Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Changing Of The Guard in U.S.A. Hockey

The first hockey trading card I ever owned, was a 3-D hologram of Mike Modano taking a slapshot. The year was 1995 and Modano, on his way to becoming the most prolific American-born scorer of all time, was in his sixth season in the NHL at the time with the Dallas Stars (nee Minnesota North Stars). Modano, who has topped 500 goals and 1,300 points during a Hall of Fame career, is the rare breed of star who was prolific, the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft, a champion (Modano won the Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999) and who spent his entire career with one franchise.

His wife isn't bad looking either.

I am not wanting for new reasons to feel old these days, but I got a new one this week when Modano and one night later Keith Tkachuk, both played their presumptive last games in front of their home crowds. Tkachuk, another one of the greatest American scorers of all time with both 500 goals and 1,000 points to his credit,wasn't fortunate enough to lift Stanley at any point in his 18 year career, but he was still one of the more dangerous and talented American players of his era.

In fact, Modano and Tkachuk were two of the pillars of the vanguard of American hockey. There was no 1980 Miracle on Ice moment for either of them, but the U.S. experienced some of its greatest success on the ice with Modano and Tkachuk in tow. Both were crucial parts of the 1996 World Cup of Hockey team which shocked Canada in the Championship round with two comeback wins in Montreal, as well as the Silver Medal squad from the 2002 Winter Olympics.

While many of the great players of those teams (Mike Richter, Jeremy Roenick, Brian Leetch) have already retired, something seems fitting about Modano, who appropriately will be playing his last game back in Minnesota where his career started, and Tkachuk taking curtain calls on back to back nights and potentially being enshrined in Toronto together. That last part may be a pipe dream -- Modano is a stronger lock to make the Hall than Tkachuk -- but for two players who were so successful over roughly the same period it only seems appropriate for them to walk out together.

Tkachuk didn't spend his entire career where it ended in St. Louis. Tkachuk actually had the remarkable status as one of the four former Winnipeg Jets remaining in the League (along with Teemu Selanne, who may also retire, Nikolai Khabibulin and Shane Doan, the only one still with the Jets/Coyotes franchise). But over nine seasons in the Gateway City, Tkachuk, or as he was affectionately known there, Walt, has become a fan favorite who stated last night that he has no intentions of moving away from his adopted home, and that he plans on still being a part of the Blues organization when it wins its first Stanley Cup.

Modano, too, became a fixture in Dallas, where he was visibly brought to tears during the closing moments of his last game in Texas and again afterwards when he was treated to yet another standing ovation from the home crowd. Of course, Modano seemed to get his emotions in check fairly quickly, and picked a hell of a way to go out to his home fans. The Anaheim Ducks quickly spoiled the party after his tribute by taking the lead, but it was none other than Modano himself who would tie the game with under two minutes left. Mo wasn't done yet, either. After nearly ending the game on a breakaway in overtime, Modano scored the shootout winner as his final act on the ice in Dallas.

Not a bad way for only the second American ever drafted No. 1 to go out, huh? Tkachuk didn't have quite the same sparkling moment, but he was a pivotal part of a 6-3 win for St. Louis, ironically, also against the Ducks. The gutsy winger assisted on two goals in the third period to cap a comeback for the Blues, another appropriate sendoff.

But as we turn the page on two of the more accomplished players in American hockey history, who gets to step into their places on the forefront of USA Hockey? I'm no expert, but put one vote here for Zach Parise and Patrick Kane, and no, not because they happen to play for my two favorite teams. Aside from already showing themselves to be among the most gifted forwards in the League today, Kane is a similarly dynamic player to Modano, while Parise has the same nose for the net that Tkachuk has had throughout his career, with arguably more scoring ability. The pair has already proven themselves more than capable in the NHL Arena, and acquitted themselves extremely well at the Vancouver Olympics.

It became clear this year when the U.S. Olympic hockey roster was announced that there was going to be a clean break from the group that made such hay in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and nearly turned the trick again at Salt Lake City in 2002. Modano, Tkachuk and other luminaries like Bill Guerin were noticeably absent from the roster in favor of younger players like Parise, Kane and gritty forwards like David Backes and Dustin Brown. Parise and Kane both played major roles in the tournament, with Parise memorably scoring with 24.4 seconds left in the gold medal game to force overtime.

If the next generation of USA Hockey is to meet or exceed the standards of what came before it, Parise and Kane's shoulders may very well be where the pressure rests. If they can come close to the legacies of Modano and Tkachuk both in the NHL and in International play, they'll have done themselves and their country proud.

It would be hard to find two better reputations to live up to.

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