Thanks to a gallant plea from injured Mike Modano, the Stars didn't do any Duck hunting last week
In the visitors' dressing room at the Pond in Anaheim last Thursday morning, the Stars had just finished practice and were contemplating revenge. The next night they would play the Mighty Ducks for the first time since Oct. 2. "One thing people know about us is that we take care of our own," said Dallas wing Jamie Langenbrunner.
In that game Anaheim defenseman Ruslan Salei had recklessly hit Stars center Mike Modano from behind, causing him to hurtle headfirst into the end boards. Modano was wheeled off the ice on a stretcher and taken to a hospital. He had a concussion, a broken nose, strained neck ligaments and the unsettling knowledge that he was lucky: His injuries could have been much more severe.
Before that game was over, Ducks defenseman Pascal Trepanier had driven center Joe Nieuwendyk's face into the glass with his forearm, forcing him to miss part of the game, and Anaheim's 6'3", 229-pound enforcer Jim McKenzie had picked a fight with 6-foot, 195-pound defenseman Darryl Sydor. In the words of an NHL press release McKenzie "persist[ed] against Sydor although Sydor was offering no resistance and was defenseless." Sydor suffered a fractured left orbital bone.
The NHL responded by suspending Salei for 10 games, Trepanier for five and McKenzie for four, which sent a forceful and judicious message. Still, tension gripped the Stars. The words of Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock—"They bought themselves a response from our team"—resounded, as did the rebuttal from Ducks general manager Pierre Gauthier, who said of Hitchcock, a longtime Western Hockey League coach, "You can take the coach out of juniors, but you might not be able to take the juniors out of the coach."
Amid those dark musings came a ray of light. Last Thursday, Modano skated for the first time since Salei's hit and then, with his nose gleaming purple and red, told reporters, "I don't want anyone getting even on my behalf." Though the hit had made Modano "wonder whether it's worth it to play this game," he called for restraint among his teammates and said he hoped they would "set an example for all players."
The Stars posted Modano's words in their dressing room, and on Friday they played a game free of cheap shots and fights. Anaheim won 3-0, but Dallas should have been proud. Though Ducks star wing Paul Kariya took a high stick from defenseman Shawn Chambers and was cross-checked by backliner Richard Matvichuk, the Stars never raised their physical play to a dangerous level. "Mike's point was well made, and we heard it," said Nieuwendyk after the game. "We just want to move on."
Whether taking the high road has left the Stars vulnerable to future bullying remains to be seen. The NHL can continue to punish transgressors, but safety comes down to the players. It's their game. They're the ones with sticks in their hands. They're the ones who can hold up when an opponent is in a position that could lead to injury. They're the ones who know which hits merely hurt and which hits break bones. As Dallas wing Mike Keane says, "What if Modano had been paralyzed? How long a suspension would have been enough?"
On Nov. 26 the Ducks and the Stars will meet again. Let's hope that Modano's words ring as clearly then as they did last week.
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