Does she have a media credential? Oh yes, there it is, nestled in her cleavage, which can fairly be described as spectacular. She's working with a TV crew, though she's neither holding a camera nor conducting interviews. She stands about 6'2" in her platform shoes, and she's causing a minor stir in the dressing room of the Dallas Stars, who have just won a 5-4 shootout in Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinal series against the San Jose Sharks. Mike Modano emerges from the shower with a towel around his waist and asks, "Who's the brunette on stilts?"
The inquiry, posed with more of a bemused smile than a leer, is a reminder that the 29-year-old Modano has recently reverted to unfettered bachelorhood. There are Stars—Modano isn't among them—who suspect that his independent status has resulted in a surge in his play. Starting in late January, around the time Modano, a center, split with his fianc�e, Kerri Nelson, he went on the best streak of his 11-year NHL career, scoring 46 points (22 goals, 24 assists) in his final 35 regular-season games.
The bad news for teams intent on dethroning the defending Stanley Cup champions is that Modano has been even more dominant in the playoffs. He scored a goal in each of the first four games against the Sharks and provided the most memorable moment of the series without even putting the puck in the net. On a rush in Game 2 he sailed down the left side, passed the puck through the legs of defenseman Bryan Marchment to himself and then fired a shot into the pads of goalie Steve Shields. "What he's able to do with the puck at a high speed might be the most amazing part of Mike's game," says Stars captain Derian Hatcher. "I've played with him for nine years, and this is the best he's been."
Ever the gentleman, Modano won't talk these days about his breakup with Nelson and says he regrets having discussed it with reporters last month. He stridently refutes the notion that breaking off his engagement has had anything to do with breaking out of his slump. His resurgence, Modano insists, was born of a confluence of events, none involving his love life. When Hatcher went down on Dec. 17 with a lacerated right calf muscle that would sideline him for two months, Modano assumed the captaincy, which compelled him to ratchet up his play. After a year in which he had taken his business dealings and shaken them like a martini—firing and replacing his agent, his marketing people, his money manager—he was, at last, happy with that sphere of his life. "I was finally able to concentrate on hockey and let everything else take care of itself," he says. "Everything started coming together."
When had it commenced coming apart? On June 19, 1999, the night Dallas won its first Cup. Do you think Modano celebrated too much over the ensuing months? As Stars winger Brett Hull puts it, "F——— kid had the f——— time of his f——— life."
Before you know it, says Modano, "it's August, and we're loading the bus to go to Vail for training camp." A letdown was inevitable, but the disturbing events of Oct. 2 did more than prolong Modano's Cup hangover—they left him questioning his desire to play. While chasing the puck behind the net against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Modano was shoved face-first into the boards by defenseman Ruslan Salei. "I let up for a second," says Modano, "and that's when he hit me. I hit the boards and went down like a wet noodle."
No one who witnessed the sickening collision would have been surprised if it had ended Modano's career. Paramedics stabilized his neck and took him on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance. Doctors said Modano was centimeters from suffering a spinal cord injury. Instead he escaped with sprained neck ligaments, a mild concussion and a broken nose. (Salei was suspended for 10 games.) Modano said that the close call had left him contemplating retirement. He sat out just three games, but he was missing something upon his return. "He was pissed off at the game," says Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock. "He was on a real negative trip for a long time."
It was during this bleak time that Modano rethought his decision to marry Nelson, whom he'd been dating since junior hockey. In the end, Modano told The Dallas Morning News, marriage was "something I really wasn't ready for. It just wasn't my time.... It's been very hard for her and very disappointing."
Having scrapped the wedding plans, Modano sold the dream house he and Nelson were building and planned to live in. To give Nelson space, he moved out of the house they shared and into a hotel. Lest readers squander sympathy on Modano, it wasn't as if he was flopping in a room with a fire escape and neon signs outside his window. He stayed at the five-star Mansion at Turtle Creek.
There's no denying that Modano and the Stars have hit their strides at the right time. After a shaky start, Dallas finished with the second-best record in the West. Leading the charge was Modano, who retained his offensive potency while embracing Hitchcock's defense-first system. "He's one of the best two-way players in the world," says Hitchcock. "He's a threat from anywhere on the ice."