps up to correct the neckline.
Everything set, Modano looks at himself briefly in the mirror and then reaches inside the sleeve for the price tag. “$2,000!” he laughs. “Hey. I live in Dallas. I could maybe wear this sweater for two days out of the year.”
He looks again in the mirror and shakes his head. It’s a good day for a superstar when that’s your toughest decision.