An Olympic mixed zone is a cross between a cattle drive and a mosh pit. Sweat-soaked players skate off the ice, sore and oftentimes steaming from what just happened on the ice, and file past TV cameras, flash bulbs and microphones held by hordes media sandwiched together like commuters on a Tokyo train in rush hour.
Unlike a typical NHL game, where players are given a few minutes to cool off, mentally and physically, Olympians are forced to navigate a gauntlet of questioners before they reach the sanctity of their locker room.
For Mike Modano, those few minutes he spent in the mix zone after the U.S. lost to Finland in the quarterfinals of the 2006 Olympic Winter Games are moments he wishes he could take back.
Stinging from a reduced role in a bitter, 4-3, loss in a crucial game, the all-time leading American scorer lashed out at anything and everything in what must have felt like the end to a brilliant international career. Two World Cups, three Olympics, three World Championships and two World Juniors removed, here was Modano griping because of perceived slights in travel arrangements.
“You get caught in the heat of the moment,” said Modano, who finished the tournament with two points. “I was a little upset and felt that we deserved better and should have played better. There were a lot of frustrations so I lashed out at a lot of things.
“Over time the smoke settles and you wish that you could have taken a couple of breaths after that game, but you still feel that you owe a lot to USA Hockey. They’ve given me tons of opportunities to play for them.”
In the eyes of many, the Livonia, Mich., native was singing his USA Hockey swansong. With a new generation poised to grab the torch heading into the Vancouver Olympics, there would be little room on the roster for a grizzled veteran, especially one who seemed to have burned his bridge to British Columbia.
In some respects, Modano was among those who figured he’d worn the red, white and blue for the final time.
“There was a little part of me that thought that would be the last go round. That’s why I was as upset as I was,” said the man with 24 goals in international competition under his belt. “Now, I feel like I have a second chance so I’d like to take advantage of it.”
As the only remaining member of what many consider to be USA Hockey’s greatest generation, Modano came to the U.S. Olympic orientation camp in suburban Chicago not looking nor acting his age. Acting in good spirits and with plenty of jump still left in his 39-year-old legs, Modano is preparing for his 21st season with the Dallas Stars organization, and hopefully another kick at the Olympic can.
“There’s tons of talent out here so I just hope that I fit in and bring some sort of impact and experience to the team,” said Modano, who was chosen to throw out the first pitch at the Chicago White Sox game attended by the U.S. players.
“All of the players are fast so you just hope that you can keep up with them. The game seems to be a little easier when you have some quickness around you and some great players like they have here.”
As he has done throughout his career, Modano will have to accept and adapt to different role within the U.S. system. As he reaches the end of what will surely be a Hall of Fame career, he has accepted more of a defensive role in Dallas, using his speed and experience to keep other top players in check. Still, he has proven that he can put the puck in the net, as he did 15 times last season.
With that said, it’s in the dressing room where U.S. coach Ron Wilson envisions Modano being a real asset on a team with an average age of 26.2.
“I see Mike Modano, along with Chris Chelios, serving in a different capacity. Those guys are the tribal storytellers who can pass on what it felt like and what it means [to wear the USA Hockey crest],” said Wilson, who coached Modano on the U.S. squad that won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and then finished a disappointing eighth in the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
“I don’t think it’s arrogant of me to say that [the 1996 World Cup team] is the best American team of all time. There were six sure-fire Hall of Famers and as many as 10. We set a pretty high mark and those guys have carried the torch and now it’s been passed on.”
From his perspective, Modano thinks the nucleus of this year’s squad is poised write its own history, one that will begin in Vancouver and get better with time.
“There’s a great foundation, probably better than ours,” said Modano.
“Back in ’96 we were 25 or 26 [years old], and these guys are 21 or 22. They have a tremendous upside to them so they can easily be together for a long time.”