Sunday, August 08, 2010

Ageless Modano Back for Another Kick at the Can with Red Wings

Mike Modano and 40-years-old make an awful couple.

It’s Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett. Chocolate ice cream and anchovies. Paisley and polka dots.

Modano sat at the rostrum at Joe Louis Arena Friday afternoon having just signed on as the newest Detroit Red Wing.

And that’s exactly what he looked like: the newest Detroit Red Wing.

Modano has played in the NHL for 21 years, his social security records say he’s 40, but I can’t accept his age.

Modano was at ease in his new No. 90 Red Wings jersey, answering reporter's questions with his perfect tan, blemish-free face, full head of hair, and big white teeth.

A 40-year-old hockey player with 21 NHL years behind him ought to have a face that looks like un-ironed corduroy. His voice should be raspy and his tongue should be pocked with marks from hitting the gaps caused by his missing teeth.

His face shouldn’t be tanned, it should be yellowed. You should be half looking for bolts coming out of his neck.

But there Modano sat, chatting as if he was an author on a book tour, not a 40-year-old giving the NHL another go, having wondered mere weeks ago if he had it in him to play another season.

Have it in him? He looks like he could do 10 laps around Belle Isle without breaking a sweat.

Just when you think someone’s trying to pull the wool over your eyes about Modano, here he comes talking about playing with Reed Larson during his first moments as a Minnesota North Star.

Reed Larson?

Larson was a rookie 34 years ago, and Modano was his teammate?

OK, so maybe Mike Modano is 40-years-old, but the only thing that seems 40 about him is his birth certificate.

Modano now wears the Winged Wheel because the Red Wings are the NHL’s Mafia: they often make offers you can’t refuse.

“If the Red Wings hadn’t come calling, I’d probably be retired now,” Modano told the media Friday.

But they did come calling, and it was a real shakedown.

Modano flew out to Detroit last month, having dinner with GM Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock.

The two spoke of how Modano would only need to be the third-line center and quarterback the second-team power play instead of carrying the load. They told him how great it was to play in Detroit, and no doubt they had testimonials from former veterans to back that up. They said if another Stanley Cup was on his mind (Modano won the Cup in 1999 with Dallas), then Detroit was good one-stop shopping.

Babcock later said he impressed upon Modano how playing at home (Modano was born in Livonia and grew up in Westland) would rejuvenate his body and invigorate his heart.

This signing was a big wagging of the tongue to those who say the Red Wings have only been able to sign high-profile players because of all the money they have at their disposal.

Holland had precious little money to wave at Modano. He might have even gone Dutch with him at dinner.

Modano doesn’t play just anywhere for the $1.5 million the Red Wings were able to scrape up. He’s in Detroit because Holland knows how to sell the team and its philosophy. He knows what veterans like to hear, and he drums that into their heads until it becomes folly to say no.

Listening to Modano at the press conference Friday, you wonder if he’s giving owner Mike Ilitch $1.5 million to play here, rather than vice-versa.

“To have fun, win, not have to waste energy—that’s what I like about the Red Wings,” he said. “This team makes the game look so easy, the way they handle the puck and with all the world class players they have.”

And never discount the allure of getting another “kick at the can,” as the hockey folks call chasing the Stanley Cup.

“To tell you the truth, if (the Red Wings) weren’t close to winning, I’d probably not have come here,” Modano confessed.

The Red Wings have made a high living off the backs of the league’s geriatric players.

Their roster over the past 15 years or so has been dotted with big name players closer to age 40 than 30.

When you come to the Red Wings as an aging player, you somehow transition from “has been” to “still has.”

Very few veterans have joined the Wings and fallen.

Instead, once-fading stars like Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov, Brent Gilchrist, Larry Murphy, and Chris Chelios—to literally name a few—have slipped on the Red Wings sweater, and before you know it, extended their careers by four, five years, with Stanley Cups in tow.

Owner Mike Ilitch even got caught up in the hype before Modano took the stage.

“I’m feeling it,” Ilitch said, his head bobbing. “Cuppy, cuppy, cuppy!”

All this pomp and circumstance for a player who’ll be essentially playing for peanuts this season. That Modano is a Red Wing at such a paltry salary is a testament to both him and the team with which he signed.

“I’ve followed him ever since he left Little Caesars,” Ilitch said, referencing Modano’s teenage years spent playing for Ilitch’s youth team. “It’s like he never left. His name always had a strong presence around here.”

It sure is like Modano never left. It’s also like he never aged. He’s the only 40-year-old NHL player who could play in the league and star in “The Bachelor.”

Although Modano’s wife, singer/actress Willa Ford, might have something to say about that.

So will he play beyond this season?

“I’ve been saying ‘one more year’ for five or six years now,” Modano said, grinning. “With me, it’s kind of year-by-year. Depends on how much fun I have and if I feel rejuvenated.”

If the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup next June, it’ll be easy to spot Modano.

Just look for the big teeth and hair.

I demand to look at that birth certificate.

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