For some hockey is a sport they are born into. In many places, especially far north of Texas, it is a part of the culture and environment just like football is here. For some it simply is a growing appreciation and love for a sport that isn’t for the weak. For me personally I grew to love and follow our beloved (and sometimes hated) Dallas Stars with the growth of the team and winning in the 90s. I can remember watching games at old Reunion Arena. I remember being selected to be a Dr. Pepper Stick Kid for a night in November 1998 and getting a unique experience as a kid that lasted for years. But it is a more recent experience as an adult that solidified my love of the sport that probably is my favorite memory.
The spring of 2010 was a weird time for fans rooting for the boys in black. It was obvious the team was getting close to a changing of the guard but they were still competing for a playoff spot (as they have done the last few years). Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen, and Marty Turco were all aging and it started to feel more apparent that this might be their last push as the town favorites. The afternoon before the Stars’ final home game against the Anaheim Ducks started something that I will remember for likely the rest of my life.
I was in downtown Ft. Worth actually, appearing for a jury duty summoning. While I wasn’t picked during the first patch, I was informed we had to stick around for at least the day to see if anything changed. But we were all released for lunch and I had a couple of hours to walk around downtown and get lost. So after a while walking around and getting a simple bite to eat at a BBQ joint, I ended up in Barnes & Nobles flipping through magazines and books when I received a call. Yearly the Stars do a contest for fan appreciation night where fans win the jerseys right off players backs on the ice after the game. Well I got the call and was in. I had no idea how (they have multiple ways to enter, most do all) or who I would get; I just knew I was being given tickets to a game I was already trying to buy tickets to and would get to experience something special.
The game comes and starts, really all as a blur. My girlfriend at the time and myself had great seats in 103 (away from where I normally sat with the Stars Fanatics half the time), but to me the game went by fast. By the second intermission the Star and Ducks were still locked in a tight 1-1 game after Modano and Lehtinen set-up the loved rookie Jamie Benn. But I was rushing down to meet the other winners and walk down into the underbelly of the arena. We start to make our way down to the ice level and they line us up in a certain order. Of course we all knew then that this had something to do with which player we would be paired with, but no one knew who yet.
About this time we were down by the entrance to the ice for the Zambonis, watching as Modano came on to the big screens and gave thanks to the fans. Immediately the whole AAC is standing, cheering, and screaming for Mo. We all watch as it cuts Modano on the big screens, and he starts to tear up on the bench. It was an amazing moment, as the officials and players all showed respect to and for about 5 minutes everyone was showing how much he has meant to this city and team. I am of course tearing up a bit myself, and look around just to make sure no one else is watching. Out of the reps, workers, and other contest winners, I noticed about 75% of them were trying to hold back tears to. It was one of those pure moments. An arena full of fans, friends, and players all cheering and showing respect to someone who was bigger than the stats he put up over the years.
Then with the Stars down 2-1 late, Modano gets a strange, up-high deflection to drop down and tie the game. That was probably the loudest and craziest I have ever seen the AAC. It was like the game was scripted. So they journeyed into overtime and then into the shootout, everyone just hoping Mo can find a way to win it. After both teams’ first shooters were stopped, Modano skated out and again the crowd was so loud I could not hear Bill Ollerman as he announced Mike’s name. Of course he pockets the goal and the crowd just went insane. Turco makes another save to cap a great last performance by him, and then Lehtinen scores to end it 2-0 in the shootout and win it 3-2 overall! The perfect story-book ending for each of the players being honored!
As the crowd finally settles down, we take the ice to get our chances on-by-one to meet our player and receive the jerseys. As they roll out the carpet and the players start giving their jerseys to each fan that was selected to be paired with them, I start to figure out my spot in the order. The Stars were keeping the three guys that were being celebrated for the last three. So I think my player by my count is going to be Skrastins. So as I walk the carpet next to the Ice Girls and make my way onto the ice, I am preparing to be met by one player. But as my name echoes, they announce that I am paired with Larsen. Philip Larsen, the kid after his first NHL game. So he shakes my hand, gives me the jersey, we chat for a moment and he signs it. A nice moment getting to meet a promising prospect.
But as I get back to the side of the ice one of the reps I know, Ryan, walks up to me. He informed me that with this being Larsen’s first career game, Larsen actually really wanted to keep the jersey for his family. He said Philip would be love to have the jersey back. Ryan told me that he could get me one from another player I might want, and maybe a small gift too for being willing to give it back. So I think about it for a second and tell him that is okay and that I understand. A month or two later I was rewarded with a jersey Modano wore that night signed as apparently he ran through over a half a dozen jerseys that night for the occasion.
But the lasting memory actual came next. We all watched in a powerful and emotional moment as Modano took the ice last. Taking the ice crying and waving at the fans, things just stood still. In a night that was special and emotional, things became even more unique. Everyone was not only on their feet, but 19,000 plus people were all emotional as well. It was something that I’ve never felt since. A pure sports moment where a legend said goodbye, but a fanbase also poured out their love for someone who made the game special to so many. And in the middle of all of it, I stood there with a few tears slowly rolling down. For better or worse, no matter what, that night solidified my love for something to many that is just a game.